Blacktail Mountain, Montana Joins Indy Pass
Discount ski pass now delivers two days each at 81 ski areas
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Indy Pass today added Blacktail Mountain, Montana to its ever-growing roster. Passholders will get two days at Blacktail and 80 other ski areas during the 2021-22 season. Blackout dates will be Dec. 25 to Jan. 3, Jan. 15 to 17, and Feb. 19 to 21. There are no blackout dates for Indy+ passholders.
Blacktail, which joins Lost Trail and Red Lodge as Indy’s third partner mountain in Montana, boosts the pass’ already strong position in the Pacific Northwest and Upper Rockies, giving it 17 ski areas spread across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
Long-time Indy Pass partner Mission Ridge purchased Blacktail just last month, and so this is perhaps the least-surprising Indy Pass addition in the coalition’s short history. Still, it’s worth examining what this partnership means for the pass, its passholders, and skiing in general.
What is Blacktail?
Let’s start with what I wrote about Blacktail less than a month ago, after Mission Ridge announced its purchase of the ski area:
It opened, improbably, in 1998, two peaks in the wilderness an hour and a half south of Whitefish. It was the first new ski area permit issued on federal land since Beaver Creek in the 1970s, and it’s the only one since. It’s small, obscure, remote, gorgeous. And humble: three used fixed-grip lifts climb its modest inclines. The closest town is Lakeside, population 2,669. The trailmap is understated and beautiful.
That’s Blacktail. A 1,440-foot vertical drop, 250 inches of annual snowfall, top elevation 6,780 feet, north-facing slopes. There is no snowmaking. No onsite lodging. It’s one of the few fully upside-down ski areas in the West.
That map, by the way, really is terrific*:
I’ve since learned, from skiers who have actually driven it, that there’s a reason there aren’t many mountaintop access roads like Blacktail’s in the West: it’s a major pain in the ass. The reason for this circuitous route is, allegedly, that one condition of the Forest Service Permit was to use the existing U.S. military road, which accessed a mountaintop radar station, to get to the ski area, rather than hacking a new route through the wilderness (though I was not able to confirm this).
Regardless – the skiing. It looks… pleasant. Blacktail seems to be in the mold of Western Indy Pass partners Soldier Mountain, Antelope Butte, and White Pine: modest in size, trimmed with blacks but oriented toward blues, snowy enough. To rehash what has become a Storm cliché: if this were in the East, it might be a major ski resort. But it’s not. It’s an hour and change south of Whitefish, one of the biggest and best ski areas in the country. Blacktail is a nice little mid-sized ski area in a state dotted with enormous ski areas. There are shorter straws to draw in skiing, especially for skiers, who can let the crowds fight it out at the bigger spots while they’re cruising Blacktail blues.
*While I join just about everyone else in the ski world in a deep admiration for trailmap legend James Niehues, his prolific output had the unfortunate side-effect of making the geographic diversity of lift-served skiing feel redundant. I hope that, now that Niehues has stepped back, we’ll see an era of greater experimentation and imagination in trailmap design.
Blacktail compounds Indy’s enormous strength in an overlooked ski region
For all its sprawling, snowy endlessness, the 67 ski areas in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming mostly get overlooked for the airport-friendly resort clusters around Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe, and Colorado’s I-70 corridor. A few monsters - Sun Valley, Jackson Hole, Big Sky - are the exceptions that prove the rule - even massive Crystal Mountain was something of a regional secret until the Ikon Pass blew its cover.
Indy Pass is changing this. It has quickly become the most interesting pass option in the region. Set aside, for a moment, number of available days, size of mountains, or proximity to population centers: a scan of this ski-area map makes one thing clear: Indy Pass gives rambling skiers more choices, more novelty, and more of the joy of discovery in the Pacific Northwest and Upper Rockies than the Epic or Ikon Passes.
