The rugged 1,000-acre forested Hellroaring Basin first opened 25 years ago with lift access to skiers in the permitted boundaries of Whitefish Mountain Resort, but “Hellroaring” does not refer to the speed gained while schussing down its expert terrain.
Rather, it’s a reference to Hellroaring Creek that runs from the basin’s headwaters into Whitefish Lake, and which every winter serves as a benchmark for ski patrol to determine whether there’s enough snow coverage to drop the gate and open Big Mountain’s stunning “West Bowl.”
Once the creek fills in — or, as locals joke, when Hell freezes over — this area consistently offers some of the best conditions on the mountain.
The interlude leading up to the Basin’s season debut each winter surely adds to its allure, but not only is Hellroaring the last area to open on Big Mountain, it’s the first to close due to an agreement between Whitefish Mountain Resort and wildlife agencies charged with managing the area’s populations of grizzly bears and Canada lynx, which use the area as a migration corridor.
To extend the ski season in Hellroaring Basin and make other improvements, including adding new ski runs and additional chairlifts, Whitefish Mountain Resort recently announced that it has received U.S. Forest Service approval for its ambitious, multi-phase Hellroaring Basin Project, set to begin this spring.
According to the plan, resort managers have invested $1.4 million in the project to relocate the existing Hellroaring chairlift (Chair 8), with the lower terminal beginning further up the drainage at the Grand Junction area and the upper terminal topping out near the intersection of the Toni Matt and Big Ravine runs.
The initial phase will include constructing a service road from the top of Swift Creek Express (Chair 2) to the Grand Junction area, clearing timber for new runs and a lift line, as well as gladed areas adjacent to the runs, and re-sloping areas on the Hell Fire run to eliminate negative grades. The initial phase is slated for completion by the fall of 2020.
The second phase includes relocating Chair 8 in 2021, allowing the resort to open Hellroaring Basin earlier in the season. The plan also calls for installing a new lift (Chair 12) from the Grand Junction area up to Hellroaring Peak, although the resort has not announced a timeline for the addition.
According to Whitefish Mountain Resort officials, the benefits of the Hellroaring Basin Project include providing better access to Hellroaring Basin’s terrain while improving skier circulation.
“We are excited to begin work on the Hellroaring Basin project. As the next major project at the resort, these improvements will enhance the guest experience by increasing access and adding more versatile terrain in Hellroaring Basin,” Whitefish Mountain Resort CEO Dan Graves said in a statement. “Additionally, relocating the Hellroaring chairlift will allow us to open the area earlier in the season due to the higher elevation at Grand Junction, as well as allow skiers to access terrain in Hellroaring Basin and the front side of the mountain from the top of the lift.”
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.
Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele, who approved the ski area project at Whitefish Mountain Resort, said several measures are in place to reduce grizzly bear disturbance during the non-denning season. These include seasonal restrictions on maintenance activities and public access, among others.
Hellroaring Basin will continue to be closed to skiers and snowboarders beginning April 1 each year.
“Downhill skiing is an important part of the winter economy and a great winter outdoor activity that many people come here to enjoy,” Steele said. “Through our partnership and collaboration with Whitefish Mountain Resort, I am proud to continue to support this highly valuable recreation opportunity on public lands.”
Flathead National Forest has administered the permit to the resort area since 1947. It has approved several similar projects over the years to respond to growing demand, improve skier circulation, and provide the best possible recreation experience for the public. Recent projects include upgrades to Summit House and access to Flower Point.
Public involvement for the Hellroaring Basin Improvement Project began in November of 2018 with an opportunity for comment. An additional comment period on the environmental assessment began in May of 2019. The objection period for the project ended in January of 2020.
In general, Steele said the forest heard from people who supported the project and the improvements it would bring for recreation opportunity, and from people concerned about potential impacts to grizzly bears, Canada lynx, hydrology, and changes to the existing skier experience.