HELENA – John and Ann Torske have been cross-country skiing together at the MacDonald Pass Ski Trails for more than ten years. Ann Torske grew up in the Helena area, and has skied there even longer.

“It’s a real treasure that the Helena community has,” said John Torske.

The Torskes were on the trails again Monday morning, as temperatures hovered close to zero.

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“It was great,” John Torske said. “It was a cold day, but it was beautiful and clear and sunny. We were the first ones out; there was fresh snow.”

On Presidents Day last year, they say the trailhead parking lot was almost full. This year, they were the only skiers there in the morning.

“Our guess is the cold is why there’s not many people, but they’re missing out: It’s a wonderful day,” said John Torske.

The Last Chance Nordic Ski Club grooms and maintains more than eight miles of cross-country trails at MacDonald Pass. Club vice president Bruce Newell said the pass has received plenty of snow this year, and the snowpack is strong. But he said, when temperatures get close to zero, it becomes harder for cross-country skis to glide over the snow.

“What makes the biggest difference is when we get above 15 or 20 degrees and under freezing and get some blue sky,” said Newell. “Then the trails are busy.”

When there is enough snow, the club also grooms several miles of trails at the Bill Roberts Golf Course in Helena. Newell said some people who would normally ski at the pass may be going to the golf course instead, since conditions there have been very good.

“Lots of people ski the golf course before work or during lunch or after work,” he said. “When the golf course is on, that takes a lot of people away from clicking the counter up on the pass.”

The club has installed an automated counter at the MacDonald Pass trailhead. They estimate there are about 4,500 skier visits there each winter. Newell said they have no easy way yet to count the number of skiers at the golf course, since they can approach the trails from a variety of directions.

Regardless of where skiers go, Newell said he’s hopeful that they’re taking advantage of this year’s snow to get on the trails.

“It really is a nice way of enjoying the winter and not letting winter kind of keep you locked indoors,” he said.

While the Last Chance Nordic Ski Club is responsible for grooming the MacDonald Pass trails, they are open to anyone. You can find more information about the trails on the club’s website.