Here are the raw numbers:
Indy: 17 ski areas (2 days at each)
Washington: Hurricane Ridge, White Pass, Mission Ridge, 49 Degrees North
Oregon: Hoodoo, Mount Ashland
Idaho: Silver Mountain, Brundage, Tamarack, Soldier Mountain, Pomerelle
Montana: Blacktail, Lost Trail Powder Mountain, Red Lodge
Wyoming: Antelope Butte, White Pine, Snow King
Ikon: 6 ski areas
Washington: Crystal Mountain (unlimited), Summit at Snoqualmie (5 or 7 days)
Oregon: Mt. Bachelor (5 or 7 days)
Idaho: Schweitzer (5 or 7 days)
Montana: Big Sky (5 or 7 days)
Wyoming: Jackson Hole (5 or 7 days)
Epic: 2 ski areas
Washington: Stevens Pass (unlimited)
Idaho: Sun Valley (2 or 7 days)
OK, asterisk time: Yes, any discussion of Vail’s offerings in the Pacific Northwest must acknowledge that the Interstate 5 corridor shoots straight north to Whistler, the biggest and baddest ski area on the continent. And yes, any discussion of Ikon must include jaw re-attachment surgery when processing the fact that Jackson Hole and Big Sky – two of the best mountains in all of U.S. America – are joined on a single pass product.
However. Indy has a different story to tell. There is a reason you don’t see “Indy Pass losers go home” bumper stickers in the Albertsons parking lot of Coeur d’Alene: these ski areas need more skiers. Big Sky and Jackson Hole, where “Ikon’t Wait for You to Leave” swag proliferates, don’t. What that means for you is a less frantic ski experience, even as your Instagram cred suffers from lack of name recognition among your cadre of sophisticate followers.
Or whatever. I don’t know what to tell you. There are a lot of ways to approach recreational skiing. One version is to spend your vacation at the biggest, baddest, most-established makes-every-top-10 list ski area you can reasonably afford to go to. And you’ll have a good week. I’ve done this plenty, and I like it. There is something about dropping anchor for a week in Aspen or the Wasatch that is spectacularly satisfying. But Indy Pass lets you tell another story, a sort of van-life escapism even for the typically desk-bound among us: drop in and ramble for a week or 10 days or two weeks. Hundreds of ski areas have closed in the United States. These ones haven’t, and even if you’ve never heard of them, there are reasons they persist. Indy Pass grants you a ticket to exploration that is unmatched in American skiing, and for a price you could scrape together with a few hours of diligent panhandling. Seize this.
But what about the Powder Alliance?
When Mission Ridge acquired Blacktail, it seemed logical that the owners would consider adding their new ski area not only to Indy Pass, but to the 16-mountain Powder Alliance. This reciprocal coalition grants season passholders at any of its resorts three days each at the others. The Powder Alliance is not as straightforward as some pass coalitions, and there are an incredible number of blackout dates.
Still, the ski areas are relatively concentrated along the West Coast, and this is a nice passholder perk. When long-time member Mountain High purchased Dodge Ridge in August, they quickly added their new ski area to Powder Alliance, signaling that the group was open to new members. And Indy Pass membership doesn’t preclude Powder Alliance membership. Seven ski areas – Eaglecrest, Mission Ridge, White Pass, China Peak, Silver Mountain, Castle Mountain, and Marmot Basin – are members of both.
So, will Blacktail be joining the Powder Alliance? Not yet. “Blacktail Mountain is not pursuing any other partnership or reciprocal opportunities at this time,” Mission Ridge Marketing Director Tony Hickok wrote via email last night.
I wouldn’t read too much into that. It’s impressive that the owners organized an Indy Pass partnership so quickly. There was likely an urgency to that, as Indy Pass visits actually generate a check – Powder Alliance visits do not. Blacktail may join Powder Alliance at some point. What is safe to conclude here is that a longtime Indy Pass partner immediately adding their new mountain to the pass means that they are happy with the arrangement.
The forever-on-sale pass
There’s an improvisational feel to the Indy Pass that makes the product enormously appealing. They constantly add new partners. The pass never goes off sale. It’s so cheap (currently $329; $229 if you’re a passholder at any of its partner mountains), that it’s almost impossible not to pick one up even if you have an Epic or Ikon Pass.
Founder Doug Fish has often described the pass as a marketing tool for resorts, a nudge to try a place you may have otherwise overlooked in favor of Mount Sizemore. As a skier, there probably isn’t a better habit to develop than trying new ski areas. After all, maybe your dreams are locked on Big Sky, but then you figure out that Indy Pass partner Red Lodge, just a few hours away, has 2,400 feet of vert on 1,600 acres. Do your five Big Sky days and then skip over for a couple days of off-the-grid skiing. If you can only afford one multi-mountain pass this year, Indy is it. But if you can afford two, Indy is also it.