For a few rare days this winter on Eagle Peak, near the Lookout Pass ski area, the peaceful silence of the fresh snow-laden forest was broken only by the low rumble of a Snowcat machine ferrying skiers and snowboarders to ‘at the top.
Then it’s just the excited screams of these thrill-seekers that pierce the cold, still winter air.
A long-awaited expansion is finally becoming a reality at the Montana/Idaho border ski area on Interstate 90 west of Missoula, and a handful of adventurers have been getting a glimpse this season.
In 2021, Lookout Pass paid for logging operations to clear 14 trails on Eagle Peak, which means there will be 500 additional acres of developed terrain and 1,650 additional vertical feet for skiing and snowboarding.
However, a quad chairlift that will carry customers to the top will not be installed until this summer. So this winter Lookout bought a Snowcat and took riders to the top for what they called Cat Skiing Adventures this year.
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“We wanted to get people excited and let them see and experience this terrain,” said Matt Sawyer, Lookout’s chief marketing officer. “A lot of people were able to enjoy the trails up there and really see the potential. This sets a new standard for Lookout.
The expansion will give the ski area more advanced terrain options.
“It’s 500 feet higher than the current terrain and already has a reputation for great snow,” Sawyer said. “I would say it takes us from what I would say is a small regional ski area to the next stage, which is a mid-size ski area.”
The expansion brings the total ski area to 1,023.
“This expansion was a long-term plan that had been around for nine or ten years,” Sawyer said. “It was approved by the Forest Service years ago.”
The new quad chair, which will be called Chair 5, is a fixed handle that they bought used at Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah. It will be refurbished with upgraded engine controls prior to installation. The bottom will be within the current Lookout limits. Eventually the mountain intends to add a sixth chair on Eagle Peak after more trails are removed.
The Snowcat has an enclosed rear cabin for transporting 12 guests and gear. Customers can reserve a place in advance and the cat leaves at 8:30 am on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
The effort has not gone without a few hiccups this year.
“We went through January when there was very little snow,” Sawyer explained. “We had some difficulties. We bought a used Cat that had mechanical issues.
Last Friday, the Snowcat had to be stopped after a race for repairs, but customers got a full refund. Yet on this run alone the group was able to experience untouched powder on a fairly steep incline with smooth rolling characteristics and clearings of trees. It’s a rare experience to be able to hurtle down the slopes of a developed resort without the clutter of a chairlift on a powdery day.
Travis Skinner, a ski patroller for Lookout, is often tasked with giving a safety talk on new slopes after the Snowcat drops off customers. He is excited to open a whole new area for snowboarders and skiers next year.
“It’s going to be really nice,” he said. “Obviously you’re probably going to have some of the best snow, especially in this area. We have good steep terrain here and the powder days are going to be phenomenal.
Skinner points out that people who summit Eagle Peak will also be able to access many backcountry areas just outside the ski area boundaries.
“And then you have this whole area down to the basin (nearby) and the cool thing is that the snowmobiles come in and out of this basin, so the trail is really, really nice,” he said. . “And that takes you right to chair 2 and so you can start all over again. So you’ll have the ability to keep skiing in powder if you know a little bit about what you’re doing.
Skinner warned that the area is known as an ‘avalanche path’ – only experienced skiers with the proper equipment and knowledge of avalanche safety should access this off-limits terrain.
“You’re going to have to choose safe routes to the hills you want to hit, and you’re going to have to take turns skiing them,” he said. “And you’re not going to want to scratch their bellies.”
Sawyer said Lookout gets a ton of snow, even in years that are perceived to be less than stellar.
“We got 325 inches year to date,” he said on March 2. “We should be at the 400 mark by the end of the season, and we’re averaging 400 inches a year.”
Lookout is often one of the first ski areas in the state to open in November.
The ski area will remove some dead trees this summer and clear some areas under clearings during the expansion, Sawyer said.
Overall, the Cat Skiing Adventures gave a few people a taste of what to expect, he said.
“The new Eagle Peak is a component that creates great value,” he said. “We already have the longest and best snow season and now we will have more groomed runs. This customer value equation continues to increase with more varied terrains. »
Photos: Belvedere pass