By Mike Mannelin Explorebigsky.com Columnist
The cell phone alarm went off at 5:50 a.m., just as we’d asked it to. Ten minutes later, I heard Ryan Turner knock on the RV window.
“Are you guys awake?” he asked.
Empty, cold mugs in hand, we went into Turner’s house to drain his coffee maker, and then hit the road. We were heading to a yurt on Morrell Mountain in the Swan Range near Seeley Lake, to ski for three days.
Turner already had his snowmobile on a trailer and his truck ready to go. With one stop in Bozeman, we picked up two more friends and another snowmobile.
Once we exited the freeway near Garrison, we wound through beautiful hills and past ranches on Highways 141 and 200. We passed a rancher on a John Deere with a hay bale on the back, slowly making his way through a couple hundred of Montana’s 2.6 million head of beef cattle. In some states, we might have driven through condominium cities to get to the skiing. Out here, it seemed a lot simpler.
As we got closer to the mountains, our conversations shifted from the Green Bay Packers and ice fishing to backcountry gear.
At the trailhead, we met with the rest of the group. There were 10 of us, five snowmobiles, three towropes, two gear sleds, and one thing on our minds: powder skiing.
Grabbing a towrope, I hung on tight and used my arms as shock absorbers as the snowmobile whipped up the trail. We climbed past spectacular views of the Mission and Swan mountains, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. We found the Lupine Yurt on the side of the trail, about 11 miles later, at 6,600 feet, with its own breathtaking view of the ranges.
After we built a fire and put our supplies inside, we skinned up the road nearly a mile to the Alpine Yurt. Two skiers poked their heads out the door, and we asked about the snowpack.
They had triggered a slide in the Poopchute area and had been skiing the Burnt Trees area for the last three days. We continued up the skin track through the woods, and the yurt disappeared behind us. The first sight of skiable terrain revealed a recent avalanche in a spot called Breakfast Bowl.
We skinned up a safe route to the top in the trees and dug a pit. Our stability test (ECT32Q1) revealed a weak layer with a slab on top that was not easily triggered, but broke clean. Seeing this, and recalling our conversation with the other skiers, we decided to also stick to Burnt Trees. We followed switchbacks up a road to the Morrell Lookout Tower at 7,800 feet, our main starting point.
We dropped in one at a time, hooting and hollering in the shin deep powder. The terrain we chose kept us heading back toward the yurt. The road made it was easy to regroup with everyone, even with the low visibility.
The second day, we knew where we wanted to ski, so we set out early for the lookout. We set a good skin track through the trees the previous day, and used it to lap the powdery glades until our legs burned. Just before sundown we made a unanimous decision to climb for one last lap.
We woke the final morning to sunrise shining through the Plexiglas bubble atop the yurt. This time we set out with snowmobiles, taking turns dragging each other up to the lookout for some more powder runs in the trees. A few of us snuck in one more run, then began the ski descent back to the vehicles, getting out in front of the snowmobiles.
Back at the vehicles, high fives and tall boys made their way around in celebration of our safe trip. Looking around at the nine smiling faces made me appreciate even more enjoying winter with friends, old and new, in the beautiful mountains of Montana.
[ br]Yurt Ski backcountry lodging and skiingOne hour from Missoula in the Lolo National Forest[ /br] [ br]yurtski.com[ /br]