Postcards: Ski Patrol
Fly in. Fly down the slopes. Fly home.
Flying and skiing enhance each other. How else but with an airplane can you fly to a mountain and get in a full day or weekend of skiing and not have to fight traffic on the way home? Moreover, the combination makes especially good sense if you want to try widely separated areas in a short space of time.
Pilot and former collegiate skier Burt Huntington, a self- described "entrepreneur, aeroplane driver with hangar flying a specialty," sees plenty of similarities between flying and skiing. "You're using just about the same skills, and the sensations are pretty similar. Skiing requires conditioning, coordination, alertness, and good judgment in real time, all excellent attributes in the cockpit," says the pilot of 30 years.
With this natural affinity, you'd hope that ski areas would take special measures to accommodate those who fly in with their own airplanes. After all, you want to be strapping on your boots, snapping on your K2s, and be on your way well within an hour of touching down.
Criteria for an ideal fly and ski situation would be relative proximity; efficient and inexpensive ground transportation between airport and ski slope; transient hangars or tiedowns; an instrument approach; an FBO with preheat, fuel, and repairs; and runways clear of snow but nearby mountains smothered in the stuff—snow, that is.
Two great skiing areas within easy flying distance of each other but that offer two very different skiing experiences—one low-key and one glittering—are Red Lodge, Montana, and Sun Valley, Idaho, respectively.
First, loading the ski stuff
Ski tubes, jerry-rigging, or renting equipment are three ways to handle the issue of getting all of that ski gear into your airplane, assuming it's not a C-130. Also, because skis, poles, boots, and clothing for one can weigh nearly 50 pounds, weight and balance skills will be refreshed.
Custom-made ski tubes that fit into the tailcone of some models can prevent interference with control cables.
Or with a Cessna 172, slide the skis in their padded bag through the baggage door on the diagonal, and secure them with 6-foot-long nylon luggage straps that are woven through the metal braces of the rear seat, around the ends and the bindings.
Or you can rent skis, poles, and boots for about $20 at the slopes.
Flying to and around Red Lodge, Montana
Sixty miles southwest of Billings and flanked to the west by the Beartooth mountain range, Red Lodge Airport (RED) is situated on one of two "benches" that overlook the town in the valley below. The snow-covered ski trails of Red Lodge Mountain itself, 6 miles to the west as the crow flies, can be seen from the ramp, or you can see the sliver of the runway from the 9,416-foot summit.
Although there is no instrument approach, an NDB will get you into the general area. The 4,000-foot, 5,763-foot-msl-elevation runway is pretty well maintained by the town and county, but there's no FBO. Fuel can be bought at $1.95 per gallon by calling a member of the Red Lodge Aviation Club at 406/446-1400 or 446-2369; any repairs will have to be done at Livingston or Billings.
Local pilots generally land uphill on Runway 16 and take off downhill on 34 because of runway slope and density altitude, according to pilot/skier Huntington, the entrepreneur part of whom helps publish the Carbon County News daily.
Red Lodge Airport isn't just for the benefit of airplanes. Skijoring is another form of winter amusement that is also done on the airport property. Developed in Scandinavia, the sport involves being towed on skis behind a horse that's galloping through an obstacle course. It sounds like yet another way to get killed. The national finals are being held in Red Lodge this month.
Tim Prather, president and general manager of Red Lodge Mountain, has flown the area for a number of years, and he says Red Lodge understands pilots' needs and will assist them in the transition from landing to skiing by whisking them the 7 miles of switchback roads to the mountain in about 15 minutes. On the approach, call unicom (122.9), and a van will pick you up. Red Lodge will also arrange local car rentals, lodging, or help with any other travel needs.
The state's second highest above-sea-level summit, with a 2,016-foot vertical drop, Red Lodge Mountain is run like a tight ship, with convenient, neat, and clean restaurants and cafeterias, friendly lift personnel, an accommodating full-service ski rental and repair shop, and nice touches like fresh Montana water at the summit and midway lodges.
It's an excellent family ski area unless the entire family happens to be into double-diamond machismo. Sixty percent of the 35 trails are intermediate, 15 percent are beginner, and 25 percent are advanced. The 2.5-mile Lazy M is Montana's longest trail. Twenty-five miles of skiing and open meadows get about 250 inches of snowfall a year, and 40 percent of the mountain has snow-making. "Some of our best snow is in the spring. Last year, in April alone we had 10 feet in three days and 21 days of snowfall," recalls Prather.
A major expansion plan intends to double the ski runs and lift capacity within the next five years.
