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 The New York Times

January 20, 2006

One Mountain, Undivided

THIS winter the most buzzworthy event in North American skiing isn't the opening of a new chairlift or the ribbon-cutting on yet another retooled base village. No, for skiers the most intriguing news is a burying of the hatchet in the cold, deep snows of Montana.

If well-known Big Sky Resort and its newer neighbor, Moonlight Basin, which share a border and 11,166-foot Lone Mountain, had simply kissed and made up after their well-publicized spat - which reached its nadir in a lawsuit claiming that Moonlight endangered lives by misfiring avalanche-control explosives onto Big Sky's slopes, among other transgressions - the ski world would have yawned. But rapprochement was just the beginning. The resorts then saw what had been obvious to hard-charging skiers whose imaginations weren't tangled in rancor and boundary ropes: these two together could be bigger - literally - than the sum of their parts.

Skiers this winter who buy the new Lone Peak Pass can make turns on an astonishing 5,300 acres of terrain across both resorts - the most you can ride in the United States without clicking out of your bindings. (The runner-up, Vail, boasts 5,289 acres.) The combined skiing isn't just wide, it's also tall: 4,350 vertical feet. In North America only Whistler/Blackcomb, British Columbia, and Snowmass, Colo., offer more top-to-bottom skiing. The arrangement harkens to those European ski networks like the Italian Dolomites or the French Trois Valles, in which skiers move seamlessly across several different areas, and sometimes even national borders, on unified lift passes. In this nation, only Alta/Snowbird and Solitude/Brighton, all in Utah, have similar arrangements.

What has expert skiers and snowboarders really pumped, however, is that the Lone Peak Pass finally puts the mountain's hairiest terrain under one E-ticket ride: Big Sky's ample black-diamond acreage; Moonlight Basin's Headwaters area, its tilted playground for the Red Bull-swilling crowd; and an ultrarowdy new facet of the mountain, the North Summit Snowfield, that couldn't easily have become reality without teamwork by the resorts. This dynamic duo has made it into the pantheon of "sick bird" ski hills like Jackson Hole, Blackcomb and Crested Butte, Colo., in a way that neither could quite do on its own.

"All of a sudden, it's like your car has a new gear," Reno Walsh, 33, a snowboarder with tousled surfer's hair from nearby Bozeman, said in the Carabiner Lounge at Big Sky one recent evening as he pulled on a Moose Drool ale. Under Mr. Walsh's ski bibs hung his Lone Peak Season Pass. "Everybody I know who's serious about riding" has one, he said. (A single-day Lone Peak Pass is $78 this winter, or $13 more than a single-day Big Sky ticket, and $38 more than a ticket at Moonlight, which at 1,900 acres of skiing is about half the size of Big Sky.)

To really appreciate the fruits born of this cooperation, it helps to know just how bad the blood was between the resorts even one year ago. In 1992, three partners bought 40 square miles adjacent to Big Sky, on the northern and western sides of Lone Mountain, and formed Moonlight Basin Ranch as a real-estate venture. In 1994 they struck an agreement in which Big Sky would operate chairlifts on Moonlight property, giving Moonlight's real estate ski-in, ski-out status (and therefore higher home prices), while Big Sky would benefit by being able to offer more terrain.

By 2002, however, the two companies couldn't agree on adding and operating more lifts. In January 2003, Moonlight started its own ski area, with its own lift ticket. People could still get to Big Sky from Moonlight via a shared lift along their border, but the locals' nickname for it, "Switzerland," hinted at the tension.

The relationship deteriorated. In early 2004 Big Sky's owner, Boyne USA Resorts, sued Moonlight Basin's parent company, accusing Moonlight of everything from trespassing to errantly firing avalanche-control explosives onto its terrain. Boyne asked to void the 1994 agreement, which could have meant a wall between the resorts and a drop in Moonlight's real estate values.

Then, one day last June, a surprising reconciliation took place. "We got all the key individuals in one room together, and in the course of 16 hours we went from being in complete disagreement to complete resolution, and there hasn't been a single back-step since," said Taylor Middleton, Big Sky's longtime general manager. That very day the participants brainstormed the idea of a joint pass. "Letting go of the little stuff paved the road to seeing the big stuff - and the big stuff turned out to be the biggest skiing in America," Mr. Middleton said.

IN early December, I took both resorts for a spin to gauge what skiers will get when they buy the $78 Lone Peak Pass, which is just one latte shy of the nation's priciest lift ticket. (Vail's walk-up price is $81.)

