Tips for diehards to ski their way to summer

Story and photography by Kay Bjork
Balmy weather peeled the snow from the valley floor, teasing us with green sprouts and thoughts of spring. Then the fresh green carpet was blanketed with snow, followed shortly afterward by sun and forecasts of warm weather. Mother Nature is such a flirt.

We were as ambivalent as the wishy-washy weather and had pulled the boats from storage and checked the tires on our bikes. But we left ski gear hanging at the door and skis leaned against the garage like patrons loitering outside a bar waiting for the music to start.

The forecast was for sunny and 60 in the valley, which to a lot of folks probably sounded like a great day to hit the lake, find a bare trail or head to the golf course. But winter diehards like us head to a place still locked in snow instead.

Even some of the most devout of Flathead Valley snow disciples tire of the weather and make a winter escape to warmer climates – so why go looking for winter when the promise of summer finally arrives in the valley? Maybe it can be viewed as an addiction, an obsession, or just a “you can’t get too much of a good thing” kind of thing.

Spring is only valley deep. That’s one of the perks of living in mountain country where snow lingers in the high country well into summer and snow can be not just feet but yards deep.

Marias Pass lies at 5,215 feet, one of the lowest routes over the Continental Divide, providing great access to late-season snow and skiing on both sides of U.S. Highway 2. On the northwest side, you will find another layer of Glacier National Park with several trail options. To the northeast lies the Pike Creek Road through an old burn, with open slopes providing easy access to the Divide.

Unseasonably warm February weather this year might end skiing earlier even in the high country. But if that’s the case, put this destination guide in your back pocket for next year.

A ski to Three Bear Lakes through willow and lodgepole offers field and forest in the first leg of the Autumn Creek trip.

A ski to Three Bear Lakes through willow and lodgepole offers field and forest in the first leg of the Autumn Creek trip.

Autumn Creek

The Autumn Creek Trail is located on the northwest side of Highway 2 across from the rest area. You have the option of a one-way ski along Autumn Creek if you park a second car at the pull-off at mile marker 193.8 along Highway 2 or don’t mind relying on the benevolence (and sanity) of a passing driver when you reach the southern outlet of the trail. The ski from the pass to mile marker 193.8 is usually preferred because of the downhill aspect in this direction. Another option is to simply ski in and out. Three miles into the trail you will reach a high point before the trail starts to lose elevation, offering a good destination through varied terrain. You can also explore the Three Bear Lakes area .66 miles from the trailhead, which offers a flatter ski with great views. Continue past Three Bears Lake to a trail junction, where you take a left to Autumn Creek Trail, or you can take the trail heading toward Firebrand Pass.

Pike Creek Road

At the top of Marias Pass you will find a rest area marked by an obelisk and statue of John F. Stevens, the Great Northern Railway engineer who charted the pass. There is ample parking bordered by a forested area. Ski through the trees to the pipeline right-of-way to reach the unplowed Pike Creek Road, which offers a moderate grade and ends near the Continental Divide with dramatic views of the surrounding mountains.

The Skyland Fire in 2007 left open slopes and great vistas amid silvery snags, offering a great place to explore and make turns on your way down. If you go 3.5 miles to the end of the road, you can continue up the ridge to reach the divide and to Flattop Mountain at 6,549 feet. The final 200 vertical feet to the top of Flattop are steep with varying snow conditions, so use caution and discretion if you ski up to the summit. This dramatic landscape with windswept snow, snowdrifts and cornices is beautiful, but these features can also be red flags for potential avalanches and unstable conditions. Only experienced skiers with avalanche knowledge and equipment should venture into this kind of terrain.

Mellow slopes near the Continental Divide above Pike Creek Road offer a great winter playground for skiers

Mellow slopes near the Continental Divide above Pike Creek Road offer a great winter playground for skiers

Diary of a Diehard

We have chosen our ski day carefully, since Marias Pass is a two-hour drive from our home on Swan Lake. Forecasts call for a relatively calm and sunny day in an area that is famous for its hurricane-force winds.

The parking lot is empty when we arrive. There is a fair chance we will have the area to ourselves on a weekday. We climb the snow bank at the edge of the parking lot and slip into the forest to reach Pike Road, which lies near the cleared path for the oil pipeline. The snow is eyeball deep in the gullies, but the pipeline is nearly blown bare.

The spring sun pounds down warm and strong, so it isn’t long before we are shedding layers and pausing to enjoy the view to the west of Little Dog and Summit mountains in Glacier National Park.

We slip into the timber along the ridge instead of taking the road. The road noise and an occasional round-toned train horn fade as we move deeper into the ski. Wind gusts sound their alarm in the trees with a high-pitched howl. It is windier than forecast but that’s part of the gamble when you play the weather game.

Our ski outing includes a lunch break near a big snowdrift, a seasonal landmark near the Divide. If snow and wind conditions are favorable, we often summit Flattop Mountain, but today we decide to wander below the ridge of the Continental Divide. First we enjoy a leisurely lunch in the trees in lee of the wind. I prop up my skis in the snow to provide a makeshift backrest. Intoxicated by spring sunshine, I lean back and close my eyes. The snow smells like fresh laundry: wet, cool and clean.

The sun seems to recharge my battery for the return traversing and crisscrossing the slopes above the road. I side-hill to a relatively flat bench below a cornice that looks like a big fat lip hanging over the ridge. My husband appears a little uphill of me and I watch a large chunk of the cornice break loose above him. It tumbles down the nearly vertical slope, cracking and popping and bursting into pieces when it lands on the flat bench below. We are well out of danger, but the suddenness and loudness of the event in the frozen, silent landscape is both startling and exhilarating. I study the aftermath of multiple slides in the area and marinate in the sobering thought of the destructiveness of a big snow event like an avalanche. It’s a reminder that a perfect day can turn deadly in a flash. I linger briefly to study the snowy landscape, altered only moments ago.

We weave through the old burn and take a water break as we near the end of another great ski. I happily speed through the silver and black spires left behind by fire, with the wind at my back and the sun on my face, to return home – and back to spring.

Avalanche Precautions and Other Tips

Spring weather is normally warmer but can change quickly in the high country with the possibility of blizzard conditions.

Old snow can change continuously throughout the day with big temperature shifts and sun exposure. Both new powder and bulletproof snow in the morning can transform into mashed potato snow by afternoon on a sunny day. This makes tricky skiing with a whiplash effect when you go from fast, icy snow to soggy, slow snow.

This area is often windy, so check weather forecasts to get an idea of wind conditions. If snow is loose and powdery, there is a risk of getting caught in a whiteout in high winds, so stay in touch with weather conditions.

The gullies along Autumn Creek can be tricky, along with avalanche run-out areas at the bottom of the trail in several places. Trails can also be icy from melt-thaw cycles or have areas blown bare by high winds or melted from the sun.

Along the Continental Divide you will find some steeper aspects with unstable snow along cornices and wind-blown slopes.

Snowpack varies day to day and year to year and place to place. You can use the Pike Creek Snotel Station for an idea of how much snow there is at this site, but snow is often much deeper on other nearby slopes.

You can find hourly weather reports for East Glacier, which give you a general idea of area conditions: www.weather.com.

For current snow conditions at the Pike Creek Snotel Station found at 5930 feet: www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/snow/snowplot.cgi?PICM8.

For other tips, current avalanche conditions and an avalanche tutorial, visit the website: www.flatheadavalanche.org.

Tips available in a tutorial at www.avalanche.org.