Snow Bowl still a well-kept secret
BY MALCOLM BROOKS
MONTANA LIVING — Though traditionally a fixture with the locals, Missoula's own Snowbowl ski area has plenty to offer the drifting ski bum or long-distance downhiller as well.
Foremost on the list is a respectable 2,600 feet of vertical slope, with expert-class runs that start fast and stay that way, clear to the end of the chairlift line."Many ski areas have a misleading way of measuring vertical," says owner Brad Morris, adding that a high percentage of so-called "expert" runs elsewhere are actually fairly moderate routes punctuated by one or two short, steep bursts in the middle. At Snowbowl, an expert run is expert all the way down. Add 500 acres of tree skiing to the mix, and one of the best examples of Rocky Mountain-style shredding can be had in a quieter, friendlier package, located just a half-hour from downtown Missoula.
The lack of heavy crowds remains one of Snowbowl's greatest assets. At a typical ski resort in the eastern U.S., Morris explains, a 500-acre facility can easily log 500,000 skiers over the course of a season, while the big western resorts with larger tracts of land are only slightly less crowded in terms of skier density. But even in an exceptional year, 1,200-acre Snowbowl pulls in only around 60,000 skier visits. With two full-service chair lifts and a pair of cultivated mountainsides, the resort's total skiable area keeps the place blissfully free of the Third World-like congestion that can turn even the toniest hill into a sort of arctic Ganges at the height of pilgrimage season.
Morris is not only an avid Snowbowl client, he's also its president, which means the lack of a crowd is both blessing and curse. His history with the place is a long one, and it's the history of a fan as well as a proprietor. He started skiing on Snowbowl's alpine slopes in 1978, quickly becoming enamored with the resort's fabled surplus of vertical terrain.
By that point the place had been in business since the early 1960s, operating with a single chairlift and garnering enough attention with its expert runs to host the National Alpine Championship in 1967. Even so, by the mid-'80s there was talk of the place folding. "The [most recent] owner had only been there one season, had a bad year, and didn't want to run it again," Morris says. "We bought it to keep it from closing." Over the years he's made improvements, upgrading the lifts, adding runs and putting in a new bar and restaurant.
Still, the fact remains-Snowbowl has never achieved its greatest potential, and at some point Morris has to wear a businessman's Borsalino rather than a ski nut's balaclava. Though nobody ever complains about a short line at the lifts, the sheer size of the place could well absorb more skiers without sacrificing quality runs or the general low-key ambiance.
For the past few years Morris has been on an expansion jag to address the resort's biggest albatross: a death-beckoning, bile-boiling Forest Service access road married to notoriously limited parking up top. "Bull trout slowed us down on the road," Morris admits, smiling beneath his mustache as though to acknowledge the truly unknowable exigencies of something so seemingly benign as running an honest little ski slope.
The threatened fish, which might be known to run in the stream far beneath Snowbowl road, were placed on the endangered species list right about the time he applied to upgrade the road, leading to several years of environmental-impact assessment before the necessary permits were issued last summer. Work has begun now, and Morris hopes to achieve a much friendlier drive to the slopes in a season or two.Luckily the parking issue didn't present similar legal slaloms. Morris says parking was their number one problem, for an obvious reason: if people can't park, they can't ski. Related horror stories abound in Missoula bars in wintertime, tales of parking in snowdrifts down the road and lugging gear uphill, tales of abandoning the resort altogether and getting up in the middle of the night to drive to Lost Trail instead.
A word to the faithful: your patience has been rewarded. Morris has felt your pain, and added 100 parking spaces to accommodate even the heaviest ski days of the year. Down the road he has plans to add new runs and lifts, plus increase the availability of beginner and intermediate training. The bar and restaurant were overhauled several years ago, and overnight lodging is available at Gelandesprung Lodge, an on-site, European-style alpine chateau with spotless appointments and astonishingly affordable rates. Above all, Snowbowl offers a spectacular, vertical-heavy snowscape to the hard-bitten powderhound.
"Expert terrain is the big draw," Morris says. "That's what separates us from everybody else." Factor in low rates, short lines and a down-home sensibility, and Snowbowl just might be the best-kept secret around. For more information, check out www.montanasnowbowl.com.
- Malcolm Brooks is a freelance writer in Missoula.