Outdoors

Up, Up and Away

With ski areas closed and group gatherings on hiatus, backcountry enthusiasts climb the social-distancing ladder

It turns out that a 125-centimeter ski pole extended at arm’s length creates just enough personal space to meet the recommended guidelines for social distancing.

And when one ski pole is used to tap another 125-centimeter ski pole that’s also extended at arm’s reach, even if the tapping occurs at a trajectory that’s angled slightly toward the ground, and even if the poles cross a little at their point of contact, it’s safe to assume that a distance of more than six feet (two meters) has been achieved.

At Whitefish Mountain Resort, there’s been a lot of pole tapping in the past week.

As schools, libraries, bars, restaurants, and nearly every other chamber of the public sphere closes or adjusts indefinitely amid the coronavirus outbreak, including Whitefish Mountain Resort, outdoor revelers have found solace in the ski area on Big Mountain’s generous uphill ski policy.

“A big, big thank you to WMR for allowing uphill traffic to continue. This will be a safe, positive sanctuary that a lot of people will enjoy during this weird time,” skier Jason Mills wrote on the public Facebook page “Protect the Right to Responsible Uphill Travel at Whitefish Mountain Resort.”

Indeed, warm weather and sunny skies have drawn hundreds of skiers to the slopes on Big Mountain since the ski area made its decision to shut down operations on March 15, three weeks ahead of schedule.

Many skiers have taken advantage of the uphill policy throughout the winter, ascending and descending designated routes in the early mornings and evenings after work. But the early closure to lift-access skiing has brought an uptick in the number of skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers hiking the mountain, some of them unfamiliar with the policy.

In an effort to continue access to public lands and provide for public safety, Flathead National Forest and Whitefish Mountain Resort are reminding skiers and snowboarders to follow the mountain’s post-season uphill policy. The U.S. Forest Service special order requires uphill skiers to keep their distance from grooming machines and snowmaking equipment and follow route restrictions and safety precautions.

“Dear Uphill Skiing Community, we would like to impose upon you a stern piece of advice: now is not the time to get injured, to put yourself, or put others at risk,” according to a March 23 post to the Facebook page. “If you wish to participate in this activity, for your safety and the safety of our employees at work, FOLLOW OUR POLICY.”

Between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., the only approved route for uphill and downhill traffic is the East Route. There are no uphill or downhill restrictions before 8 a.m. and after 4 p.m.

Any uphill travelers not following the special order can be ticketed and face up to a $100 fine for a first offense and stiffer penalties for repeat offenders. Pre-season and post-season dogs must be on a leash.

Parking for uphill skiers is limited to the Spruce Lot only.

As uphill traffic increased over the weekend of March 21-22, posts to the public Facebook page noted absconders of the policy and encouraged everyone to do their part in abiding by the rules.

“Thanks to everyone that’s following the rules and helping to spread the word,” one poster wrote. “It’s only one more week, but these are strange times.”

Whitefish Mountain Resort is one of 122 ski areas across the country operating on National Forest Service land under a special use permit. It is also one of a few ski areas in the region that allow people to ascend ski runs and ski down for free — an activity growing in popularity on Big Mountain and in backcountry ski areas throughout the West.

At Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell, owner Jandy Cox said he’s seen an uptick in customers interested in alpine-touring gear — setups that allow skiers to don climbing skins and special uphill bindings and boots.

“If the closed hill left you jonesing for more, we’ve got the uphill gear and rentals to go and enjoy it,” Cox said, posting a reminder of the ski area’s uphill policy, which remains in effect through March 29, to the store’s Facebook page

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