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This might just be the most charming ski destination south of the 49th.
Whitefish has been a skier’s town since the 1930s, when a cabal of locals began strapping on homemade maple-wood skis with fur climbing skins to ascend the mountain that looms over the small railroad town. The “Hellroaring Ski Club” found they could enjoy a few minutes of leisurely skiing after a mere four-hour uphill trek past the treeline. In those days, the hill was known simply as the Big Mountain (the name used by locals). It’s now known to us tourists as Whitefish Mountain, and the uphill climb has been made somewhat easier via a dozen chairlifts and two T-bars that open up 3,000 acres of bowl and tree skiing, along with a goodly measure of groomed, very schussable runs. The skiing, in other words, is fantastic. This has not gone unnoticed: for a few years, Whitefish has been ranked by Ski Magazine as one of the top 10 resorts in the West in the categories of service, value and character. (More on the “character” part in a moment.)
On my first day here—eager to ski again after two years off boards—I stay at Grouse Mountain Lodge on the local golf course. In winter the course is ingeniously repurposed into a cross-country ski park overseen by the Glacier Nordic Club (GNC): 23 kilometres of groomed trails, with some lit for night skiing. Locals love it for cross-training and cardio on the days they can’t get onto the hill. The trails are out my back door, so with some instruction from GNC staff, I try skate-skiing for the first time rather than traditional Nordic. After a good 45 minutes of flailing, I finish the course feeling semi-competent. Ruddy-cheeked and emboldened, I feel I’ve found my ski legs again. I’m ready to try a little hellroaring of my own.
This post-GNC enthusiasm may explain why on Whitefish Mountain the next day—after a poorly executed jump taken at unwise speed—I catch an edge as I come down, my head and poles going one way and my skis going another. Whammo. My skiing partner, a native Whitefishian, is too kind to say how ridiculous I look. And the ski patroller who coolly pronounces my shoulder injury to be “blunt force trauma” mercifully does not inquire how I’d taken the spill. He has no doubt seen too many fortysomething men trying to ski like they’re 17.
Fortunately, the tumble is not the most memorable part of the day. That honour goes to skiing the summit first discovered by the Hellroarers: wide, sweeping glades populated by snow ghosts. It feels like skiing through a sculpture garden, and it provides transcendent spiritual balm for my throbbing shoulder and bruised ego.
As with so many regional ski towns, the mountain is only half the fun. Hellroaring traditions of creative improv live on with local booze, great food and the best craft ginger beer and huckleberry turnovers to be had in North America, among other pastimes. This is where the “character” part comes in. My host’s restraint in teasing me was not purely altruistic: she passed on my clumsiness to higher authorities, to be considered for the Frabert Award at the mountain’s venerable pub, the Bier Stube. Frabert is the name of a wretched little stuffed monkey sporting ski goggles and multiple casts. At the pub, he (or his female counterpart, Fraberta) is presented weekly in ski season as an award to the week’s biggest clod—along with a very large glass of very cheap beer that must be drunk in one go, in front of a crowd reciting the 50-year-old chant: “Here’s to Frabert, who skis so fast, he leaps over moguls and falls on his ass.” I’m only a runner-up, but I still get to stand in front of the assembled bar and take a bow.
Ineptitude has never been so warmly celebrated.
Whitefish is located 65 miles south of the border, about a two-hour drive from Fernie, B.C. (or five hours from Calgary). From Seattle, you can catch a direct flight to Whitefish or take the Amtrak Empire Builder train, which stops right in town.
Check out the newish Spotted Bear Spirits for local vodka, limoncello, and gin distilled from Montana sugar beets—and the Snow Ghost cocktail that uses their own coffee liqueur.
The warren of shops and restaurants at the Stumptown Market is your best destination for lunch, snacks and drinks: Zucca Marketplace Bistro, Glacier Ginger Brew and the Polebridge Bakery and Mercantile.
Grouse Mountain Lodge offers affordable lodging right on the Glacier Nordic Club ski course.
The Firebrand Hotel is one of the town’s newest boutique hotels, located right in town close to restaurants and shops. firebrandhotel.com