What "The" Means 

Ski Big Mountain before everybody else gets there.

It may be a sign of things to come that they've done away with the "The."

Please allow a little background. Back in the 1940s, the people of Whitefish, Montana, decided they wanted to build a ski area. And in deciding where to do this, they looked at the horizon and made a logical choice: the big mountain across the lake. That's what they called it, too: The Big Mountain. It's on all the maps that way.

So they built themselves a ski area. And there are two wonderful stories about that. One is that when money was running low, a meeting was called at the Odd Fellows' Hall. Word around town was that it was a "doomsday" meeting, a R.I.P. for the whole idea. But the organizers locked the doors and said nobody was leaving until they pledged more money. The money was collected and the ski area saved.

The other story is that on the first day of operation the guys were putting finishing touches on the T-bar lift. The instructions -- apparently they had ordered some kind of kit -- said to tighten a tension screw 11 turns. They did this with considerable effort, not realizing the screw had been tightened at the factory. So when the T-bar started, instead of pulling people along the ground it picked them up 10 feet off of it. But nobody knew any different, having never been on a T-bar before. So the kit- buyers said nothing and adjusted the thing later.

And since then, two wonderful things have happened at Whitefish's ski area: It's grown steadily, and nobody has found out about it.

My finger is not exactly on the pulse of the American ski scene, but I had never heard of this place as a ski destination. Everybody knows about Aspen and Vail and Breckenridge. But Whitefish? Most people think of Whitefish (if at all) as being near Glacier National Park.

But Big Mountain -- more on the subtle name change later -- is the 10th biggest ski resort in the country, with 3,000 skiable acres, 81 runs, and 11 lifts, with more coming in over the next few years. The town itself is a charmer, as well, with free bus service to the lifts. That's all nice, but what I like is reading online reviews posted by skiers. According to this crowd and their lovable language, Big Mountain (in summary) "rocks, whether you're a hardcore ripper or a weekender. The fog is a weakness, but it keeps all those whiny tourists indoors and the lemmings off the good stuff. There's almost always a stash of sweet pow hidden somewhere."

Sweet pow, for you lemmings out there, would be deep, untracked snow, aka powder.

Anyway, these same folks report that the fog is a bummer (the downside of getting a lot of snow is that you don't get a lot of clear days) and the food on the summit is expensive. But who goes to a ski resort for cheap food? The main thing everybody remarks on, though, is that there's practically nobody there. As one reviewer put it, "Do these people even know what the f**k a liftline is?"

The answer, as anyone in town will tell you, is no. Big Mountain is known for not being known. But this is where you also gather that the locals are moderately concerned. You see, the company set up to run the place and in March announced a 10-year plan with a development outfit from (gasp) Colorado to build a $300 million village at the base with 700 residential/lodging units, "at least one" hotel, condos, and 80,000 square feet of commercial space. Out in the West, there's a word for this sort of thing: Aspenization. And it's not a word that's said with a smile.

Another part of the new plan: the dropping of the "The" from the name. This might seem insignificant, but going from "the big mountain across the lake," or just "the mountain," to Big Mountain Ski and Summer Resort is, well, a sea change. After all, the essence of the plan is to bring in more people and make more money.

Along those lines, Big Mountain is now pushing itself as a summer destination as well. They're trying to get a piece of the action that's focused on Glacier park and the flourishing golf scene in the Flathead Valley. So they put in a mountain bike trail from the summit (separate from a wonderful, huckleberry-covered hiking trail) and are pushing, among other summertime activities, insane new things called mountain scooters.

Your humble and recently terrified author can attest to the entertainment value of a mountain scooter. The highly embarrassing photo accompanying this article doesn't speak to the speed and giddiness available on those wheels -- nor to how good a person can look on them. It's part snowboard, part skateboard, and it's a seven-mile run from the summit to the Bier Stube.

Just one more reason you should get out there to the big mountain before it starts looking more like Aspen.

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