Empty slopes in Montana

Thousands of acres of prime US piste, and just a few extremely wealthy people to share it all. Stephen Wood enjoys empty slopes in Montana

Are there two sides to every story? No. It only takes an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman to walk into a bar to reveal that theory's inadequacy. And to this, the story of Lone Mountain, there are four sides.

There wasn't really a story at all until the former US television news "anchor" Chet Huntley embarked on creating a ski resort on the eastern face of the mountain, which is about 60 miles south of Bozeman in Montana. Opened in 1973, the resort - named Big Sky - did not thrive at first; and in 1976 the major shareholder, the property division of the car company Chrysler, sold it to Everett Kircher, something of a serial resort-buyer. The Kircher family still owns it.

Then, 16 years later, a section of Lone Mountain's northern face became Moonlight Basin. The owners of this tract began developing residential property there, proffering the "magnet" of Big Sky's skiing to second-home owners. Lifts were installed to give access to the slopes, and some ski terrain was provided on Moonlight Basin's home territory.

In 2000, a site to the south was acquired by a timber magnate, Tim Blixseth, in a land-swap deal with the US Forest Service involving an area that he owned near Yellowstone Park. On his new 13,400-acre holding, Blixseth and his wife set up the Yellowstone Club - "The World's Only Private Ski and Golf Community" - with 2,200 acres of skiing on Pioneer and Andesite mountains, which lie just below Lone Mountain.

Blixseth also owns a parcel of land on Lone Mountain's south face, although the site is not skiable; however, Yellowstone Club's ski terrain stretches across Andesite to connect up with the Big Sky area, much of whose intermediate skiing is on that mountain. All this might seem to be of primary interest only to property developers and surveyors, particularly the latter: the more adventurous surveyor could have great fun up at 11,166ft on Lone Mountain working out exactly which part of the gaunt, windswept peak belongs to Big Sky, Moonlight Basin or the US Forest Service (the landlord of most western US ski resorts, but here reduced to a smallholder).

But the story is also significant for skiers, notably - because of our deep affection for large ski areas - to those from the UK. For this season, Big Sky and Moonlight Basin connected their ski areas and offered a joint "Lone Peak Pass" to skiers.

The knock-on effect of this is to give the members of the Yellowstone Club - 235 people as of 12 January 2006 - plus their families and guests exclusive access to what is by far the biggest ski area in the US. They - and only they - can ski the 2,200 acres of the Yellowstone Club, move across to Big Sky's 3,600-acre area and end up on Moonlight Basin's 1,700 acres. That's 7,500 acres of linked skiing. The next biggest area in the US, Vail, has just 5,289 acres.

Should you fancy joining the club, best discuss it with your bank manager first. Those invited to join must pay a $250,000 (£141,000) initiation fee (ultimately refunded) and membership dues of $16,000 per year. They must also buy a property on the site. The cheapest deal currently on offer would be a one-acre building plot costing about $2m.

Is there an easy way just to access the club, and have the privilege of skiing around Lone Mountain from Yellowstone Club via Big Sky to Moonlight Basin? Yes, there is. The club polices its community well, and boasts a "vice-president of security and director of privacy" on its management team. But on occasion people do get under the wire, among them a writer for US Skiing magazine, who skied in wearing a gorilla suit. Which is odd, as in my experience a journalist who asks politely is invited through the club's imposing gatehouse and offered dinner and a bed for the night before skiing the slopes. That's how, for one day in mid-January, I joined the privileged few.

Wake in a beautiful, comfortable and unpretentious little cabin set towards the bottom of a snowfield, and ski 75 yards on untracked snow for a full American breakfast in a small lodge: it's not a bad way to start the day. And what follows is even better, provided you don't suffer from agoraphobia. At 2,200 acres, Yellowstone Club's ski area is not small. It has a vertical drop of 2,700ft, a dozen lifts and 40 marked trails. Much of the terrain is easy, but there are some steep pitches off a ridge alongside the 9,860ft peak of Pioneer Mountain. All it lacks is skiers. Add together the 235 members, their 1.5 children and their friends (each member is entitled to 140 "guest days" per year): if, on a far from average day, everyone went skiing at the same time, I reckon the skier density would still only be one per three acres.

