Shredding the vast, abundant backcountry with Great Northern Powder Guides
BY DILLON TABISH | PHOTOGRAPHY BY GREG LINDSTROM
The pioneers had it made.
Those original brave souls — the ones who strapped narrow planks of wood on their boots and descended through forested labyrinths of snow — could glide through miles of fresh powder until their legs burned out.
No crowds. No tracked-out sections.
Only a wild, pristine playground of adventure.
Miles away from civilization, near the quiet nook of Olney off the lonely stretch of U.S. Highway 93, there’s a place where skiers and snowboarders can relive the bygone era.
The Stillwater State Forest, encompassing 93,000 acres northwest of Whitefish near the western edge of Glacier National Park, is the oldest and largest state forest in Montana. In the summer months, it’s a mecca for hiking and fishing. Once winter arrives, it transforms into an abundant pillow stash of snow that blankets the mountain slopes.
For the last few years, Jay Sandelin and his fleet of snowcats have guided powder hounds through this rip-roaring terrain.
Sandelin, a retired professional skier, fulfilled a lifelong dream when he launched Great Northern Powder Guides, a backcountry skiing company based in the backyard of Whitefish. He operates the company with his wife, Kylanne, and their kids, making it a true family operation.
The lone catskiing company in Montana, Great Northern Powder Guides offers professionally guided day and overnight trips in the Stillwater Forest, where Sandelin and his team have mapped out over 17.7 square miles of terrain that gathers tons of snow each winter and is well-suited for skiing and snowboarding thanks to decades of timber harvest.
“I’ve been to see other catskiing places, and we have an incredible thing here,” Sandelin said.
With a morning departure for day trips, guests meet at the company’s base of operations off U.S. 93 and climb aboard one of the customized snowcats, which are each equipped with a cozy cabin. The snowcats traverse into the mountains and guests are often diving into powder within 30 minutes.
“That really sets us apart, being right across from the road and being able to go right across the road into our terrain,” Sandelin said.
Every trip features both a lead and tail guide who ski with clients, all of whom wear avalanche beacons. The guides all have at least five years of backcountry skiing experience and are first aid certified and avalanche trained.
Before hitting the snow, the team of guides goes over rescue scenarios and hazards, ensuring everyone knows what to do in case of an accident and where to finish after each run.
Then it’s time to shred. Skiers or snowboarders launch from specific drop-off points and choose from an abundance of fresh snow; the average run is between 800 and 1,000 feet.
At the bottom, everyone climbs back into the snowcat and heads for another piece of paradise. This constant dose of adrenalin carries on all day, and by the final run, each person has tallied roughly 10,000 vertical feet of skiing.
The company has added terrain this winter and mapped out more runs.
“We’re in a very unique spot,” Sandelin said. “We’re in our own microclimate here.”
For those seeking the ultimate off-the-grid experience, Great Northern Powder Guides has a comfy yurt tucked in the high country, furnished with bunk beds downstairs and a full dining room up top. A new yurt was developed in the offseason where the guides prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner while guests enjoy a day and night in the wild.
“Probably what I hear most of from people is how well we treat them. We treat them like family and that makes a difference,” Sandelin said. “We want people to walk away feeling like each one of them got taken care of the best.”
The company is rooted in Sandelin’s passion for skiing. He grew up on skis in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and went on to become a successful gelande ski jumper and speed skier. He set the world record at the time with a gelande jump of 320 feet. He went on to become one of the fastest speed skiers in the world, at one time achieving 142 miles per hour.
After years of touring Europe as a professional, Sandelin settled near Whitefish almost 30 years ago to start a family with his wife, Kylanne. He stayed on skis, working as a patrolman at Big Mountain before opening Sanaris, an excavation and demolition company. His interest in skiing lasted and ended up expanding thanks to his construction business. The workload declines during the winter months and Sandelin wanted a way to enjoy the snow. He explored a helicopter skiing operation, but it didn’t work out. Then he remembered as a kid watching Warren Miller films and seeing catskiing.
The thought grew into an idea, which grew into a plan. Today, it’s become a full-time business adventure.
For more information about Great Northern Powder Guides, visit www.greatnorthernpowderguides.com or call 1-855-766-9228.