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The "On-the-Mountain" experience

Story by Lee Juillerat; Photos by Larry Turner @   April 1, 2011

  Big Sky Moonlight Basin, Montana   Big Sky Moonlight Basin, Montana  

It was my third day of continuous skiing at Big Sky-Moonlight Basin and I was bushed. Craving a break, I skied off the main run and aimed my Rossignols for the sumptuous-three bedroom trailside condo my friends and I were sharing. After three hours of zipping up high speed quads and then testing my own quads on non-stop top to bottom runs, this human gerbil needed some quick rest and refreshment. Between glasses of water, I pulled out trail maps for the two side-by-side ski areas that, as the promoters like to boast, provides access to the most skiable terrain—a hefty 5,512 acres with 27 lifts serving 200 trails accessing 4,350 vertical feet—of any place in the U.S.

Surprise! Although I'd kept busy touring both areas, I did a double-take when I realized I'd only tapped a fraction of the possibilities. Big? You bet.

  Big Sky Moonlight Basin, Montana   Big Sky Moonlight Basin, Montana   Big Sky Moonlight Basin, Montana  

A decade earlier I had visited Big Sky on a multi-day stay. Those years-ago wanderings included a ride up the Lone Peak Tram to Lone Mountain's 11,166-foot spectacular summit, which features eye-popping 360 degree views of surrounding peaks and nearby Yellowstone National Park. On the ride up I'd watched expert skiers hurling themselves down narrow, death-defying chutes. I took the easiest route down, the black diamond Liberty Bowl trail. This time I missed my opportunity. By mid-morning that first day, after explorations off the Ramcharger, Southern Comfort and Thunder-Wolf high-speed quads that access Big Sky's Andesite Mountain, the winds were threatening to transform the tram into a twirl-a-whirl. Disappointed, but not discouraged, I instead focused on runs from the Swiftcurrent high speed quad and Shedhorn and Dakota chairs.

Big Sky's variety of possibilities is incredible. From atop Andesite Mountain I focused on long steep, fast runs like Elk Park, Madison Avenue, Ridge, Mad Wolf, Ponderosa, Hangman's, Crazy Raven and Tippy's Tumble, most made even faster by meticulous grooming.

  Big Sky Moonlight Basin, Montana   Big Sky Moonlight Basin, Montana  

But the day's major surprise were two green runs, which proved fascinating for very different reasons. Deep South, a true beginner trail that begins atop Andesite, curls past fantasmagoric mansions at the neighboring, very exclusive Yellowstone Club. (Heed the No Trespassing signs.) But the biggest surprise was Mr. K, a rollicking, rolling fun trail off the Swiftcurrent quad that a local, an expert skier, proclaimed one of his personal favorites.

Moonlight Basin, which interconnects with Big Sky, was new to me, and pure delight. The first morning, mostly skiing from the Six Shooter high speed, the tasty sampling included such intermediate runs as Merriwether and Lone Creek Gully. Resort general manager Greg Pack led our pack of Moonlight Basin first-timers on the slopes before a scrumptious lunch at the Moonlight Lodge where, at Greg's recommendation, I ordered and devoured the lamb stew while others attacked an incredible variety of other offerings.

  Big Sky Moonlight Basin, Montana   Big Sky Moonlight Basin, Montana   Big Sky Moonlight Basin, Montana  

Greg also led us to the Lone Tree quad, reached by first taking Six Shooter. There's not a bad choice from the Lone Tree. After a morning's dump of fresh snow on my final day, hero snow made the black diamond runs paralleling the lift challenging but fun. Lone Tree also accesses a playground of mostly groomed blue runs, several with cut-offs or spur trails to help keep the blood rushing—Horseshoe, Lookout Ridge, Grizzly Meadows, Broken Promise, Trembler and Trapline. Part of the delight is their length, but even more it's their design. While skiing with Dale Stetson, who helped layout many of Moonlight's trails, we not only learned but experienced his design goal: create runs that feature undulating terrain that purposely meander and intentionally avoid long, straight views of the trail ahead. He succeeded.

Dreams of skiing off Lone Mountain's summit vanished because of low clouds and whirly-gig winds. Neither did I even consider riding the Headwaters chair that accesses a row of 18 double-black diamond runs that plunge off the jagged Headwaters wall through rock-walled chutes, some barely wider than a refrigerator and nearly as steep as elevator shafts.

  Big Sky Moonlight Basin, Montana   Big Sky Moonlight Basin, Montana  

That final day I earned my morning snack finding untracked or nearly totally untraveled trails, including Broken Heart, Ice House and Moonshine. That afternoon, my photographer friend Larry Turner and I struggled along an unmarked route off Trembler, one better suited for snowboards, that had us pirouetting, and pin-wheeling, through narrow, tree-lined passages.

But some totally unpredictable fun came late that afternoon getting ready to board Six Shooter. As I moved to load, a lift attendant using a hoe-like tool to clear snow and ice from the loading area, stepped quickly forward, waving his menacing, sharp-edged device and declared, "Your skis look a little long sir. Here let me shorten them for you." I nearly freaked until I looked up and realized it was Greg Pack, who routinely spends time sampling different jobs, laughing. "Hey, Lee," he gleefully barked, "having a good day?"

Not really. Just like the two days before, I was having an incredibly great day.


About the Author

Lee Juillerat is a writer-photographer who writes for a daily newspaper in Southern Oregon. He's a frequent contributor to such publications as Northwest Travel, Range, Horizon in-flight and other magazines. He can be contacted at


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