In Pursuit of Powder

first_img Email OLNEY — Sitting inside the cab of his all terrain “snowcat,” Jay Sandelin stared into a gallery of backcountry forest painted white with snow. “It’s mesmerizing up here, isn’t it?” he said. “That’s what’s cool about bringing people up here, you can share this.” When Sandelin looks out across the expansive mountain range west of Whitefish, he sees abundant backcountry skiing opportunities, and he wants to share those with anyone who’s interested. With a fleet of three snowcat machines and a crew that includes family and longtime friends, Sandelin runs Great Northern Powder Guides. Based near Olney, the relatively new company offers daily and overnight skiing trips in the Stillwater State Forest, the oldest and largest state forest in Montana. Sandelin has mapped out over 17 square miles of terrain that gathers tons of snow and is well suited for skiing and snowboarding thanks to decades of timber harvest. Throughout a typical day, clients are shuttled around in one of Sandelin’s customized snowcats and dropped off at the top of one of the “runs,” some of which have already earned names, like “Tyler’s Knob” and “El Dorado.” Sandelin said the runs average between 800 and 1,000 vertical feet. By the end of the day most clients have totaled roughly 10,000 feet of skiing, which is “about right or else people end up too tired,” he said. Sandelin has owned and operated Sanaris Enterprises in Whitefish since 1988. He branched out and started Great Northern Powder Guides last winter. He bought the land-use permit from another catskiing operation, Valhalla Adventures, and worked with state officials and biologists about meeting guidelines for operating on public land. The business undertaking was risky considering the economic climate and the high costs of purchasing new equipment and facilities. But opening a catskiing company seemed like a natural next step for Sandelin. Skiing, as he says, is in his blood and working with heavy equipment like snowcats is his forte. Sandelin grew up on skis in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and went on to become a successful gelande ski jumper and speed skier. He set the world record at the time with a gelande jump of 320 feet, he said. He went on to become one of the fastest speed skiers in the world, at one time achieving 142 miles per hour. After years of touring Europe as a professional, Sandelin settled near Whitefish almost 30 years ago to start a family with his wife, Kylanne. He stayed on skis, working as a patrolman at Big Mountain before opening Sanaris, an excavation and demolition company. His interest in skiing lasted and ended up expanding thanks to his construction business. The workload declines during the winter months and Sandelin wanted a way to enjoy the snow. He explored a helicopter skiing operation, but it didn’t work out. Then he remembered as a kid watching Warren Miller films and seeing catskiing. The thought grew into an idea, which grew into a plan. Today, it’s become a full-time business. “Waking up in the winter, I’m excited about the snow again,” he said. “For a long time, working construction, I wasn’t. I saw a good opportunity. This complements what we do (at Sanaris). Plus I need work for my guys (during the winter).” Last winter, about 300 clients went out with Great Northern Powder Guides. Most of the clients came from out of state, with a bulk of the business traveling from Canada. This winter, Sandelin said roughly 300 people have already booked trips, but the lack of snow is pushing back his start date and causing a change in plans. Sandelin’s state permit allows him to operate between December and April, and he hopes to be out skiing in the next few weeks. Clients start the day by going over avalanche and beacon training and then are shuttled up the mountain. Within 35 minutes, everyone is geared up and finding a fresh powder line. Every trip features both a lead and tail guide who ski with clients, all of whom wear avalanche beacons. The guides all have at least five years of backcountry skiing experience and are first aid certified and avalanche trained, Sandelin said. A new snowcat was purchased this year to act as backup support while the two other machines crawling around the mountains. Sandelin also said the new cat would be used for small groups looking for powder lessons. A new yurt was recently built on an old logging road overlooking the Whitefish Range for lunch breaks and overnight lodging. Sandelin already has his eye on a few new slices of mountain that look like prime skiing country. It’s all part of his goal of creating “a first-class operation.” But he also wants this to be a lasting operation, not just for himself but for his two sons, Tarn and Dayne, who both work for the company along with their mom. “I hope this is something my sons will carry on,” he said. Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.last_img

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