Inspiration

It’s like riding a bike!

This is what everyone says about skiing—that once you learn, you can just jump back on the slopes and swoop down like a champ.

I’m not so sure—and I don’t love the comparison. When you learn to ride a bike, you get to have training wheels, and should you fall, it’s just a short fall to the grassy Earth. When you ski, should you fall, you tend to slide down a very tall mountain where, worst case—you bounce off staggered obstacles and best case—an icy band of snow gets shoved into your waistline.

I hadn’t worn skis in thirteen months, but on my second day in Montana, I was back in the saddle—or chairlift, strapped into concrete boots, swinging my skis and trying to decide on my first descent.

From the moving chairlift, I watched the parade of playful skiers oozing their way down Whitefish Mountain with ease and grace. Some looked like dancers in the snow, others like nervous cats on roller skates. My favorite were the little kids, barely three feet tall, who tumbled down the double black diamond runs as if this was all just one big playground. I watched one boy fall forward and (unintentionally) perform a full somersault in skis, and then go right back to dodging moguls.

At the summit, I managed to slide off the chair without falling—giving me hope that perhaps, just maybe, I had not forgotten how to ski. The snowy peak was busy with skiers all happy with chatter and laughter and ski plans, but my eyes were focused on the line of mountains around us.

The long line of ice-capped arrowheads resembled a painted backdrop, so that I had to take off my goggles to make sure it was real. Yet even without the help of polarized lenses, the great Montana sky shone with intense metallic blue, and the peaks of Glacier National Park looked sharp enough to saw through wood. For several minutes, I just watched the mountains, in awe that they had been there all this time—my entire lifetime—without me ever having witnessed them.

Indeed, what sets Whitefish apart from so many other ski resorts is the view from the top, which may well be the very best view of Glacier National Park. I was very fortunate with the weather, which was so clear and bright I could see the Rockies stretch all the way into Canada in the north and Idaho to the west.

For one cold moment, I felt so captivated by the beautiful scenery all around me that I forgot I was on skis and that the whole point of this exercise was to playfully descend this massive mountain. Signs pointed with arrows to the different ski runs, all with different names, but it was “Inspiration” that called to me.

“Inspiration—what a perfect name for my first run in Montana,” I thought, sliding over to the beginning of the path—a shallow lull of well-used snow lined with pointed pines. I had already felt inspired by the bold nature of this state and now I was right in it, slipping downhill, weaving in an out of the snow ghosts. Like silent soldiers standing guard, these towering evergreen trees are encased entirely in ice, as if they, too were bundled up against the dry, subzero air.

But too soon the trees disappeared and I found myself on a narrow ridge of snow that simply ended, revealing only the miniature Whitefish lodge with smoking chimneys so far below. A drop-off! I panicked just a little but then went for it.

That’s where you have to commit to the run—where you have to ski forward full speed ahead or else scrape shamefully sideways to some safer greener run.

I skied the ridge of Inspiration and then scribbled fat S’s all the way down the slopes. My form was sloppy but I had not forgotten how to ski after all. Oh, this was definitely my favorite run on the mountain! I picked up speed towards the end and then schussed the last bit, sliding to a powdery finish at the Big Mountain Express Chair.

Although it was a Friday, there was no line on the lift and I rode the metal bench up, again and again, trying new runs each time. I took Big Ravine, then Toni Matt, then worked up enough courage to attack my first black of the season: Ptarmigan Bowl.

That’s when I decided that Ptarmigan Bowl was my new favorite run—just one giant slide that goes straight down. Had they consulted me, I would have suggested to the Whitefish folks that they name the run “Gravity” because that’s all I felt as I dropped straight down the mountain.

Hours passed and I skied on, proud that I had not taken any tumbles yet. I knew that I was having a blast because I skipped lunch. Why waste time eating indoors when you could be out skiing? I think this is what non-skiers can never understand—how skiing is addictive and good skiing can turn balanced people into obsessive-compulsives.

I skied until dark, by which time I’d decided my favorite run at Whitefish was Hellroaring. First off—what a name for a ski run! And secondly, what a run! Big slanted slopes like a roller coaster with lots of fun up-and-down hills and enough trees to keep things interesting. I dodged trees and wove in and out of the woods, laughing at the flying sensation that only comes with skiing, like hell, roaring with fury.