A funky kind of town
Primarily from throughout Montana, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and Canada, Red Lodge skiers come back year after year.
That's likely because Red Lodge itself (population 2,500) is a funky and friendly place in the best sense. You go to Natali's Cafe on the main street (Broadway), and the fellow at the end of the counter, Carl Lauritzen, Sr., recommends the fettucine for dinner, and it turns out to be terrific, and then he also recommends Black Dog, the regional micro- brewery beer, and that's pretty good too, and then he invites you across the street to his Snow Creek Saloon to listen to the live bluegrass band, breathe in secondary cigarette smoke, and hoist a few with the local skiers and characters, including Rob Weam. Forming Team Weam, he and his brother, Tim, operate the Crazy Mountain Sports ski shop and author a whimsical newspaper column on skiing and many unrelated topics.
Inches of base, how good the skiing was that day, and when the next storm will arrive dominate conversations. Truly the various restaurants, lodging, entertainment spots, and resorts form the "base camp" for the mountain, so intertwined are they.
Formerly the home of the Crow Indians, whose tents were painted red with clay in the soil, Red Lodge was subsequently settled by Europeans, English, Irish, Scandinavians, and Yugoslavians and celebrates its international heritage each August with a week-long Festival of Nations.
Much to the dismay of some, Montana is "hot" among those in the cafe (and Nescafe) society. Ted Turner and Jane Fonda have found the way. Tom Brokaw and Mel Gibson own properties in the Red Lodge area, and Jeff Bridges, Meg Ryan, and Dennis Quaid have real estate in nearby Livingston. More celebrities are to come, no doubt.
Sun Valley, Idaho
Whereas Red Lodge is relatively undiscovered, Sun Valley, Idaho, 240 nautical miles southwest, is on the short list of slopes to be seen and be seen on. Set in the Sawtooth Mountains—also known as the American Alps—Sun Valley is served by Friedman Memorial Airport (SUN) in Hailey, approximately 14 miles south from the skiing of Bald Mountain, or "Baldy." The area is called "historic" because it was founded 60 years ago as the first destination ski mountain in the United States, by W. Averell Harriman, former ambassador to the Soviet Union but then-president of the Union Pacific railroad.
Venerable though it may be, 3,400-foot-vertical-drop Bald Mountain has kept up with high tech, boasting the world's largest computer- controlled snow-making system that covers 60 percent of the mountain and assures fresh powder every morning; 16 lifts with a carrying capacity of 26,380 skiers per hour (would you really want that many people?); and the new Lookout Xpress quad lift that goes from 6,320 feet msl to the 9,036- foot peak of Baldy at 1,000 feet per minute. Pilots should feel right at home with numbers like that.
"Easy breathing for all ages" is promised because of the relatively low base elevation; the mix of trails is 38 percent easy (mostly on Dollar Mountain), 45 percent intermediate, and 17 percent advanced, the latter two mostly on Bald Mountain. The longest run is 3 miles.
On your way to skiing in 15 minutes
Friedman Memorial (field elevation 5,315 feet, Runway 13-31, 6,602 feet) serves equally well the glitterati who arrive in Gulfstream IVs or the regular folks who fly themselves in 172s. Nighttime operations and especially night NDB/DME approaches are not recommended for people unfamiliar with the area because the runway lies in the valley surrounded by mountains on three sides. There have been accidents. The tower controllers will likely have you land on 31 and take off on 13, toward the open valley. Noise abatement procedures exist.
Sun Valley Aviation, a full-maintenance FBO that will set you up with car rentals, lodging, or taxis (sort of like a concierge), promises to get you on your way to the mountain 15 minutes after your wheels touch down, according to General Manager Ken McCune. Or if you're staying there, Sun Valley Resorts will pick you up in its van. McCune estimates that 85 percent of the ski traffic comes in by air, both airlines and general aviation, and that his facility handles some 560 operations on top days. Fuel is $2.30 per gallon, but if it happens to be on the way, Burley, some 80 miles to the south, sells avgas for $1.75 per gallon.
Wings around the Devil's Bedstead
There's great mountain terrain to see from an airplane, as Galen Hanselman showed one afternoon with his Cessna 182. Flying in and out of the valleys, among the breathtaking peaks of the Pioneer Mountains—12,078- foot Hydman, 11,700-foot Stand Hope, and 11,100-foot Devil's Bedstead—he clearly is in his element. The desolation of the Craters of the Moon to the southeast, the river and farmlands of the high desert attest to the varied topography in this part of the country.
