New operation near Olney offers backcountry skiing
By DAVE REESE/Montana Living
In Norse legend, beautiful young Valkyries riding winged horses transported the brave, heroic warriors to Valhalla where the warriors gathered before their final battle.
Fred Dietrich doesn„t hope to make it to Valhalla on the wings of a Valkyrie. No, he's taking a snowcat. Dietrich is the owner/operator of Valhalla Adventure Club, a cat-skiing operation on the Stillwater State Forest near Olney.
Dietrich's is the first operation of its kind in Northwest Montana, and it offers skiers and snowboarders access to thousands of acres of terrain and a comfortable yurt to sleep in. The yurt operation is tucked away on a small ridge overlooking the valley between Whitefish Lake and upper Whitefish Lake, above Swift Creek. Across the valley from the Valhalla yurt sits the long spine of the Whitefish mountain range, dotted by Werner Peak.
Inside the comfortable yurt at Valhalla Adventures. Dave Reese photo
The terrain at Valhalla is mainly for advanced skiers, with vertical pitches of 800 to 1,100 feet, most of it in trees. If you„re used to skiing the glades at Blacktail or Good Medicine, First Creek or Flower Point at Big Mountain, you should be able to handle the terrain at Valhalla.
Dietrich and his clients get to Valhalla in style: They ride in a 12-passenger Hagglunds, a Swiss-made vehicle painted in camouflage colors. It looks more like something out the Iraq war than a rig used to carry powder hounds.
The Hagglunds snow vehicle goes on over-the-snow roads plowed and groomed by Valhalla's Bombardier groomer, the same kind used on Big Mountain and Blacktail ski areas. The groomer is only for the roads, though; this skiing operation is strictly for off-piste aficionados.
Valhalla is permitted to run on several thousand acres of terrain in the Stryker Ridge area.
Dietrich said he went through about four years of negotiations with insurance companies and officials from the Stillwater State Forest before he was allowed to put up his first yurt two years ago.
With the skiing operation located entirely on state land, money derived from the lease goes to funding schools in Montana. That's one of the reasons Dietrich wanted to start out on state lands; the money goes to a good cause, and there's less red tape to go through. The permit runs only through March 15, and they will have to take the yurt down by the end of this month.
With more and more people skiing off-area, operations such as Valhalla are popping up throughout Western Montana. A yurt-and-snowcat operation started this year in the Seeley Lake area and a snowcat operation has begun in the Wisherd Ridge area near Missoula. Silverton ski area in Colorado operates on much the same principles as Valhalla; completely unguided or patrolled, Silverton offers a ski lift to access terrain, then skiers and snowboarders can hike to even more.
Skiers and snowboarders have a couple of options to take advantage of the powder and accommodations at Valhalla; they can buy daily or overnight accommodations or purchase a membership in Valhalla for about $150 a year, which entitles them to unlimited use of the facility. (That fee is set to go up after this year, and there may be a daily use fee involved.) The membership list is already growing, with a core group of skiers realizing Valhalla's potential.
From the Olney snowmobile trailhead to the Valhalla yurt, it„s about a one-hour ride in the Hagglunds vehicle, time enough to enjoy the winter scenery rolling past.
The route to Valhalla is groomed by good intentions and Dietrich's Bombardier high-tech groomer. Snowmobiles and the Hagglunds are then used to transport skiers around the accessible terrain. Some of the terrain requires short hikes and traverses, but from there you get into long runs of powder turns. You're picked up at the bottom by the Hagglunds or towed back up by snowmobiles.
From steep cliffs and chutes, to trees and old clearcuts, Valhalla has something on its menu for a wide range of skiers and snowboarders. An intermediate run offering about 800 feet of vertical leaves right from the front door of the yurt. Guides will accompany all skiers and snowboarders.
The terrain offered at Valhalla is vast. Dietrich stood near a cornice at the yurt, looking out over an adjacent valley that has yet to be explored. "There's a lot of terrain out here," he said. "And most of it is first descent."
FOR BACKCOUNTRY comfort, yurts are the way to go. Valhalla„s 30-foot yurt is heated with a wood stove, and there„s a cook tent out back. The yurt sleeps up to 14 people in bunk beds. Even with winds howling outside as a storm blew through, the yurt felt comfortable and safe.
A group of snowmobilers stopped in at the yurt to warm up and eat their sack lunches. The snowmobilers sat around a table with the skiers, enjoying the warmth of the woodstove while snow pecked against the vinyl walls of the yurt.
Dietrich said he hopes Valhalla will allow more people to ski the backcountry safely. "I want to get people away from the off-area, and into the backcountry," he said. Skiers and snowboarders will be required to bring their own avalanche rescue equipment and know how to use it.
DIETRICH IS a former Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. employee who lost his job a few years ago as part the company's layoffs. With a year of paid leave, Dietrich analyzed what he really wanted to do in life; he could have gone back to carpentry, but decided to do something that revolving around skiing.
He has sunk his heart, soul and mortgage into the cat-skiing operation, believing that "the time is right for something like this," he said. "I want to make Northwest Montana the adventure capital. If I didn't do this, somebody else would.
"I have a motto: "Follow your dreams and do't cry when it hurts."
He and a few friends and investors have worked hard at putting together quality equipment, from the groomer to the G.I Joe-looking Hagglunds. "I didn't go cheap and crummy," Dietrich said.
Like those Norsemen who came before him, Dietrich wants to live out his days in Odin's Hall or Valhalla. He's a diehard skier himself. When he was thinking of a name for the cat-skiing business, Dietrich thought Valhalla would fit perfectly.
Dietrich has developed a bit of myth of his own, too. He stood outside in the yurt and through cupped hands hollered, "Val-hall-a across the wide mountain valley toward the serrated ridge of the Whitefish Mountain Range.
"If the echo comes back five times, it means it„s going to snow tonight,ï he said with his big, hearty laugh.
For this core group of skiers working to build a cat-skiing operation, Valhalla is here. In keeping with good Norse legend, "Valhalla is your last party," Dietrich said. "We're skiing in God's country and we should be in Valhalla when we're skiing."
— This article first appeared in Montana Living in 2006