High Time for Hellroaring?

Forest planners respond to comments on new chairlift proposal at Whitefish Mountain Resort as expansion plan moves forward

By Tristan Scott
Whitefish Mountain Resort. Beacon File Photo

A phrase like “skier circulation” can have very different connotations depending on its context, especially when circumstances involve chairlifts going up and temperatures going down.

But for forest planners contemplating an ambitious expansion within Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Hellroaring Basin, including installing a new chairlift to the top of Hellroaring Peak and cutting new runs, the science of skier circulation involves a precise calculus with numerous factors, yards of red tape and the fundamental assumption that skiers will continue to converge on Big Mountain in droves.

According to a draft decision notice from the Flathead National Forest, which if finalized could add rocket fuel to the proposed project’s forward momentum, the improvements and expansions in Hellroaring are needed to accommodate a growing skier market and the increasing desire by skiers and snowboarders to ride “off-piste,” or along non-groomed but lift-served runs that are heavily forested and replete with powder reserves.

Enter Hellroaring Peak, which has long served expert skiers possessing the right equipment and knowledge to access its deep snow stashes through backcountry travel, but which looms just out of reach for the majority of visitors to the resort.

A large portion of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s ski slopes are located on U.S. Forest Service land, so the proposed changes require approval by managers with the Tally Lake District of the Flathead National Forest, which conducted an environmental analysis and last month released a draft decision notice supporting the project, finding no significant impact.

The primary objective of the Hellroaring expansion is, simply (if bureaucratically) put, to “provide an additional desirable tree skiing experience on intermediate to advanced slopes” and allows back-to-back runs in the basin instead of the current model, which requires the use of multiple chair lifts in order to link runs together.

“Both of these effects would help the Resort stay competitive by responding to the increased demand for tree skiing and by providing additional skiing opportunities,” the draft decision notice states, adding that it would improve “skier circulation and reduce congestion” throughout the ski area.

According to the proposal, resort managers want to relocate the existing Hellroaring chairlift (Chair 8), with the lower terminal beginning at the Grand Junction area in the lower Hellroaring drainage and the upper terminal near the entrance to the 1,000 Turns run.

The plan also calls for installing a new lift (Chair 12) from the Grand Junction area up to Hellroaring Peak; clearing eight new runs and some glade areas; building a service road from the top of the Swift Creek Express Chairlift (Chair 2) to the Grand Junction area; constructing a cat track from near Hellroaring Peak to the Gray Wolf Run; completing three terrain modifications on the existing Hell Fire run and one modification on the existing Swift Creek run; and rehabilitating the Purgatory run and the portion of the existing Hell Fire run below Grand Junction.

According to Whitefish Mountain Resort officials, the benefits of the Hellroaring Basin Improvement project include creating an opportunity to open Hellroaring Basin earlier in the season while providing better access to Hellroaring Basin’s terrain.

The resort says the project will also enhance the variety of terrain in Hellroaring Basin; eliminate negative grades on three major areas on the Hell Fire trail; add defined groomed runs to provide more intermediate terrain for skiers and snowboarders; improve tree-skiing terrain; improve the experience on the Hell Fire run by removing negative grades; create a safer evacuation route for injured parties out of Hellroaring Basin; and help to improve the flow and spread out skiers and snowboarders across the mountain by creating more options for guests.

Construction would require the use of helicopters and heavy equipment, and the project would require multiple phases over a minimum of two years. No timeline has been set and will not be determined until after the resort receives direction and approval from the Flathead National Forest.

Currently, forest officials are accepting objections to the proposal, a period that began Nov. 25 and runs for 45 days.

Spend enough time riding the existing chairlifts, and it’s not uncommon to hear locals grumble about the expansion, as evinced in some of the scoping comments.

“Hellroaring peak currently provides excellent hike-able ski terrain which will likely be overrun if the proposal is approved,” reads one comment.

Other comments centered on concerns about the displacement of wildlife and the blight that new swaths of thinned-out forestland would have on the view from the valley floor.

But the response by forest planners to the environmental assessment and its finding of no significant impact is significant, particularly given the resort’s recent track record of expansion projects.

The addition of the Flower Point Chair and subsequent relocation of Chair 5, now called East Rim Chair, have proven that the addition of new chairlifts and reconfiguration of others improved skier circulation.

For more details about the Hellroaring Basin Improvements Project and to submit an objection, visit www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=55012.

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