Ski Season Kicks Off This Weekend in Northwest Montana

By DILLON TABISH for the Flathead Beacon

Ski Season to open at Whitefish Mountain Resort

Billy Marcial flies off the third jump while competing in the slopestyle event during the second day of the Corn Cup Terrain Park Blowout at Whitefish Mountain Resort last season. – File photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Contrary to outward appearances, ski season is arriving in Northwest Montana.

Whitefish Mountain Resort confirmed Wednesday that the mountain will open Saturday, Dec. 8.

“Employees are returning this week and final preparations are being made for opening day,” resort spokesperson Riley Polumbus told the Beacon.

The lifts and terrain that will be open have yet to be determined and are dependent on weather and snow, Polumbus said.

As of Tuesday afternoon there was a 42-inch base at the summit.

“The north side of the mountain is ready for a quality groomed experience,” Polumbus said. “This Saturday is shaping up to be better than last year’s opening day.”

The groomers at Blacktail Mountain in Lakeside were continuing to pack a solid base last week in preparation for the ski area’s 15th winter in operation. General Manager Steve Spencer has not set an opening date, but expects the chairlifts to begin running in the near future.

Blacktail consistently opens the first or second weekend of December. The mountain is open Wednesdays through Sundays, and all week near Christmas, Martin Luther King Day and Presidents Day.

“It’s looking pretty good,” Spencer said. “We could open the top half of mountain right now, but we’d rather wait until we can open the whole place.”

Turner Mountain in Libby is still a few good snowfalls away from opening, according to one of the mountain’s volunteer administrators.

“We don’t have a lot of snow yet,” said Bruce Zwang, who is on the ski area’s board of directors.

The ski area suffered a similar problem last year and was unable to open until January. Turner Mountain, established 22 miles outside of Libby in 1961, is open Fridays through Sundays, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., and all week around the holidays. Private parties can rent out the entire mountain Mondays through Thursdays.

Check the Beacon’s website,, during the week for an updated status on openings.

This winter appears to be following last year’s trend of arriving later than usual. A La Niña weather system got off to a slow start last year, but it improved abundantly between January and April. Whitefish Mountain Resort finished with its fourth-highest attendance ever — 294,000 total skier visits — despite partially opening Dec. 10 and dealing with scarce snow the first month.

Forecasters are having an unusually difficult time prophesying this year’s winter outlook, and that could be good news for skiers.

The western half of the U.S. was expected to experience above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation because of an El Niño weather pattern, according to the 2012 Winter Outlook announced in October by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Center for Weather and Climate Prediction.

“This is one of the most challenging outlooks we’ve produced in recent years because El Niño decided not to show up as expected,” Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said in a statement in late October.
“In fact, it stalled out last month, leaving neutral conditions in place in the tropical Pacific.”

There’s still time for El Niño to emerge, but forecasters continue to express uncertainty over how winter will unfold.

Contrary to early predictions, significant amounts of precipitation have hit the Pacific Northwest.

In Northwest Montana, total precipitation levels are at 135 percent in the Flathead River Basin as of Nov. 29, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture Water and Climate Center. The basin-wide snow water equivalent is 73 percent of the annual median.

So where’s the snow? Well, 2012 is about to go down as the warmest year on record in the lower 48 states.

The slow arrival of winter weather has not stymied excitement in Whitefish. In February, National Geographic dubbed the city one of the 25 best ski towns in the world. Whitefish recently competed in Powder magazine’s “Ski Town Throwdown,” which pits ski spots against one another in its quest to find the ultimate ski town.

Whitefish Mountain Resort recently earned its best ranking on the distinguished list of top ski resorts in the nation determined by readers of SKI Magazine. The annual rankings in the popular preseason issue feature Whitefish in 11th place, an improvement of 11 spots from last year.

“The secret might be out,” Polumbus joked. “Obviously people are coming and they’re having a good time. That’s a really exciting thing for us to get recognized for and we share that with the community.”

This could be the last year that skiers and snowboarders have to hike to Flower Point on the backside. The U.S. Forest Service continues to review a proposal by Whitefish Mountain Resort to add a chairlift and cut four runs through the 200-acre section of popular sidecountry, which lies within the resort’s permit boundary. Polumbus said the Forest Service could complete its review in spring, and if approved, the project could break ground next summer.

The Flower Point project is taking priority over two other planned projects — moving Chair 5 to East Rim and extending Chair 4 to the top of Inspiration.

Check out our Ski/Snow Reports for all Montana ski resorts.