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The dominant landmark at the Big Sky ski resort in Montana is Lone Peak. At 11,166 feet, it towers majestically over the entire area. It is also a little daunting: From the top, which is reached by a 15-passenger tram, you can bask in stunning 360-degree views then test mostly expert terrain that Big Sky classifies as “triple black” — if you need to ask, you’re not good enough to ski it.
Naturally, Lone Peak is splashed on all kinds of T-shirts and mugs. But the protective blue bubbles on four of Big Sky’s high-speed, high-tech chairs might well be just as emblematic of the resort, which sits an hour south of Bozeman and an hour north of Yellowstone National Park. The lifts, which even sport heated seats, have come to symbolize the efforts by Big Sky and its parent company, Boyne Resorts, to secure their membership in the elite club of first-tier winter destinations.
“Our goal is to be the best ski experience, the best hospitality experience, the best community experience in the North American ski industry,” said Taylor Middleton, the Big Sky Resort president and chief operating officer.
That’s a pretty lofty statement, but the least you can say is that Big Sky and Boyne are determined. Since opening the first of those bubble lifts, Powder Seeker 6, in December 2016, the resort has continued to invest in its infrastructure, only slightly delayed by the pandemic. Next in the Big Sky 2025 master plan are the ski area’s first gondola and a bigger tram cabin that will carry more people to a new summit terminal.
These developments go hand in hand with Big Sky’s newfound popularity. For decades, the resort, which opened in 1973, remained mostly tucked away from the beaten paths of Utah and Colorado. Now, a growing number of visitors are exploring its sprawling terrain: 39 lifts serving 5,850 skiable acres that encompass extra-wide, rolling groomers; gnarly chutes and couloirs; inviting bowls and extensive glades.
Over four days in February, I barely made a dent into the 300 named runs. The Andesite Mountain area alone is bigger than many entire resorts, and you could spend an entire day there without repeating a run. Skiing from the Lewis & Clark lift, on the southernmost side of the resort, to Horseshoe, a meandering blue run on the northernmost side, I had to make several pit stops to look at the map. The experience is among the very few in North America that compares to skiing the interconnected resorts and villages of the European Alps.
In addition to the thrill of discovery, this layout has helped disperse skiers and snowboarders over a vast expanse, and has given Big Sky a reputation for uncrowded adventures.
But the changes that have transformed the ski industry and society at large have affected Big Sky, too. First it joined the multi-resort pass groups Mountain Collective and Pass in the 2018-19 season, making it more economical for large numbers of passholders to ski there. The growth of the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport — where many new nonstop flights from major cities, including a seasonal JetBlue one from Kennedy Airport in New York, have contributed to an 82 percent increase in passengers in the past five years — has made getting to the resort much easier.
And then there was the coronavirus, which suddenly made Bozeman and its population of just over 50,000 attractive to throngs of work-from-home people, turning the city into one of the fastest-growing micropolitan areas (meaning those with less than 50,000 people) in the country.
“The momentum was already happening,” said Troy Nedved, Big Sky’s general manager, of his resort’s boom. “But the timing of many of these things just put us in this new position.”
Now, Big Sky must consider the issues the snow sports industry faces in the United States: traffic jams, parking lots filled to capacity, snaking lift lines, congested trails and shortages of affordable accommodations for visitors and locals alike. How it tries to solve them could determine the resort’s future well after the pandemic recedes — and perhaps serve as a model for the industry, which has had a tough time meeting visitor demands this winter.
Big Sky is squarely banking on improving the overall experience — a word that Mr. Nedved used repeatedly in a recent conversation — even if it means resort visitors pay a premium. “From a planning standpoint, our business model is not to maximize volume, it’s to try and maintain the guest experience through every decision we make,” he said.
So on the one hand, Nancy Houth, visiting from Plattsburgh, N.Y., did get some sticker shock at Big Sky: She spent $542 on lift tickets for three days — and that was with 25 percent off the $225-per-day window rate, thanks to the friends-and-family discount from a friend’s Ikon Pass.
On the other, she repeatedly praised the service. The one time it did lapse, she was happy with the response. Ms. Houth, 58, had rented skis (three-day cost: $190) and, “On my first run I could tell there wasn’t an edge on the skis,” she said. She immediately returned to the resort-run rental shop, where an employee admitted that there had been no time to tune the skis, then upgraded her to a demo pair at no extra charge. “They took care of the situation,” she said.
