Marshall Mountain, Montana Close to Rebirth as Liftless Backcountry Ski Center
Could Marshall serve as a model for reviving lost ski areas elsewhere?
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“We almost lost it” - the rebirth of Marshall Mountain
Montana is the fourth-largest U.S. state, bigger (147,039 square miles) than all six New England states (71,988), New York (54,545), and New Jersey (8,722) combined (135,255). And yet, the state ranks 44th in population, with just over 1.1 million residents flung across its vastness. Perspective: New England, New York, and New Jersey are home to a combined population of more than 44 million.
So, despite an abundance of mountains and snow and a pair of interstates drilled across it, Montana is home to relatively few ski areas. Eighteen, by my count, only 16 of which are open to the general public:
Again, for comparison’s sake, New England (100), New York (50), and New Jersey (4), house a combined 154 ski areas. Having people available to ski at your ski area is, it turns out, even more important than having great natural attributes upon which to build a ski area.
So not everyone made it. Marshall Mountain, seated on the outskirts of Missoula, the second-largest city in Montana, once ran a triple chair and a T-bar up 1,500 vertical feet:
Despite having night skiing and family-friendly terrain, the place went bust around 2003, overshadowed by bigger, rowdier Montana Snowbowl, just a few miles away. As the population of Missoula has expanded from around 60,000 in 2003 to approximately 75,000 today, and as Snowbowl has added new terrain and chairlifts, Marshall has sat idle. The lifts still stand. The base buildings are intact. The mountain is popular among mountain bikers and backcountry skiers. But it is no longer a functioning ski area.
People talked. Everyone wanted Marshall back. Generations had learned to ski there, had taught their kids to ski there. A decade or so ago, a local group attempted but failed to buy the place. Then, two years ago, the ski area almost disappeared for good.
“It sold finally and it sold to a private citizen who was gonna make it their house and close the gate,” said Jeff Crouch, co-chair of a group called Friends of Marshall Mountain and a local architect who moved to Missoula from the Midwest in 1993, after graduating college. “We almost lost it.”
They didn’t lose it. And now, with help from a coalition of skiers, landowners, and town and county officials, Crouch thinks the friends group has a plan to permanently protect access to Marshall Mountain. Not as a traditional lift-served ski area, but as more of a town or county park with a base-area carpet lift and the old trail network skin-able above. A western version of Ascutney, the Vermont ski area that once ran chairlifts 1,700 vertical feet to the summit but now spins a couple lower-mountain surface lifts.
If the Friends of Marshall Mountain (FOMM) succeed, they could further establish a blueprint for rescuing lost ski areas that may not be viable as traditional businesses. Marshall could also serve as a lift-served/backcountry hybrid that could perhaps provide a more viable commercial alternative to the recently failed Bluebird Backcountry uphill ski area. Here’s their plan, and here’s what it will take to make it happen:
Below the paid subscriber jump: a detailed plan for Marshall; could this be the next Bluebird Backcountry?; inspiration from Vermont; a new expansion out West; and much more.