Your own private Montana

DEEP POCKETS CAN GET YOU DEEP POWDER AT THE EXCLUSIVE NEW YELLOWSTONE CLUB.

Allow yourself a few moments to indulge in a fantasy. A fantasy, mind you, that has nothing to do with Rebecca Romijn or Carmen Electra. This is a skiing fantasy. Imagine that you, and perhaps a few of your best ski buddies, are standing atop a cornice on a mountain in southern Montana, the stark beauty of Big Sky’s Lone Peak rising imposingly a few miles away. It’s a bluebird day, but there’s nobody else around, and there are no tracks in sight. After a moment’s hesitation, you launch off the cornice, landing in a big, soft pillow of fluff. Shaking the snow from your goggles, you ski a series of perfect S turns down the pitch in front of you. At the base of the chair, you catch your breath and wait for your friends. This scenario repeats itself over and over throughout the morning. With an expanse of terrain comparable to Vail’s, there’s little chance you’ll cross tracks with the 50 or so other skiers who are out exploring this day. It’s just you, your friends, and an inexhaustible supply of freshies.

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If you have $750,000 or so to spare for the initiation fee, this fantasy can become reality at Montana’s exclusive Yellowstone Club, a private ski area in the making. The Club, which will include residences and year-round activities, is being developed by former timber mogul Tim Blixseth on 13,000 acres adjacent to Big Sky Resort. The ski terrain on Pioneer Mountain is at the heart of approximately 4,000 acres slated for ski development. Last spring, about 12 miles of trails had been cut, mostly wide cruisers.

The real fun, though, is up on Pioneer’s mile-long ridge, which is streaked by a long line of tempting, though avalanche-prone, chutes. I spent one morning exploring the above-tree-line upper reaches with Dave Marriner, the developer who’s overseeing the Club’s construction; his wife, Nancy; and a few Club staffers. After an enthusiastic bout of cornice jumping, we switched to cutting up wide-open pitches of spring powder. Good fun!

Still, the siding itself is perhaps the least important part of the whole Yellowstone Club concept–the terrain’s no match for Big Sky’s Lone Peak, a few miles away. The Club’s main appeal is the solitude, the feeling of skiing in the backcountry without having to hike for your turns. The Club’s wilderness cabins add to that feeling. Seven of these log structures were already in place, each with a cozy living area with rock fireplace, sleeping loft, and kitchenette/bathroom area, all impeccably decorated by Blixseth’s wife, Edra. About 650 of these cabins will eventually dot the Club property to provide members with backcountry overnights in style and comfort.

Though the skiing and cabins create an out-of-bounds aura, the Club will offer all the trappings of a traditional ski resort and then some: a full on-mountain staff of ski instructors, guides, and patrollers; snowmaking; slopeside homes; and a faux old West town called Big Springs at the base area. Plus there are plans for an 18-hole golf course, equestrian center, fly-fishing village, tennis courts, and hiking and mountain-biking trails.

Sound interesting? Let’s return to what it takes to make this your reality. The $750,000 suck-in-your-breath initiation fee just gets you into the game. Then you buy into one of four housing options: 50 riverfront or lakefront log “fishing village” cabins; 300 ski-in/ski-out rooms in the base lodge; 650 on-mountain chalets in two neighborhoods; or 300 custom-home sites with an average of five to 10 acres. The custom-home option might entail laying out $1 million for the land and another $1.5 million to build a luxurious 7,000-square-foot house, for a grand total of $3.25 million. Plus annual dues of $15,000.

Expensive? Hardly. Consider that you could spend $5.2 million for a 7,000-square-foot house on two acres in Aspen. Even with the Club’s annual dues, you still come out ahead, especially if you’d prefer a private ski area–with seven lifts, several snowcats to whisk you into the surrounding backcountry, and the long list of summer facilities–to Aspen’s celebrity and glamour.

To be honest, though, Blixseth isn’t looking for bargain hunters to populate his club. The prototypical Yellowstone Club member is someone whose tastes run toward the discreetly luxurious–no flash, no glitz, no hunger to be seen. Blixseth envisions his club as a haven for those who want to escape the encroaching stresses and strains of late-20th-century life. There will even be a “director of privacy,” an ex-Secret Service agent who once guarded U.S. presidents. Guests can visit only if their member-hosts are also at the resort, and no corporate memberships will be available. If a member wants out, the membership must be sold back to the Club.

And so, despite the grand plans, Blixseth insists that the Club’s appeal lies in its lack of development. “It’s not going to be a resort,” he emphasizes. “It’ll be like a neighborhood with the amenities of a resort.” He originally intended to keep the land, with a smaller version of the ski area, exclusively for his family’s use. But, he says, “I discovered that there are a lot of people out there who want to be in a place that’s not overdeveloped”.

To help recruit such people, Blixseth has enlisted some high-profile help. The Club’s advisory board includes Warren Miller, former vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp, champion golfer Annika Sorenstam, NFL Hall-of-Famer John Mackay, and Richard Steadman of Vail’s Steadman Hawkins Clinic. Jon Reveal, former mountain manager at Aspen, consulted on the ski-area design.

With memberships going on sale this December, one essential question hovers over the newly cut runs, the carefully plotted-out home sites: Are there enough people willing and able to buy this level of service and privacy?

The answer depends on Blixseth’s success in communicating his vision. And if anyone is up for such a task, he’s the man. Overcoming obstacles–doing the unexpected–is his modus operandi. He grew up on welfare, got ahead through hard work, and eventually cofounded the Crown Pacific lumber company. He’s the kind of guy that, when told something can’t be done, only becomes more determined. Take the story of the rock, for instance. Told by a site engineer that a large rock face in the middle of a run on the mountain’s frontside was immovable, Blixseth proceeded to set someone to work bulldozing and blasting the “obstacle.” After an entire summer, the rock was gone–and so was the engineer.

If I had $750,000 burning a hole in my pocket, I’d bet it on the Yellowstone Club.

THE YELLOWSTONE CLUB

Getting there: 45 miles south of Bozeman, Montana, on U.S. 191 Top elevation: 9,856 feet Base elevation: 6,800 feet Vertical drop: 3,056 feet Skiable acres: 4,000 Lifts: 3 chairlifts, including 2 high-speed quads Initiation fee: $750,000, plus real estate Real-estate options: ski-in/ski-out chalets, private homes in fishing village, 5-10 acre ranch sites, nonresident membership in hotel Dues: $15,000/year What’s included in fees and dues: everything except meals and equipment rentals Available memberships: about 1,300 Information: 406-995-4919; 888-400-4919; www.theyellowstoneclub.com

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