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Whitefish Mountain Resort: an old favorite with a new name

Whitefish Mountain Resort: an old favorite with a new name

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WHITEFISH - A full 60 years ago, a handful of Whitefish locals strung a line of chairlifts not far from town, named it Big Mountain and started selling tickets.

Were those old-timers to return this year, with their woolies and 8-foot hickories, you have to wonder whether they would recognize their 1947 mountain, or even find their way to the lifts.

The 2007 changes begin long before you leave town, with signs pointing the way not to Big Mountain, but to Whitefish Mountain Resort. That's the new name up here, and it's stirred considerable controversy.

It's not necessarily that locals don't like the name; it's just they're not thrilled with the fact that no one asked them, that wealthy resort owners are buying up their town and tinkering with tradition, right down to the moniker.

The WMR signs, however, remain in place, despite a rash of vandalism aimed at the resort. (Much anger has been aimed specifically at Bill Foley, the millionaire who now owns more resort stock than anyone else. He now also owns several of the town's restaurants, with plans to expand. Not a few rigs around Whitefish sport "Ex-Foleyate the Fish" bumper stickers.)

If you follow those WMR signs and bumper stickers far enough, you'll come to Big Mountain Road, which kept its name, long known as a winding ribbon of slippery danger, where the best bet for traction was the potholes. But no more.

This year, skiers will drive a brand-new route from bottom to top, a real road with guardrails and shoulders on either side. It even has yellow stripes.

"Smooth, consistent, wide and honestly kind of fun," is how Donnie Clapp, the mountain's new media contact and paid optimist describes it.

Atop that fancy road are the same dysfunctional parking lots, designed as cul-de-sacs to test your winter driving skills in reverse, the same splash of real estate and commerce.

But once you're beyond all that, a shiny new high-speed quad chairlift strings together the resort village and the summit. Again, not everyone is thrilled with the bright silver chairs, which from town look like a glaring 2,100-foot zipper up the face of the forested mountain, but no one's complaining about the promise of a quick and comfy ride to the summit.

Despite the controversial new Whitefish Mountain Resort name, the multimillion-dollar lift has been christened the Big Mountain Express. Go figure.

The previous summit lift will be recycled, replacing treacherous old Chair 2, to which white-knuckled skiers have clung for many, many seasons. That upgrade, however, won't be ready for the Dec. 8 opening day (which this year, for the first time, was set back two week's after Thanksgiving, rather than the traditional turkey-day opener.)

Instead, Clapp said, the new Chair 2 will open "as soon as possible" after the resort's first day. So far, though, there's not much to worry about there, because as of Thanksgiving the lower half of the mountain - the section accessed by Chair 2 - remained completely free of snow.

When the lift does fire up, it will be part of $20 million (and that doesn't include the $10 million road) in total 60th-anniversary upgrades, including not just the new chairs but also a new day lodge, new restaurants and an expanded and, hopefully, improved terrain park.

They're tripling snowmaking in the park, Clapp said, in hopes of opening all features, the 450-foot superpipe included, by Christmas.

The $11 million day lodge - 35,000 square feet with ski rentals, ski school, kids' center, tickets, information and meeting rooms - was mostly finished last ski season, but this year comes fully online.

The anniversary year also comes with new prices: $56 a day for adults, $46 for seniors and teens, $30 for kids and youngsters up through six are free. Night skiing is just $15, and runs Fridays and Saturdays, mid-December through mid-March.

For information, visit skiwhitefish.com, or call (877) SKI-FISH.

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