Whitefish Mountain Resort boasts 3,000 glorious acres of skiable terrain. We love every inch of Big Mountain, but sometimes it’s good to mix things up and find new snow – ideally fresh, untouched powder.
Enter the world of backcountry skiing.
Backcountry skiing includes going outside of the boundaries at ski resorts or skiing in unpatrolled or unmarked areas outside of ski resorts, usually in state or national forest land. You can access the “backcountry” through several different avenues, including ski lifts, snowmobiles, helicopters, snowcats and skins, which allow skiers the ability to travel uphill without sliding backwards or downhill.
Here in Northwest Montana, we’re a bit spoiled, as we have thousands of acres of immaculate, off-trail powder. While backcountry skiing is not for everyone, we also know how incredibly rewarding it is to truly earn turns in fresh, pristine powder.
To get a better idea of what backcountry skiing looks like in Northwest Montana, we caught up with photographer Drew Silvers (the man behind Revel’s gorgeous headshots) to hear about his recent 3-day, 2-night backcountry camping trip to the Swan Mountain Range.
The plan was relatively simple: 8 friends, in search of big backcountry lines and a much needed escape from life, would snowmobile with all of our gear (sleeping bags, clothes, food, whiskey, beer and touring equipment) and spend 2 nights together in a 400 square foot yurt, located on Mt. Morrell, in Northwest Montana’s Swan Mountain Range. During the day, we’d skin up different faces of the mountain, earning each turn down in gorgeous, deep powder. At night, we’d gather back at the yurt, light the wood stove and unpack the day over hot dinners and cold booze.
Here’s How The Trip Went:
Drove to the trailhead where we unloaded our SUV’s and loaded our gear into sleds towed behind snowmobiles. Let the 8.3 miles tow-in begin!
After arriving at the yurt, we quickly tossed gear inside, slapped on our skins and headed up the mountain. Having assessed the conditions, we toured up to the ridge and soaked in the mountainous bluebird 360 view. Even as a Flathead Valley native, these views still took my breath away.
I skied my favorite line of the trip our first run down. I almost lost my voice from hooting and hollering the whole way down. It was a rush. The powder was perfect, untouched and exactly what I had been searching for.
On our second lap back up, we found the infamous “Whiskey Box,” a once-used birdhouse with a little “surprise and delight” for those in the know.
After a little liquid courage, we sent it down towards the yurt for Après. Unfortunately for me, my ski binding broke on our last run, so my buddy and I rode the snowmobile down to our cars to retrieve my other alpine touring set up. By the time we were making our way back (16+ miles on a snowmobile takes time!) it was dark, so imagine our surprise when we came across a dead mountain lion on the road! After we were safely back at camp, we indulged ourselves with chili, beers and games to close out the night.
After a delicious breakfast (sausage, bacon, eggs, potatoes and coffee) we set off for another day of skinning. The weather had turned – LOTS of fog with low visibility, so we set off for a safe zone to dig two avalanche pits. Knowing – and respecting – the snow is probably the most important part of backcountry touring.
After examining the snow pack, we made decisions for the day. We skinned over to a different ridge and skied down. Overall, the snow was super slick, making the uphill kick turns quite difficult. But, we earned our turns again that day, and enjoyed a delicious spaghetti dinner that night.
Side note from Drew: Don’t hold back from drinking alcohol on your last night as it’s almost a “walk of shame” packing un-drank booze out.
After a tricky day 2, the weather gods rewarded us with a gorgeous sunrise.
After that, it was time to pack our bags and clean out the Yurt in prep for the next group. Once that was done, we set off again for our last skin of the trip: it was our turn to refill the Whiskey Box. We each took a few shots then ripped down. The snow and weather were so good, we decided one more quick tour up and down then time to get ourselves back to the trailhead and down to our cars.
Pro Tip: Bring a BBQ to leave in the car with hamburgers, hotdogs and more beers for when you’re back at the parking lot. One final Après is a must before the long trek home.
All in all, the trip was epic. And I cannot wait to do it again next year.
1. Be Prepared
From reviewing avalanche maps to knowing where you’ll be skiing, you need to be prepped and ready. Because we didn’t have any cell reception, we had maps downloaded and saved to our phone, as well as routes prepped in advance.
In addition, we enjoyed epic breakfasts of coffee, eggs, sausage, bacon and hash browns each morning, but to save time, we had pre-cooked everything at home to just reheat the morning of (eggs and coffee excluded). This fueled us for the day without wasting precious ski time. Packing a lunch/snacks is crucial as well to maintain energy and not have to take a midday break back at the yurt.
2. It’s Not Backpacking, But Pack Like It Is
We all know the backcountry doesn’t have garbage cans, so you pack-in and pack-out everything. While our Yurt hosts (Montana Backcountry Yurts) had two sleds that helped tow us and our gear up to the yurt, they didn’t help us on the way out. This meant 8 miles of carrying/lifting/dragging our own gear (and garbage) out while we traded seats on the snowmobiles we had. So quite literally, don’t bring anything you can’t carry out.
3. Know The Dangers
Just like anything, backcountry touring has its inherent risks, the most important being avalanche safety. Everyone in our group had a certain level of avalanche education, and we made sure to dig pits daily to assess the snowpack and changing snow conditions. Always carry the necessary safety equipment (beacons, radios, probes, shovels, and first aid). My recommendation would be to take an AVY 1-level class before touring. You can find information on those classes here.
4. You Can Never Have Enough Whiskey
Don’t believe me? Here are a few reasons why:
- You never want to call the Après party short because of a whiskey shortage.
- The more whiskey you drink, the better nights sleep you’ll get (with 8 people in the yurt the snoring and moving around really adds up).
- And in our case, we didn’t want to be the group who didn’t restock the Whiskey Box! By the way, this is the only time “leave no trace” is discouraged.
5. Be Present
Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the time with your friends. Enjoy the skiing regardless of conditions. Enjoy the burn as you earn your turns. Enjoy the time spent away from this crazy world we all live in. Enjoy having no cell phone service. Enjoy pooping with a view. And most importantly, enjoy the fresh air in the great outdoors. Allow yourself to be fully present and enjoy every moment.
Interested in exploring the backcountry of Northwest Montana? We’ll happily share our secrets. Email email@example.com and we’ll give you the scoop!
Drew Silvers is a photographer based out of Whitefish, Montana. An avid outdoorsman, he specialties in adventure, landscape, and commercial photography. Born and raised in the Flathead Valley, Drew attended Montana State University where he graduated with honors with a degree in Early Childhood Education and Child Services. When he is not working with children (his “day job”), you can find Drew outside, camera in hand, documenting his and his friends’ adventures. Follow along with Drew on Instagram @drew_silvers, Facebook @drewsilversphoto or at www.drewsilversphoto.com.