Ski Visionaries of Montana: Discovery Basin
Posted on 23 November 2004
A look at one of Montana's smalltown ski areas and their founders
By ERIN NICHOLES For Montana Living
DISCOVERY SKI AREA, ANACONDA
The world is a work of art on the cold, clear mornings that follow midnight storms, especially at ski areas, where nature invites people toslide into winter portraits.
Snow-capped mountains stand eye-watering bright against flawless blue skies. Flour-soft, shin-deep snow covers the ground like a huge silky blanket. Snowflakes hug every twig, rock and pine needle and glisten in the freezing air, making the Earth appear sugar-coated. Peter Pitcher keeps his fingers crossed for those days at Discovery Basin Ski area, west of Anaconda.
"When you have one of those really pretty days - when it's sunny and there's lots of snow - you just get that feeling: 'This was a really nice day,'" Pitcher said. "It keeps you coming back, thinking it's going to be one of those days. It's the closest a lot of people are ever going to get to heaven."
If skiing is heaven, Pitcher is a gatekeeper. Over the past 20 years, he and his wife, Beatriz Pitcher, have helped Discovery ski area grow from a little hill nobody knew about, to a well-used mountain that offers divine skiing through diverse terrain and a down-to-earth, all-about-playing atmosphere. This has been an accomplishment that has required, on the Pitchers' part, a balance of old and new, and willingness to allow a mountain to grow while staying loyal to its roots.
"It's been better every year," said Bob Leipheimer, whose family owns The Outdoorsman recreation shop in Butte. "It's amazing what (Pitcher) has done - better terrain, more lifts - he's made it into a major ski area. But it's still staying on the hometown level."
When other Montana ski areas are becoming resorts and are aiming to draw deep- pocketed customers, Discovery has found success in keeping things simple. Although Discovery, located off of Montana Highway 1 near Georgetown Lake, has added 400 skiable acres, several chairlifts, and dozens of runs over the past 20 years, the mountain remains intimate and friendly. Even on 2,000-skier days, the lift lines still move swiftly.
After 20 years, the tickets still are affordable. And the kitchen is constantly stocked with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. An adult lift ticket costs $28 a day, less than half the price of an adult ticket at some Montana ski resorts. A ski, boot and pole rental package costs a whopping $20. Discovery's 45-plus runs, which go by names like "Claim Jumper," "Southern Cross," and "Gold Bug," reflect the area's mining history. The runs offer something for everyone.
On one side of the main mountain, the ski area's oldest lift delivers experienced skiers to a ridge where long, broad runs offer birds' eye views of Georgetown and Echo lakes, and the vast Flint Creek Valley. On the opposite side of that mountain another lift serves plunging, ungroomed, double-black diamond runs bordered with timber and punctuated with boulders.
It's some of the steepest lift-served terrain in Montana. On a smaller hill at Discovery, a third chairlift brings beginning skiers to gradual, broad slopes. A fourth chairlift will open this year on the back side to give skiers who are experienced but not necessarily experts six more runs to choose from. Discovery also offers free access to five miles of groomed cross-country ski trails.
With such diversity, a central location to Missoula, Butte and Helena about an hour's drive from the mountain, Discovery has the potential for condominiums, private homes, motels and restaurants. But it won't likely happen on Pitcher's watch. "I'm actually only interested in the ski part of the mountain," he said. "Better trails, better grooming, better ski instructors. There are opportunities for it to become a resort, but I'm not really interested in it." Pitcher didn't have specific expectations when he bought Discovery in 1984, because he hadn't ever expected to move to Montana, he said.
He was managing his father's ski area in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and when his dad decided to sell it, Pitcher found himself at a crossroads in his career. He had an opportunity to either work for the new owners in the same capacity, or do move on, Pitcher said. "I was used to doing everything the way I wanted to. I didn't think it would be very fun for new owners." He made a trip to Montana, and after exploring Discovery one morning, one thing was obvious to him. "It's really pretty up there," he said. But if views of mountain lakes, valley meadows and the jagged peaks of the Pintler Mountains weren't enough to convince him to move here, the local characters did the trick. That afternoon, Pitcher stopped by the 7 Gables Bar and Restaurant, a roadside bar popular for juicy burgers and cold beer. He was there only a moment before someone bought him a beer and invited him to take a seat at the bar. A few minutes later, the bar patrons entertained him with a beer-soaked rendition of the Irish song, "Danny Boy."
"It just seemed like a fun place," he recalls. He and Beatriz bought Discovery and moved to Anaconda, where they have raised three sons, ages 22, 21, and 17. The closest town to Discovery is Anaconda, a small, close-knit community surrounded by hovering mountains and abundant recreation.
The Pitchers realized early on that Discovery reflected those qualities and others. "Discovery had relatively good snow conditions, and was in a good location to get skiers from other communities," Pitcher said. The mountain gets an annual snowfall of about 200 inches.
Pitcher knew right away that Discovery "would be an easy area to improve." Perhaps the most drastic improvement has been the opening in 1992 of the back side of the mountain - a move that exposed Discovery to serious skiers and snowboarders. In 1984, a busy day at Discovery drew about 500. After the back side opened, busy days draw thousands of skiers from nearby towns, as well as cities further away, both inside and outside of Montana.
Some of those people have ended up staying in the area, and working on the mountain. "We have developed this core of ski instructors who pretty much live full-time in Anaconda or Philipsburg," Pitcher said. Also, Discovery's ability to draw customers and employees to Anaconda and Philipsburg helps boost local economies. Skiers shop at local stores, dine at area restaurants, and sleep in nearby motels. "Without a good mountain close the business would've pretty much been nil," said Leipheimer, who also owns the Days Inn in Butte. It remains Pitcher's goal to keep skiing at Discovery affordable to local families, rather than trying to attract the rich and famous.
"I grew up in Aspen and my family moved to Santa Fe in high school," Pitcher said. "Those places drew a lot of jet-set type people. We're much more comfortable with people like ourselves."
If the back side of the mountain continues to be a main attraction, Pitcher said he may add a second entrance to Discovery near Philipsburg, making the mountain more accessible to people from Missoula and other cities to the west. And a second entrance may be accompanied by a second eating eating establishment at Discovery, which is known for tasty, well-presented food. Meanwhile, Pitcher's dream for Discovery is to keep the mountain small in spirit, no matter how big it grows in structure.
"The goal is to try to keep it the same way it is now," Pitcher said. After all, he enjoys skiing at Discovery as much as anybody else. "I go up every day; I ski every day," he said. "I actually really like what I do." — Erin Nicholes is a journalist who lives in Three Forks, Montana. End