There isn’t much snow in the mountains around Missoula at the moment.
But there is a lot for mid-November. And what’s even better, it’s (barely) deep enough to ski in some spots. Snowpack across the region is at 150% to more than 200% of its normal depth for early and mid-November thanks to previously accurate forecasts of a cold, snowy winter in western Montana.
Head to Marshall Mountain or Snowbowl ski areas just outside of town, down to Lolo Pass about an hour southwest, into the central Bitterroots, or further afield to Lost Trail Pass and ski area, and you’ll see a handful of hardened skiers and snowboarders each morning attaching of climbing skins on backcountry skis and splitboards. You could have a last sip of hot coffee in the pre-dawn darkness or in the bright rays of sunrise. Then they shed their shifts, lock their cars, and begin their trek up into a freshly winterized mountain landscape filled with trees glistening with frost.
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“It’s great and I hope the snowpack stays and grows,” said Steve Peterson. Peterson, a 70-year-old Missoulian, unloaded backcountry skis from his Jeep Wrangler at Lost Trail at about 10:30 a.m. on November 13, under low cloud cover and temperatures in the mid-20s. That morning, he made the two-hour hike south his first backcountry ski day of the season; He had already gone cross-country skiing this winter.
Peterson was thrilled to be in powder and found that his kids did a lot of powder turns too. His son, a mountain guide in the Beartooth Mountains, usually prepared backcountry cabins for the season. But with all that early snow, “it was epic, I don’t know how much work he’s doing.” His daughter in Bozeman was also on tour.
In backcountry touring, lightweight powder skis or snowboards that split in half for the ascent are fitted with special bindings that allow a touring boot to pivot at the tip to take strides uphill. For the descent, the heels are snapped in and the non-slip climbing skins are removed. Tours take place outside of the operating ski areas. Deadly avalanches are always a problem, even in seemingly benign terrain, and special equipment and training are a must.
If backcountry skiers and riders are lucky, they’ll enjoy grinning turns through loose powder on the way back down. Or maybe they’re just crashing through bushes and hopping over logs and stumps, wishing for just a few more inches of snow in their favorite powder stash. This is the case at Lolo Pass, which has classic “low tide” conditions. That’s the nature of pre-season backcountry touring.
Thankfully, snow depth isn’t always a problem, even this early. At Lost Trail, nearly 3 feet of fluffy-topped snow on open runs in the yet-to-open ski area offered premium powder for backcountry travelers ready to earn their turns.
Beside Peterson’s Jeep, two Hamilton teenagers were unloading skis from their car and complaining about the drive back to Hamilton to retrieve a forgotten pair of ski boots. Lauren Nelson, 15, was ready for her third straight day of touring – her first days this winter – and Kadic Vermillion, 14, was looking forward to getting out for the first time this season. Neither had skied upcountry this early in the fall.
Lost Trail had “great coverage, (I) feel good about it,” Nelson said. “It was awesome, like skiing on fairy dust. With so much snow, I kind of have a good feeling about how the season will end.”
“Hopefully we get a lot of pow,” added Vermillion.