I was back the next day—a “busy” Saturday where most runs were as empty as the day before. That’s when I decided Hellfire and the back basin was my favorite run at Whitefish. That’s also when I lost my map and began “exploring” a bit more.

In my opinion, traveling without a map—even on a groomed (yet unknown) ski run—qualifies as exploration. I spent my Saturday at Whitefish exploring the long and empty corridors of snow and woods, amazed by the wild nature of the place and the silence of the Rockies in winter. Skiing is travel and I traveled through some of America’s most magnificent scenery by gliding down soft white ski paths. This is heaven, I thought, and then, like a cinematic revelation with a rousing background chorus, I saw the sign for Evan’s Heaven, which seemed too perfect not to ski. NO—this was my new favorite run, I decided, named expressly for me, it seemed.

I went back up to do it again, but that’s when I realized this was my last run—not just for the day, but at Whitefish. Deciding upon one’s last ski fling down the mountain was tough. The sky was fading into peach and gold, the trees dimmed to a blue haze and I just started skiing—not even paying attention to the signs.

I was skiing alone—so alone that I could hear the swoosh of my skis against the hollow, unmoving air. The snow was sparkly and clean, the forest beautiful yet imposing and the sky growing more lavender with each new turn.

I had no idea which run I was on, or even where I was—I was simply skiing freely down the mountain, enjoying my last run, no longer nervous about where I was going or whether or not I could still ski. I was just traveling down the mountain, alone, uplifted by nature.

Perhaps there is no story here. “I skied in a beautiful place and it made me feel really happy” is not a very convincing plotline, but it’s the simple truth of my two days on Whitefish Mountain.

I skied alone for the rest of my last run until near the bottom when I saw a detour: a single arrow pointing down with a sign that read, “Inspiration”.

I rejoined the path I had begun the day before and rode the last slope back to the lodge—to warmth and normal shoes, to a cup of hot chocolate and that incomparable post-ski-glow where everything seems right with the world.

And I decided that this is, in fact, my favorite run: Inspiration.

Comments

  1. Kevin H
    Augusta, GA
    January 22, 2013, 5:30 pm

    I was “inspired” by your story. I also enjoyed the slopes of Whitefish recently, only without the picture-book views of Glacier National Park from the summit. Perhaps next time – 8 years was simply too long to be void of the wintertime Rockies!

  2. Ken W
    Minneapolis, MN
    January 23, 2013, 8:03 am

    Great article! My wife and I discovered Montana skiing years ago when we would take our sons to Big Sky/Moonlight Basin near Yellowstone. Last year we made the journey to Whitefish via Amtrak’s Empire Builder. I highly suggest taking the train to Whitefish as part of the Whitefish experience. Montana. Skiing is the “undiscovered” country, no lines, great snow and nice friendly folks. We will be heading back this March for another dose!

  3. Inspiration | Make everyday Outstanding
    January 23, 2013, 8:34 am

    [...] Inspiration – Digital Nomad http://digitalnomad.nationalgeographic.com/It's like riding a bike! This is what everyone says about skiing—that once you learn, you can just jump back on the slopes and swoop down like a champ. I'm not so sure—and I don't love the comparison. When you learn to ride … [...]

  4. Gio
    DC
    January 23, 2013, 10:56 am

    Looks beautiful! Makes me want to go skiing. Montana sounds like the perfect place.

  5. John Yingling
    Missoula, MT (currently)
    February 16, 2013, 10:15 pm

    I’m no ski fanatic, but I must say, I’m really glad I moved to Montana for a year. Though I’ll return to Chicago, terabytes of photos in tow, i’ll surely have many stories running through my head of what I’ve seen in this place. If you are thinking about visiting, don’t wait any longer.

  6. [...] on National Geographic’s travel blog “Digital Nomad,” and blogger Andrew Evans chronicles his trip here. He writes about the trepidation of ascending Big Mountain having not skied in more than a year, and [...]

  7. Law
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    August 17, 2013, 11:32 am

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