John Lehrman has been operating the Downing Mountain Lodge for seven winters and bought the lodge in 2012. John, along with his wife and best friend, Jenny Callahan, has been skiing the Bitterroots’ and beyond for 25 years, together they bring a wealth of local knowledge to their roles as hosts and guides. John has been exploring Western Montana since he moved to Missoula as a University of Montana student to gain a Wilderness Studies degree and a Wildlife Biology degree. He spent 20 seasons working as a canoe tripping guide and manager for Keewaydin Camps in Northern Canada. In 2008-2009, John and Jenny began operating the Downing Mountain Lodge in the winter while still working in Canada. In 2012, Downing Mountain Lodge became their year round focus. They are active in the local community and are pursuing adding as many excursions as possible to their list of experiential adventures based from the lodge 2,000 feet above the Bitterroot Valley.
How do the experiences you offer at Downing Mountain Lodge give guests a unique perspective on history, geography or culture of your region?
We offer numerous experiences at Downing Mountain lodge that enhance guests perspective on history, geography and recreational culture. First of all from our lodge the view is unparalleled of the Bitterroot Valley, Sapphire Mountains, and as far north as the Rattlesnake Wilderness and Mission Mountains. Getting a sense for the geography of the Bitterroots and how the river winds through the Valley and the nature and juxtaposition of forest with prairie is laid out right below. This is the valley that Lewis and Clark traveled through on their route to the Pacific, its the valley that the Nez Perce traversed while fleeing their homeland in Idaho and attempting to make it to Canada. Its the first valley to be settled by white people in Montana and its a land where the Pacific Northwest influence wanes and meets the drier and colder climate of the Rocky Mountains.
Our primary experience other than at the lodge is with offering guided backcountry ski trips into the Bitterroot Mountains where we interact with guests to ensure that not only do they have a great ski experience but they understand the wildlife and winter ecology of this vast Wilderness area. Whether its identifying wolf or wolverine tracks or finding a moose kill, we live in a wild area with all original wildlife species intact other than a reproducing population of Grizzly Bears.
In the summer we specialize in river trips where we take guests on the river and let them discover the beauty of the Bitterroot Valley and its extensive riparian zone. We also consult with our guests on great mountain hikes, historical tours, mountain biking adventures, fly fishing destinations, farmer’s market trips, brewery tours, and rock climbing adventures. Guests who arrive at Downing Mountain Lodge are able to tap into a locals knowledge and gain an appreciation and ability to experience our area based on my 20 years of exploring locally.
How have the experiences that you offer evolved since their inception?
We have made many improvements to the lodge including hot tubs, sauna, and guide service for the summer as well as the winter.
What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?
Guests might not notice that the Bitterroot Range is at the crossroads of ecology where species of the Pacific Northwest give way to a Rocky Mountain habitat. This is a unique area in that regard and allows for different flavors in the countryside depending on where you are within a forty mile radius of Hamilton Montana. Unique areas with such vastly different ecologies are amazingly diverse and beautiful and make certain places special. The Bitterroots is one of those unique places.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider booking a trip to Downing Mountain Lodge?
That their experience based out of the Lodge would be truly a world class experience and destination in the mountains and valley of the Bitterroots, and that they can rely on me to give them excellent advice on how to gain the most from their trip to the Bitterroots.
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
The search for authenticity in travel, the search for connection with people and places, and the growth in backcountry skiing and guiding.
What sets Downing Mountain Lodge apart from other, similar, backcountry lodges?
We have such easy access in winter and summer to a very private location and have unique private access to some of the best backcountry ski slopes around. We have no competition from the public due to our private access and we don’t have to compete with snowmobiles or helicopters for our backcountry ski terrain.
What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
Ask locals questions so that you might best enjoy your experiential travel vacation. Visit with them in their shops and brew pubs and on the trails and ask them for advice.
What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow? Please explain how.
Taking advantage of a unique mountain lodge and following through on applying for and getting a Forest Service permit for Backcountry Ski guiding along with working with the Montana community by offering gift certificates to stay at the lodge to various non profit fund raisers live and silent auctions. Be active in the backcountry skiing community in person and also on social media has its benefits.
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
Enjoying the work and enjoying making a personal connection with guests has helped me the most with being successful.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
Last spring we were guiding a guest from NYC who had limited experience in the backcountry and his reaction to being taken deep into the wilderness and shown a couple different peaks was uplifting. He was truly inspired by the experience and I knew that he was going home a different person. He had never before been willing to risk going so deep into the backcountry off trail in search of a peak experience, and having him on the summit with the incredible views we have and watching him WOW over the experience was special for me as a guide.
John Lehman on Instagram: @bitterroot_backcountry_guides
John Lehman on YouTube: www.youtube.com/user/johnlehrman
Downing Mountain Lodge email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Downing Mountain Lodge on Facebook: www.facebook.com/bitterrootbackcountryskiguides