Last week, we had the opportunity to check out the cat skiing and snowboarding operation run by Great Northern Powder Guides (GNPG) based out of Whitefish, MT. With the storm track continuing to favor Montana and interior BC, this was the perfect time to make the trek to NW Montana to explore the vast terrain and abundant snowfall Great Northern Powder Guides boasts.
(disappearing behind a wall of white; pc Emily Barge, GNPG)
Throughout this winter we have watched storm after storm pound interior BC and Montana, and more specifically Whitefish in NW Montana. This past week was no different, except this time we jumped at the chance to chase to NW Montana and take advantage of a deep day at the resort followed by a deeper day in the backcountry with Great Northern Powder Guides. With over three feet of snow in 5 days, (8-10″ overnight on Sunday) conditions at the Whitefish Mountain Resort were excellent. About 16 miles north, as the crow flies, sits the 20,000 acres of backcountry terrain managed by Great Northern Powder Guides, where the conditions were even better. Despite being only 16 miles N/NW of Whitefish Mountain Resort, the terrain serviced by Great Northern Powder Guides features considerably different, and superior weather and snow conditions. Base camp sits a little bit below the base of the ski resort, but often while it is raining on the resort it is snowing at the Great Northern Powder Guides lodge. Not only is it colder, but the area receives more snowfall than Whitefish as well. The snow depth at about 5500 feet in the Great Northern Powder Guides terrain was over 130″, while about a thousand feet higher, at the summit of Whitefish, the snow depth is almost 3 feet less. With the majority of the Great Northern Powder Guides terrain falling in the 6,000-7,000 foot elevation range, the snow is deep and good quality.
The backcountry playground that Great Northern Powder Guides provides access to lies in Stillwater State Forest, along Stryker Ridge in the Western part of the Whitefish Range. The rideable terrain caps out at 7,000 feet and features slopes at all aspects. This allows for the guides to consistently find high quality snow regardless of the wind direction. There is a great variety of terrain, including mellow glades, tight trees, open feature filled runs, medium sized cliffs, 35-40 degree pitches, and some beautiful steep runs with perfectly spaced trees. The NW side of ‘Buffalo Jump’ featured the steepest run of the day, with greater than 40 degree pitch at times.
(huge slash on ‘Buffalo Jump’; photo courtesy of Emily Barge, GNPG)
Our favorite runs of the day occurred on the slightly less steep and aptly named ‘Jay’s Ridge’, after co-owner of Great Northern Powder Guides Jay Sandelin. We sampled both the north and south side of this ridge, where we found the longest runs of the day combined with the best snow quality. In the end we tallied 11 total runs. Great Northern Powder Guides has terrain for everyone, and enough of it to keep fresh lines for many days after the most recent snowfall.
In addition to the impressive snow and terrain, Great Northern Powder Guides provides a unique and memorable experience. From the moment we arrived at base camp (8 AM), they made us feel at home and part of the family. After we had a light breakfast provided by GNPG, we filled out some paperwork, grabbed our beacons, and jumped in the cat.
What makes these snowcats, and GNPG, so unique, is that they designed and built the snowcat cabins onsite at base camp.
(GNPG snowcat as the sun starts to set; photo courtesy of Emily Barge, GNPG)
They began designing the cabins shortly after opening up the cat ski operation and quickly realized they possessed a unique skill in snowcat cabin construction. The cabins are lighter than typical cabins, which allows them to ascend incredibly steep terrain and travel at higher speeds. They continue to develop new cabins, and have since designed and built cabins for several other cat ski operations in the west.
We headed across the street and started making our way up Stryker Ridge. The guides conscientiously broke up the long ride up the ridge with a quick avalanche beacon training and mellow warm up run. Each group featured a lead guide, tail guide, driver, and photographer. It was clear the guides were knowledgeable, experienced, and well trained. Our lead guide, Ken, was a pleasure to ride with. We felt highly confident in his ability to assess avalanche danger and safely provide access to challenging and exciting terrain. The other members of my group were all strong skiers and riders, which allowed us to access all available terrain and move at a good pace. After several runs we headed down to the GNPG yurt for lunch.
(GNPG’s mid mountain yurt; photo courtesy of Emily Barge, GNPG)
They provided us with some much needed fuel: burgers, soup, chips, and cookies. After about 30 minutes in the yurt we headed back out for the second half of the day. We continued to explore the vast terrain, including three exceptional runs on ‘Jay’s Ridge’. The entire cat was smiling ear to ear after these three. Below is the route we took on our day with GNPG, overlaid on a topographical and satellite map side by side.
After our 9th run we started to make our way back to base camp. On our way, we stopped for a 10th run followed by our final run to finish off the day to take us back down to a lower elevation. After a long day of skiing and riding the group enjoyed the scenic ride back to base camp.
(another shot from Buffalo Jump; photo courtesy of Emily Barge, GNPG)
After a day full of face shots, fresh lines, breathtaking landscapes, and shared excitement, it was time to go home. We returned to base camp around 5 PM, and we faced a 10.5 hour drive back to Salt Lake and work at 9 AM the next morning. We can’t thank Great Northern Powder Guides enough for taking us out on such an exceptional day, and their hospitality throughout the entire experience. Even if NW Montana wasn’t one of the snowiest locations this winter, Great Northern Powder Guides is worth checking out. Their location, near the Canadian border, provides consistently cold and snowy conditions throughout the winter, every year. We will be closely watching NW Montana for another chance to chase to Whitefish and go out with GNPG again. Here are a few more shots from the day from GNPG photographer Emily Barge.
(some of the gladed terrain)
(lunch inside the yurt)
(group photo on the cat before lunch)