Ever the sportsman and fisherman (and businessman the rest of the time), Hanselman makes a mental note of the many geese still on the river. As he calls Friedman's tower for the "graveyard approach" to 13, he assures it's so called only because it literally passes over a cemetery.
Hanselman terms the NDB/DME circling approach "pretty useless" when the weather goes down because the minimum descent altitude is 8,000 feet (2,685 feet agl). That's why Horizon Air, the regularly scheduled airline service, installed its private microwave landing system, which allows its Metroliners and Dash 8s to come in when others can't. Even then, Twin Falls, Idaho, 81 miles to the south, is a regular alternate when the weather really goes down. This might change because FAA Administrator David R. Hinson, code-named Safeair 1, has a winter retreat at Sun Valley. Maybe Friedman will get an ILS soon.
With a tower (open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.) but no radar, Friedman is the second busiest airport in Idaho, averaging 70,000 operations per year and as many as 10,000 operations in July and August. There are squirrelly winds and, departing north in the summer, density altitude considerations. Paragliders taking off from "Baldy" can interfere with the northerly approaches, as we witnessed a Dash 8 having to veer out of the way when a paragliding skier got extra altitude from an updraft.
The 1990s place to be seen
While Montana's Red Lodge is more for regular folks and regional in scope, Sun Valley draws people from all over the United States and Europe. It's the home of international bon vivants, literati and glitterati, both real and self-appointed. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Richard Dreyfus, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Clint Eastwood (you get the idea) have homes there, and then you never know whether your ski-lift seat mate with the British accent might not be someone with cache or at least a trust fund. One part-time resident built a $10-million home with only one bedroom because he didn't want his relatives descending on him.
Celebrity is a Sun Valley tradition. The lodge's wall of photographs show that Mary Pickford, Ginger Rogers, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Harry S. Truman have skied there in one fashion or another. And then there is the room where Ketchum deity Ernest Hemingway worked on For Whom the Bell Tolls. He's buried in nearby Ketchum cemetery, and the Hemingway Memorial, a bronze bust, is near the lodge.
You too can do this in one day
Skiing at Sun Valley is really quite spectacular in terms of scenery, the variety of ski runs, and facilities.
Because of the services and relatively short distances involved, a realistic one-day scenario for the active could consist of landing at Friedman at 8 a.m., shuttling up to the Sun Valley Lodge for check-in and ski rentals, and taking the free shuttle to Baldy for downhill skiing until 1 o'clock. Following a quick lunch comes a short walk to the Nordic ski center for a lesson with Hans Muehlegger, the Austrian director who will show you how wrong you have been about cross-country skiing all these years.
The skating technique (compared to the classic sliding) that Muehlegger will have you doing (sort of) in about 10 minutes, has grace, efficiency, and speed. It's a terrific workout over the 40 kilometers (25 miles) of varied trails, especially nice in the late afternoon when the setting sun casts the alpenglow, gold plating on the surrounding mountains.
After the Nordic adventure, you're off to the skate center to step into those rented CCM skates and take a couple of laps around the outdoor rink that's the centerpiece of Sun Valley Lodge. By now, it's time to relax those muscles, so get your bathing suit and soak in the 100-degree water of the circular outdoor pool, Sun Valley's trademark.
Following a change to casual clothes and a recharging cup of coffee in Gretchen's Restaurant (or maybe a quick nap in your room with its own gas-fired fireplace), it's off for dinner in the famous Sun Valley Lodge Dining Room, Claude Guigon presiding, to order terrine de saumon fume, carre d'Agneau bouquetiere, and flaming bananas foster, all for less than $70. The dining room also has a bounteous Sunday brunch that shouldn't be missed.
An alternative is the Pioneer Saloon in downtown Ketchum, less than a mile from Sun Valley or 10 minutes by complimentary bus. At the Pioneer, you'll run into some fellow skiers and order the trout—not just your ordinary farm variety but special "free range" trout that are allowed to swim as they fatten to give them some spunk, claims manager Jim, who thinks he has spotted a flatlander. They are good, though. Top off the evening with entertainment at Whiskey Jacques, where Bruce Willis has been known to play his harmonica and sing(?).
A nightcap can be had in the lodge's Duchin Room, nicknamed "The Wrinkle Room" by local humorists because of the age of some of the frequenters. Or if that's not your inclination, you can always watch the umpteenth showing of the 1941 film that made the resort famous, Sun Valley Serenade, starring Sonja Henie, shown every night at no charge in the Sun Valley Opera House.