DEFINED BY A SERIES OF PUCKER-WORTHY COULOIRS that spill off a knife-edge ridge on the north face of Lone Mountain, Headwaters at Big Sky is a true test piece—one of the steepest lift-served zones you’ll find in North America. Getting to the runs requires a tricky 30-minute bootpack, and the talus-lined chutes below are filled with mandatory airs and no-fall zones. “Due to the sheer exposure and technicality of that zone, route finding is really important,” says Erik Morrison, a Big Sky athlete-ambassador. “It’s high consequence terrain.”
Although Headwaters is inbounds, the terrain follows avalanche paths, so skiing with a beacon and a partner is strongly encouraged—there’s a beacon check at the top of the Headwaters lift. The terrain is spicy enough that Big Sky created a new triple black diamond designation for it in 2019.
“I feel like I left part of my soul—and part of my cheek—up there,” says Emily Stifler Wolfe, a former patroller at Moonlight Basin, terrain that merged with Big Sky Resort in 2013. “The wind is so persistent on the ridge, everybody would have a purple stripe on the right side of their face.”
When the Challenger lift opened in 1988, skiers started signing out with ski patrol at the top and humping out the ridge. Here’s a peek at some of that historical color.
“One of the patrollers saw the name ‘Nashville Basin’ on an old USGS topo map,” says Randy Spence, former ski patrol director at Moonlight Basin. Then patroller Deb Plasman noticed that the chutes spell out “Elvis” when the snow fills in just so. Maybe. “I told her, ‘I guess if you’ve got a really vivid imagination,’” says Spence. Today’s routes Jack Creek, Rock Creek, Whitewater, Whitetail, and The Elbow were known, respectively, as E Chute, L Chute, V Chute, I Chute, and S Chute. Headwaters Bowl was the Nashville Bowl. Riffing on the Elvis theme, the chutes to the east were named Half, First, Second, and Third Graceland. Collectively, the Gracelands.
When Moonlight Basin opened in 2003, Elvis was jettisoned. Instead, the newly minted Headwaters area was inspired by Montana waters, says Dr. Jeffrey Strickler, author of The Skier’s Guide to the Biggest Skiing in America. The series of chutes formerly named the Gracelands start with Alder Gulch, named for the creek site of Montana’s 1863 gold strike. Cold Spring was named for the natural cold spring at the base of the chute. The 40-degree chute Firehole gets its name from a geyser-lined river in Yellowstone National Park. And Hellroaring Creek is named for an eponymous waterway about 25 miles north of Big Sky off Highway 191.
Greatest of All Time?
On Moonlight’s 2007 map, a run called Dead Goat appeared. “Back when I was at Big Sky, we saw a really big avalanche over in that area, and there were a set of goat tracks going into it—but no tracks coming out,” says Spence. In 2015, Dead Goat dropped off the map and a route called DTM (Don’t Tell Mama) appeared. But many locals still call it Dead Goat.
Hell’s Half Acre is named for a wind-eroded, pinnaclefilled geological formation in eastern Wyoming where Native Americans drove bison off ravines during hunts. Which makes some sense. “Hell’s Half is probably one of the spiciest of them all,” says snowboarder Erik Morrison. “If you take it fall line from the first buttress, it’s basically three mandatory airs to clean the line.”
According to Strickler, Three Forks, a trident-shaped trio of narrow 40-degree couloirs, is a double allusion to the town and rivers of the Missouri Headwaters. “What I really like is when the wind hits just right and the fingers at the top start filling in,” says Stifler Wolfe. “You hike down the talus to get in, and maybe the snow wasn’t there last week, but now it is. It’s like you found a little window in your backyard that you never knew existed.”
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