Skiing Whitefish, Montana

I never enjoy the winter in Chicago. And this one has been the worst one I’ve seen since I moved out here five years ago. We have had temperatures and snowstorms that have truly challenged my patience with this city. But I like it here, and I endure it. I endure things like frozen pipes, sub-zero temperatures, and accumulation on the sidewalks that melts into piles of ice, trash, and dog shit. I hibernate as much as I can to avoid it, but no one can stay indoors all winter. So I decided this year that if I’m going to freeze my ass off, I might as well do it somewhere that I can ski.

Northwest Montana always stood out to me as a place worth visiting. I used to look at maps of the area as a kid and remember being curious about the Flathead Valley even back then. And I had already recently mapped out a bike tour on the Going The Sun Road in Glacier National Park. That would happen in the summer, obviously, and plans for that are still in the works. But I realized that the cold season there has its own share of options when it comes to outdoor recreation, namely Whitefish Mountain, a kickass ski resort just north of the town.

The logistics involved in getting there didn’t seem too complicated. Amtrak’s Empire Builder line went straight there from Chicago on its way to Seattle, the Whitefish Hostel in downtown had a good rate and good reviews, and the town had a shuttle bus that went up to the base lodge every thirty minutes. The only thing I didn’t know yet was just how much trouble it would be to take that train across the Midwest in the dead of winter.

I found out soon enough as I boarded an already late train on Saturday evening. In theory, it was supposed to take 30 hours, but by the time we reached North Dakota, that clearly wasn’t happening.

Like other lines around the country, the Empire Builder shares the track with freight companies, whose trains always have priority. Currently, there is a huge oil boom in North Dakota, meaning that anywhere with a 200 mile radius of Fargo will probably be congested with freight traffic. We stopped for hours at a time to let one freight after another go by, all carrying millions in black gold across the heartland. I was supposed to get to Whitefish at 9pm on Sunday, but didn’t actually get there until 6:00 the next morning. That kind of shit, from what I gathered from the conductors, was apparently normal.

But I knew right away that it was worth it. My 40 hour ordeal ended when I stepped out of the train car and into a tiny mountain town in a big country. Whitefish sits on the north end of the Flathead Valley, and at the foot of Big Mountain, whose ski slopes are visible for miles around. The town is full of good places to eat, good beer to drink, and good people to meet. And I would do it all. But first I needed to find the hostel, check in, and get my head together.

Daybreak came an hour later. It was a warm, dreary morning with steady rain that turned the snow into ice and slush. The cloud line covered the top half of the mountain for most of the day. With all the rain and poor visibility, I knew it wasn’t time to go up there yet. So I got comfortable for the next couple days and worked remotely on my laptop for my company in hopes of better weather later on. Pretty much the same thing I did in Anchorage.

The sun came out on Wednesday morning, I walked three blocks to the Snow Bus shuttle, and before I knew it, I was riding on a lift up the side of Whitefish Mountain, leaving the valley floor and base lodge behind in the glare of the morning sun.

The resort is huge. With 93 runs and 9 chair lifts that spread out across the ridge, you can spend an entire day in one section and not get bored. After a few easy runs on the bunny hills, I took the express chair up to the summit, which offers an unbelievable 360 degree panorama of the big sky country.

It is the kind of view that will kick the breath out of you the first time you see it. To the west, Whitefish Lake glares under the winter sun; to the south, Flathead Valley reaches past Whitefish and Kalispell and fades into the haze; and to the east, the snow-capped, rugged peaks of Glacier National Park carve high into the blue sky like jagged razor teeth. Snow-dusted, evergreen woodlands spread across countless ridge lines, and at higher elevations, they are covered in so much snow that the locals refer to them as “snow ghosts”. It is a vista that can easily rival most of what Alaska has to offer (and I seriously do mean most; there are places up there that are too vast and wild to ever be outdone by the rest of North America).

And right in the middle of it all is the Summit House, a lodge at the summit which offers a bar, restaurant, and spectacular panoramic view of the mountains. Perhaps the idea of a hot Irish Coffee might sound appealing as you relax on the balcony and watch the other skiers go down the big runs. If I wasn’t in such a hurry to shred the face off of the mountain, I might have stuck around longer.

Instead, I turned towards the northwestern ridge line towards Hellfire, a badass blue square run that winds narrowly through the forests on the edge of the resort for three miles. It turned about through the trees, and had many steep descents that were followed by more level, easier places to recover my footing before going even further down.

But compared to the others, it was easy. Other trails like Hellroaring, Swift Creek, Ed’s Run, and many others, all faced the valley more directly, extending straight down to the base lodge at the bottom. It was terrifying at first to look out at the valley floor, some 2,300 feet down. I thought for sure as I carved into those trails that I would crash and tumble down the mountainside in an avalanche of powder.