The reality is more extraordinary than that. I started skiing with a Yellowstone Club guide at 9.18am on a Thursday morning. We saw another skier at 9.32am, and a couple more just before 10am. Another, at 10.06am, made a total of four sightings in an hour. Ever dreamed of having a ski area to yourself? Yellowstone Club is as close as you can get. And, especially in the gladed areas beyond Pioneer Peak, it's an ecstatic experience.

Consider this: the slopes are so little used that it is possible to ski untracked powder that fell the previous day, on piste. On wide runs, the snow is left ungroomed on one side; on the other, a soft corduroy runs straight down the fall line. Visiting Yellowstone Club, staff from Deer Valley in Utah - which is renowned for its piste preparation - were so impressed that they voluntarily ceded their perennial distinction as the American resort with the best grooming.

It's a title Hank Kashiwa, Yellowstone Club's vice-president for marketing, would not accept - because it has what he describes as "the R word" in it. Yellowstone Club is not a resort, it's a community. That's why applicants have to be invited to become members: affluence is not enough.

What else is required? A couple of the staff members were vague about this. The "Montana lifestyle" they mentioned as a necessary qualification didn't help much, given that - as they admitted - this was indistinguishable from, say, the Wyoming lifestyle. But at the Timberline Cafe the essence of Yellowstone Club became clear: bling is not its thing. I was, unusually, having lunch surrounded by millionaires; but they all wore their wealth so lightly that they could have been as impoverished as me.

To access Yellowstone Club's ski area from Big Sky's, you must get permission from the gatekeeper. Those going in the opposite direction can pass freely on to slopes that provide a richer and more varied ski experience. In this part of the world, ski resorts do big themselves up: Big Sky's main Montana rival is Big Mountain, and across the Canadian border it's their cousin Big White. But it is Big Sky that offers - in the new slogan coined for the connection of its slopes with those of Moonlight Basin - the "Biggest Skiing in America". Which is true, just: the connected area is marginally larger than Vail's, without Yellowstone Club's acreage.

Chet Huntley made Big Sky's name, adapting (with the permission of the Governor) Montana's identity as the "Big Sky State". And he also put the place on the map, with the result that the adjoining ski areas are - according to the US Postal Service - all in Big Sky. (Hence the address "Moonlight Basin, Big Sky", which reads rather like a Native American map reference.)

But Big Sky's primacy is entirely appropriate. It is the principal ski attraction of the region, and makes up more than two-thirds of the joint Lone Peak area. It offers great skiing: a plethora of runs to meet all intermediates' needs, and off the top of Lone Peak some really tough terrain running down couloirs and gulleys or into a steep snow bowl. Crowded? Never: on average there are 2,000 skiers per day on the mountain, and the capacity of the lifts is 32,000 skiers per hour.

Moonlight Basin brings to the party crisp snow on its north-facing slopes, a variety of routes through its densely wooded lower slopes, and a whole sweep of expert skiing of the "back" side of Lone Mountain.

The range of skiing is impressive enough, but consider this: Moonlight Basin's expansion plans will add another 1,100 acres to its ski area by 2009, and Yellowstone Club plans a new lift to access about 1,800 more acres. So the end of this decade should see 10,650 acres of skiing around Big Sky. And that's 2,500 more than at Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, which currently has the biggest ski area anywhere in North America.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The most convenient airport for Big Sky is Gallatin Field, Bozeman. No airline flies direct from the UK to the state of Montana, but it can be reached from Denver, which is served non-stop from Heathrow by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), and - with connections at a US gateway city - from a range of UK airports by American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways.

To reduce the impact of your flight, you can buy an "offset" from climate care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from Heathrow to Bozeman, in economy class, is about £16.

The writer travelled with Ski Independence (0845 310 3030; www.ski-i.com), which offers one-week trips to Big Sky from £693 per person including return flights with United from Heathrow to Bozeman via Chicago and Denver, transfers and seven nights at Huntley Lodge, including breakfast.

STAYING THERE

Huntley Lodge, 1 Lone Mountain Trail, Big Sky, Montana (00 1 406 995 5000; www.bigskyresort.com). Doubles start at $114 (£63), including breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Yellowstone Club (00 1 406 995 4900; www.yellowstoneclub.com).

Big Sky, Montana (00 1 406 995 5000; www.bigskyresort.com).

Tourism for Montana: www.visitmt.com. For more information on the Rocky Mountains, see www.rmi-realamerica.com.

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