When Moonlight Basin first opened, it was part lamb, part lion. The resort offered some well-groomed but soporific terrain, some of the steepest in-bounds skiing I'd ever clung to - and little in between. The resort has since begun to round out its offerings. Many of the two dozen or so runs off the year-old Lone Tree lift are tree-skiing runs. But runs like Broken Heart and Big Tree Cutoff are gentler introductions to tree-skiing, only spiked with lodgepole pines every 25 feet or so. "We've very deliberately focused on adding some middle- to upper-intermediates and adding some advanced trees," said Burt Mills, Moonlight's general manager, as he rode the lifts one morning.

Moonlight also builds on Big Sky's reputation for uncrowded slopes. Four days after the last snowfall I still found some untracked snow for my skis to porpoise in - pretty rare at a ski resort today. Moonlight's north-facing aspect helps, too, by keeping the sun off the slopes. "The powder stays a little longer," said Will Glaus, 21, of Bozeman, explaining why he planned to buy a Moonlight season pass.

Moonlight has one other claim to fame that attracts Big Sky skiers: the Headwaters, a towering cirque that resembles the unpleasant end of an incoming fist. Striping its steep face are white runnels bearing names like Don't Tell Mama and Dead Goat (named for a normally sure-footed beast that was found at the bottom of the run). Knuckles of sharpened andesite wait to grate the flesh of a tumbler.

Previously, Moonlight skiers who coveted these steep lines had to hike anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour - only to be greeted by Big Sky's Challenger lift disgorging passengers near the ridgeline. These heaving folk would look with envy at their fresh legs. The Big Sky skiers, for their part, would look covetously across the boundary rope at the chutes they weren't allowed to ski. This winter, skiers with Lone Peak Passes can ride that Challenger Lift, pass through a gate and easily get to the first of the 16 or so Headwaters chutes.

Moonlight has installed its own Headwaters Expert Chair on its property to obviate the first part of the hike. The base of the lift was intentionally built just uphill and out of sight from Moonlight's popular Six-Shooter Lift to keep less adventurous skiers from getting on by accident. "It's a short walk," Mr. Mills said, "but it's not something Mom and Dad from out of town are going to get on by mistake."

So this is what Big Sky taps into, but what does Moonlight Basin get from Big Sky? Plenty. Despite its improvements, Moonlight by itself wouldn't hold many skiers' interest beyond a weekend. Big Sky, by comparison, is a world.

One morning Mr. Middleton, the general manager, showed off some high-angle highlights. From the tram, near the pinnacle of Lone Mountain, he dropped into Lenin, then traversed over to the Dictator Chutes. This was the steepest skiing most people would ever aspire to. Gravity tugged at everything. My early-season form got choppy, my breathing heavy. Mr. Middleton, an expert skier, stopped and pointed to a slope that turned convex and simply cascaded out of sight. Its name is Castro's. "High pucker factor," he commented of Castro's - skier's argot for a vertical situation in which losing control of certain bodily functions is quite possible. Luckily, Castro's was closed.

If caution is the theme of Lone Mountain's vertiginous above-treeline bowls and chutes, then motion defines Big Sky's other peak, Andesite Mountain. Later I joined the few skiers and snowboarders mach'ing down big groomed boulevards like Big Horn and Madison Avenue, then was whisked to the top again on several high-speed lifts. On top of Andesite, mountains seemed everywhere to prop up the big bowl of Montana sky: The prickly Spanish Peaks just to the north; the Tobacco Roots to the west; and far to the south, blue and fuzzy but still distinct, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

ON my last day I took the tram to see the North Summit Snowfield, a tilted patch of permanent snow on Lone Mountain's forehead that opens this winter for the first time ever thanks to the resorts' collaboration. (Skiers must ride Big Sky's mountaintop tram to access the snowfield, which spills onto Moonlight's property.)

I peered over the edge, but the flank fell away so steeply that the snowfield wasn't even visible. Later, from below, even the snowfield looked as flat as a Kansas wheatfield when compared with its exits - a half-dozen supersteep spillways with names like the Rips. They are the kind of runs where lifetime ski memories are made, and/or limbs are mangled.

Later, as we looked up at the snowfield from below, Rich Hohne, Moonlight's assistant general manager, explained that small groups that want to ski the snowfield will have to check in at the ski patrol hut with an avalanche transceiver and a shovel. "We're starting with a stricter policy because of the 'unknown' factor," Mr. Hohne said.

He laughed a sort of excited, nervous laugh.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Ron Tabaczka
Ron Tabaczka