Some locals told me about Inspiration, a large blue square run that had just been recognized by CNN as one of the Best Ski Runs in the World. Not wasting any time, I went back up to the summit to check it out. I went out on the south ridge, terrified that I would go over an edge and crash into a snow goblin. The slope turned sharply away from the ridge and ran straight down the face of the mountain.

Inspiration was indeed beautiful; mind-blowing, actually. But her beauty could only be matched by sheer terror. In full view of the valley ahead, she ran like mad down the mountainside with no easy way get through other than head on. I wiped out again and again before my busted ass finally got to the bottom.

I thought about taking a break, but decided that I wasn’t going to learn anything if I didn’t challenge my limits. Giving up is not something I would easily or lightly consider, not yet. The day Hagen gives up after the first run is the day he trades his beard for a mustache. I went back up to the summit and took on that trail and the others again, and kept on keeping on, wiping out like a sonuvabitch.

This went on for three days. I got up, walked to the shuttle, spent half a day on the mountain, came back and enjoyed all the food and beer in the town, and then got a good night’s sleep at the hostel. And I couldn’t have asked for better weather. The sun was out and lighting up the country as far as the eye could see. It was the kind of day that got the locals out and moving.

There are good people in Whitefish. With so many folks around who love the outdoors, I felt right at home. Many of the regulars on the Snow Bus were eccentric retirees, the same kind who see me in the summer with my bike and hundred mile stare, and want to know where I’m headed. There was a sweet old lady in a walker who told me one day that she used to ski the Big Mountain in her younger years. In downtown, many of the locals ski and snowboard the mountain, snowshoe Glacier, and in the summer, who the hell knows.

And then there’s downtown itself. It’s a tiny place. But it’s loaded with gift shops, sporting retail stores, sports bars, craft beer, and game food. On my last night there, I polished off a hard day of skiing with a beer sampler at the Great Northern Brewery. The bartender gave me 8 different draughts to try out, and by the 4th one, I was already feeling pretty toasted.

I’m usually in the mood for a full, malty, stouty glass of black gold in the cold season, but a completely different kind of beer, the Wild Huckleberry Wheat Lager, got me by surprise. Brewed with Montana’s own huckleberry juice, it had a kind of sweetness that I normally don’t taste in beer. There was almost no bitterness at all, and it had a smooth foretaste that gave way to a sweet, fruity flavor and a refreshing finish to my week.

Well, almost. I still had to drink the other glasses.

To my right, the brewhouse was in operation and a new batch was underway. A brewer poured ingredients from a chute into a large bin and mixed them in plain sight of the bar. I don’t know what he was brewing, but the aroma that filled the room was not unlike sweet molasses.

Early the next day, the Chicago-bound train was an hour late. I made the most of my extra time and went back to Loula’s, a cute little diner just down the street from the hostel, to get a hot breakfast and chat with the sassy waitresses. I loved that town and hated to leave.

But I had to. I had to leave for what would certainly be a long and shitty train ride back home. But that was alright. I would be back again. There is no keeping me out of places like this. And it was already shaping up to be a fine day.

The train left the depot at sunrise. It reached the edge of the valley and began its climb towards Marias Pass and the bottom edge of Glacier National Park. Fog came off of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, but pretty soon the clouds lifted as the sun broke over the higher alpine sections of the range. The train stopped at the town of Essex, continued its climb towards the pass, and then descended down the other side towards East Glacier. Before long, the ranges began fading into the west.

I was pretty sure as I left those mountains that my beard had changed. It was already awesome, but there was an aura about the place that made it even bigger, fuller, more resolute, unwavering and steadfast in its rugged manliness. Not even Chicago at its coldest could penetrate that jungle. It was like flames coming off of my face. And likewise, my chest hair evolved into a great red carpet that could insulate against anything that the Midwest tries to throw at me. I have Montana to thank for this.

I finally got back to Chicago 35 hours later, pretty good by Amtrak’s standards. It’s back to hibernating for now, but I’ll be back with my bike in a few months.

So would I recommend a trip like this to other people who enjoy the outdoors? True, you may have to ride a train for what feels like fucking forever. And you’ll almost think it’s not worth it. But then you’ll get to a kickass little mountain town, realize how big the sky is, and find all kinds of things worth writing about.

About Dan Hagen

I’m a guy from Chicago who travels as often as possible. It is my lifelong goal to see the world by train, foot, bicycle, and raft. I like open country roads, urban nightlife, good cuisine, local beer, alpine mountains, wild rivers, and lots of other badass shit. And I will write about it as often as I can.