Un­tracked Line


SKI - - CONTENTS - By Brian Ir­win

Sam­ple the abun­dant goods with Montana’s Great North­ern Pow­der Guides, the state’s only cat-ski oper­a­tion.

2003, Les Arcs, France: Jay San­delin clicks into his skis and dons a space-age hel­met that looks like Darth Vader’s lid. He takes a deep breath and hops to his start, rock­et­ing down the slope at break­neck speed. When he fi­nally throws out the an­chor the radar reads 142 miles per hour; the world record is 156.8.

Fast for­ward 14 years: The 54-year-old San­delin and his fam­ily own Great North­ern Pow­der Guides, the only cat ski oper­a­tion in Montana. The San­delin clan has a long his­tory of ad­ven­ture. Jay was a speed skier for a hand­ful of years, at one point plac­ing third in the French World Cup. He used to man­u­fac­ture his own hel­mets, a skill that al­lowed him to per­fect fiber­glass mold­ing tech­niques that he uses to­day to build, and sell, snow­cat cab­ins suit­able for clients. The fam­ily owned and op­er­ated a he­li­copter tour com­pany, used to raise buf­falo and elk and have owned many ex­otic pets, their cur­rent one be­ing a bob­cat.

Great North­ern Pow­der Guides op­er­ates in the Still­wa­ter State For­est, a stun­ning tract of tow­er­ing tim­bers 20 min­utes from White­fish, Montana. His lease al­lows him to roam on 20,000-plus acres of land dot­ted with sparsely sit­u­ated pines, pow­der bowls, sheets of pil­lows, and col­or­ful cliff bands. Still­wa­ter has a sys­tem of log­ging roads that al­low for easy pas­sage to the goods, and is the only state for­est in Montana that has ter­rain and ac­cess suit­able for a cat ski­ing oper­a­tion. What’s more, San­delin ex­plains, be­cause cat ski­ing isn’t al­lowed on fed­eral land, and most pri­vate log­ging land is not con­ducive to cat ski­ing, “…we will al­ways be the only cat ski­ing com­pany in the State of Montana.”

San­delin doesn’t get to use the Still­wa­ter for free. A por­tion of his prof­its are paid to the state, then ear­marked for the school trust sys­tem. It’s a good deal for ev­ery­one, but es­pe­cially for skiers, who are greeted with some of the best pow­der in the West, and a lot of it. A typ­i­cal day con­sists of 1,000-2,000 foot runs, min­i­mal wait­ing time for the cat, and on av­er­age 12,00014,000 ver­ti­cal feet. And with an av­er­age snow­fall of 350 inches per year, ski­ing is re­li­able in the Still­wa­ter well into spring.

Ski­ing with Great North­ern is thrilling. The ter­rain, with enough chutes and steeps to en­ter­tain the most dis­cern­ing of clien­tele, en­sures you’ll never be with­out op­tions. How­ever, this isn’t just a day ski oper­a­tion, al­though ad­mit­tedly Great North­ern is with­out a ded­i­cated lodge. In­stead, they of­fer lodg­ing pack­ages in two ele­phan­tine yurts sit­u­ated deep in the Still­wa­ter. Th­ese are linked by a cause­way; one is ded­i­cated for sleep­ing and eat­ing, the other for re­cre­ation.

The smaller yurt is 20 feet in di­am­e­ter. It sleeps 14 clients. The other 30-foot yurt has a

fire­place, a full kitchen, sinks, wa­ter, a hot tub, a TV, mi­crowave, re­frig­er­a­tor and satel­lite dish. They both have power. There’s a heated out­house with wa­ter. Lodg­ing pack­ages include all food and bed­ding, al­low­ing you to slum­ber with dreams of bot­tom­less pow­der ev­ery day.

Great North­ern Pow­der Guides is about to take off. Lit­er­ally. San­delin is him­self a he­li­copter pi­lot and is mak­ing de­signs on the Still­wa­ter to open a heli ski­ing arm of his busi­ness, per­haps as early as this sea­son. His land­ing zones abut the yurt lo­ca­tion, of­fer the po­ten­tial for much more ver­ti­cal per day, and would, if launched, be­come the only heli ski­ing oper­a­tion in the state. But for those ready to fly, you may need to wait un­til the state and FAA put the fi­nal stamp on his pro­posal. While am­bi­tious, if there’s one thing the San­delin fam­ily does, it’s ex­e­cute. Most in the know be­lieve this en­ter­prise will take flight quite soon.

Ken Manuel is a lead guide for Great North­ern. The 47-year-old is a snow sci­ence pedan­tic with a pen­chant for safe travel. Be­fore one of my last runs in the Still­wa­ter, Manuel takes pause at the snow­pack as I slurp down a cup of home­made soup dur­ing a meal break. He thrusts an ex­tendible mea­sur­ing stick into the snow­pack un­til he strikes soil. He jots down some notes in a notebook, shoves it into his pocket, and gives the group a nod. With that, he pushes off into the wilder­ness, dis­ap­pear­ing into the snow­capped trees, tow­ing be­hind him noth­ing but a plume of cold smoke.

Then it’s our turn. As I bounce through the broad bowl of meringue, the thoughts of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and places less wild fade into a dis­tant mem­ory as snow crys­tals ig­nite un­der my skis in the fad­ing sun, glid­ing me to the re­al­iza­tion that the moniker is fit­ting. This truly just might be the “Last Best Place.”

CLOCK­WISE: When the an­nual snow­fall is 350 inches, days like this are not un­usual; meet Sway the bob­cat, GNPG's fe­line mas­cot; the White­fish range pro­vides a scenic back­drop for all GNPG ad­ven­tures; a 15-per­son snow­cat roams across an ex­pan­sive—and empty—20,000 acres of Montana state for­est.

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