Whitefish Mountain Resort announced a new uphill travel policy last week, laying down clear guidelines for skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers who wish to ascend the slopes of Big Mountain during the winter. The new policy is less restrictive than what resort officials instituted in March, and takes steps to address the key desire outlined by locals during an April public comment period: allowing evening ascents and descents until 7 p.m., as opposed to the former policy, which forbid uphill travel after the chairlifts closed for the day.
“The restriction on evening skiing were by far the most popular point of contention with the policy,” Chester Powell, resort operations manager, said. “And that makes sense. Evenings are the most accessible and enjoyable time for people to participate. Unfortunately, though, evening run-ins and close calls involving skiers and grooming machines, including high-tension winch cable systems, had been steadily increasing for the past few seasons and were by far the most alarming aspect of the whole situation.”
Many local skiers complained that the old policy, while not affecting tourists, prohibited valley residents who work regular hours from taking a lap up and down the mountain after work on U.S. Forest Service land – which Whitefish Resort operates on with a special permit. It is a practice that has grown increasingly popular with the advent of backcountry ski equipment that allows skiers to climb up slopes on “skins,” strips of carpeting that keep the skis from sliding backwards. A quick lap on Big Mountain has long been a way for local skiers to get outside for a workout in safe snow conditions close to Whitefish.
The new uphill policy has four main changes. Whereas ascending was formerly limited to the Toni Matt trail, now an East Route will be open as well from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., which begins at a cul-de-sac on Glades Drive, up Lower Inspiration, Expressway and Moe-Mentum to the summit. Toni Matt will still be open for ascending from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The East Route will be the only way up allowed for the first 14 days after the resort closes for the season from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with no restrictions outside those hours.
However, the Forest Service has issued a new order prohibiting any skier or hiker from going within 100 yards of grooming or snowmaking equipment. The new policy is based partly on 126 comments received by the resort and Forest Service, and resort officials said they are open to further changes to the policy depending on how it works.
“Most avid uphillers thought the original policy was too restrictive, and yet we had basically zero problems with people not following the rules,” Dan Graves, resort president and CEO, said. “That gives us confidence that the uphill community will also be serious about following these new guidelines.”
On a Facebook.com discussion page that was active following the institution of the old policy last winter, the reception by Whitefish skiers to the new policy was broadly positive, calling it “reasonable” and, “a much better solution and one that clearly reflects the interests of the responsible uphill skiing community.”
But not everyone is happy, noting there are still more restrictions on ascending than before any policy was instituted at all. Matt Brake, a local skier, said he thinks Whitefish Resort is well protected from any lawsuits by state and federal skier responsibility codes, among other agreements, and questions the resort’s ability to close the permit area to the public after 7 p.m.
“I’m disappointed that future generations might not be able to enjoy the beauty of a full moon from the summit of Big Mountain. It is a wonderful tradition that is decades old. I had hoped to share it with some young friends this coming season,” Brake said. “But, within the permit which authorizes (Whitefish Mountain Resort) there is a clause which states that the public has a right to access the land within the permit boundary, so perhaps the new policy will not hold up in court?”
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