FROM THE southern slopes of Montana's Big Sky Resort you can plainly see that the snow is fluffier on the other side of the fence. At the base of one of Big Sky's runs stands the gateway to one of the world's most exclusive ski playgrounds, Yellowstone Club, where a pair of guards are posted to keep ski bums off the property. "Thank God that we have private powder," says Yellowstone Club owner Tim Blixseth.
Fed up with crowds and a lack of fresh powder on public slopes, Blixseth, 54, built a private ski club in the town of Big Sky and invited other millionaires to buy in. "I used to [ski] in North Lake Tahoe, [but it] was getting so populated," Blixseth says. "There were long lines, rude people and out-of-control snowboarders."
A timber tycoon who lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Blixseth left Lake Tahoe in the early 1990s and headed to Montana, where he owned property. In two deals in '93 and '98 he swapped about 100,000 acres in the Gallatin Range with the federal government for 16,000 acres in western Montana (and at least $3.4 million). He then built nine lifts and 50 trails on 9,860-foot Pioneer Peak.
The club, which also boasts a Tom Weiskopf golf course, opened in 2000. More than 200 members, including Dan Quayle, Warren Miller, Annika Sorenstam and Greg LeMond, have ponied up the $250,000 deposit, $16,000 in annual dues and somewhere between $1 million and $8 million for a multiacre lot.
While the club's brochure promises "13,400 acres of pristine Montana wilderness," conservationists say the resort has been negligent with the land; in December the club agreed to pay $1.8 million to the EPA for dumping fill dirt without a permit into the Gallatin wetlands. That hasn't dampened Blixseth's enthusiasm. "I've skied a fair part of my life at public [slopes]," he says. "It's something I can never do again." -- Yi-Wyn Yen