Montana Mountain High
The fantasy began when I pulled up to the base of the Yellowstone Club, an hour south of Bozeman, Mont. The concierge staff took my keys, my boot bag, and my skis. Then they parked the car, unzipped my ski bag, placed my skis on the snow near the lodge, and planted a pole on either side. All I needed to do once I was ready to hit the slopes was step into the bindings and go the short, flat distance to the nearly empty chairlift. As I watched the staffers lay out my gear, I thought to myself: "Those guys are crazy! Somebody's going to steal my skis."
Unlike the ski areas I typically frequent, however, theft is not a worry at the Yellowstone Club. Nor are lift lines or lack of powder. Of course, you do need a minimum of $3.5 million in net worth and an invitation to join. The fees break down into a $250,000 initiation charge and $16,000 in annual dues. Plus, you're required to buy a homesite for $1.1 million to $3.2 million, and eventually you have to build a house. One original owner recently sold his property and chalet for $12 million. For the price, members of this 14,000-acre club and their lucky guests get a ski experience most people only dream about.
Well, you might come close at the majestic Moonlight Basin Resort, just 10 miles up the valley. Moonlight Basin, which shares a knife-edge ridge with the popular Big Sky Resort, offers high-end amenities similar to Yellowstone Club's. But there are some big differences: The terrain is more challenging, it sells condos and cabins as well as $1 million-plus slopeside properties, and it's open to anyone who buys a $40 lift ticket.
Neither resort follows existing models. Yellowstone Club comes closest to an exclusive private golf community, but no one else has included a massive ski area as part of the package because of the high capital and operating costs. Moonlight began as a real estate venture in 1992 and opened its ski area in 2003. From Day One, its purpose was to preserve as much of the environment as possible. Moonlight attracts the same kind of serious skiers as Telluride and Aspen, Colo., and Whistler in British Columbia. But it's authentic Montana all the way, from its steep powdery slopes and superb tree skiing to the lodge that boasts a two-story-high stone fireplace with stuffed mountain goats perched along the side.
When I visited Yellowstone Club in late January, a clear blue sky and 15-degree temperature greeted me, along with Hank Kashiwa, director of marketing and a former pro ski racer. As we set off, it became immediately apparent we would have the mountain virtually to ourselves.
Most of the front face is marked by rolling, intermediate-level runs, known as "groomers," that are fun to ski. But the real pleasure is on the back side, where Kashiwa took me to some powder glades. At one point on a run called Middle Ching, we stopped to catch our breath, then continued down until we burst through the last thicket of trees and floated through untracked snow.
Yellowstone Club is the fantasy-turned-reality of billionaire timber and real estate baron Tim Blixseth and his wife, Edra. The couple established the club in 2000 in a land swap with the federal government. So far, only 20% of the property has been developed. The club also sports a golf course designed by retired pro golfer Tom Weiskopf. It funds its own fire district that houses three gleaming trucks, and the head of security was a personal secret service agent to former President Gerald Ford.
The club plans to cap memberships at 864 homesites. So far, there are 250 members, including Microsoft (MSFT ) founder Bill Gates, former Vice-President Dan Quayle, and ski film pioneer Warren Miller, for whom the club's epicenter, a massive timber frame lodge, is named. The food at its three restaurants is five-star quality. I especially liked the cauliflower soup and glazed elk.
Moonlight Basin is a more accessible fantasy. The resort has been a labor of love for local owner Lee Poole, who with investors purchased the Moonlight Basin Ranch 14 years ago. "Our vision was to protect as much property as we could through conservation buyers," Poole says. The land sits on the north side of the 11,166-foot Lone Peak, looking out into the majestic Lee Metcalf Wilderness area. On a clear night the cabins are bathed in the shimmering light of a moon that seems so near you can touch it with a ski pole. It might as well be a world away from the hustle and bustle of Big Sky on Lone Peak's south side.
The mountain's skiable area, 1,650 acres served by six chairlifts, is rather modest by major ski area standards. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in skiing quality. The lower half of the mountain is full of long, intermediate runs sprinkled with some serpentine tree skiing. The top half is carved out by the fearsome Headwaters, a towering cirque of heart-pumping chutes bearing names like Don't Tell Mama and Hell Roaring.
The Headwaters elevates Moonlight Basin into that rare group of lift-served playgrounds for hard-core skiers. Ski areas have been opening up more such challenging terrain in response to growing demand. This winter Moonlight Basin and Big Sky are offering a Lone Peak Pass that provides access to 5,300 acres of skiable terrain across both resorts and a mighty 4,350 vertical feet of skiing. Big Sky skiers can sample the Headwaters, and Moonlight Basin patrons can drop over the ridge and take Big Sky's Lone Peak Tram. From the top, they can plunge down the seriously steep North Summit Snowfield back to Moonlight or try their luck on Big Sky's precipitous Dictator Chutes.
WINDS OF HELL
On my last day, high winds prevented me from making it up the Lone Peak Tram, so I tried more of the 16 Headwaters chutes. After riding the short Headwaters chair, I hiked the ridge to the entrance of Hell Roaring. With the winds still blowing and a light snow falling, I stared down at the yawning void. I had only one modestly flat spot to click on my skis, and I had to do it carefully or risk losing them. Falling was not an option. A tumble would likely mean colliding into the flesh-scraping andesite that bordered the narrow runnel I was about to descend.
Once I took off, the snow was so soft that any fears of a bone-jarring fall evaporated. It was just one sweet turn after another, baby, until my thighs screamed for me to stop. I met my partner for the day, Moonlight's marketing director, Rich Hohne, who was waiting at the bottom of the gully. We looked at each other and grinned. There was nothing more we needed to say.
By Stanley Holmes