One of the most radical steps Big Sky has taken is the kind of dynamic pricing familiar to users of ride-share apps. A prime example is the tram, from which the easiest run down is the black-diamond Liberty Bowl, a wide expanse that made me feel as if I were somehow levitating between snow and sky. Much better skiers or riders can attempt the Big Couloir, which plummets for 1,400 hair-raising, nearly vertical feet, or a number of gnarly chutes.
This season, after the line started ballooning to two or three hours, Big Sky instituted an extra tram fee, which varies depending on the day and conditions. One day shortly after my visit, that fee ballooned to $100 — which means you could pay more than $300 for a day of skiing if you had paid the window rate for a lift ticket.
The mountain is using modeling to project how busy the tram might be on a particular day, said Mr. Middleton. “We are managing that visitation with pricing in almost real time.” he went on. “We hesitated in doing this because we don’t want to be exclusionary — a good business model is inclusionary, not exclusionary.”
But, he added, the results have been “wonderful” in terms of crowd mitigation.
“There are those that pooh-pooh the tram: ‘We used to hike to the top and now the tram is full,’ ” said Glenn Ancona, 59, who relocated from New York State to Big Sky in 2018. “There will always be the jaded local who used to ski everywhere, anytime, but those days are over. The resort has to find a balance between those who are coming for just a week and those who call this home.”
Mr. Middleton pointed out that with better analytics, it’s now easier to try to redirect the days and times when people visit. One way is by diversifying the variety of season passes. “The peak visitation is from 10:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. so let’s incentivize skiers or passholders to ski during less busy hours,” he said. “I believe that we will eventually start selling season passes that are only good from, you name it, maybe 8 a.m. until 11 a.m., and then maybe it’s good for the last hour of the day, from 3 until 4.”
As at most major resorts, any change creates a chain reaction. More visitors mean the resort must figure out not only how to reduce the time skiers spend waiting in line, but also how many seats they will need in the dining areas, how the gear-rentals flow and what the parking capacity is. Right now Big Sky has large free lots, with regular open-topped shuttles delivering skiers to the base. But Mr. Middleton does not rule out charging parking fees in the future, along with incentives for carpoolers.
Another issue common to ski areas across the country is lodging and real estate, which has a particularly high visibility at Big Sky because the surrounding area is taking on a decidedly upscale profile that makes Jackson Hole and Aspen start to look downtrodden. In addition to its own understatedly fancy setting — the Vista Hall food court, for example, offers breakfast, dining and coffee options in a stylishly functional environment — the resort operates the lifts and terrain serving the luxury private residential developments called Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks. The adjacent ultraexclusive Yellowstone Club even boasts that it is the only private ski resort in the world. Recent arrivals on the Big Sky scene include the enormous, and very expensive, Montage resort, which opened in December in the Spanish Peaks area. The Montage is the kind of place that has its own ice rink and bowling alley, and where attendants carry your skis and poles a few yards to the snow. In 2024, the luxury brand One & Only is scheduled to open its first American property, which will include a lodge as well as 62 private residences starting at $8.45 million.
Even more modest sales and rentals are soaring, making it harder for both visitors and the local work force to find affordable lodging. Big Sky is trying to alleviate the pressure for its staff by building more employee housing, and it currently can house 700 workers (there are about 1,700 employees). “We’ve put a new project on the books every year for the past five years and I suspect we’ll put one on the books every year for the next five years,” said Mr. Middleton.
Larger issues looming over the region worry some environmentalists. “You don’t want to be the stick in the mud because people are benefiting from the place that is Montana,” said Derf Johnson, the clean water program director and staff attorney at the Montana Environmental Information Center. “At the same time, what we’re losing is really significant. This is a world-class destination that is about to be overrun by quick, shiny development and extremely rapid population growth with poor planning.”
Guy Alsentzer, the executive director and founder of the clean-water group Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, pointed out an unwillingness of local and state authorities to adequately regulate. “We are having noxious algae blooms stretching for miles on the Gallatin River,” he said, referring to the stream, famous for its trout-fishing, that borders Route 191, which connects Bozeman to Yellowstone National Park. “These things happen because of cumulative impacts of new development and pollution. Growth isn’t bad per se,” he continued, “but not taking responsibility for how we grow and not looking at the true science on the ground, that’s a dereliction of duty.”
Like many recreational companies, Big Sky must negotiate customers’ often contradictory desires: Skiers and riders complain about long lift lines but also want lower prices and more amenities. At the same time the coronavirus has amplified the appetite for the outdoors. On the ground, the experiment seems to be working for now. Even though Big Sky had not had any fresh snow in several days when I visited, the skiing was superb (well, as long as you avoided the rocks the resort is famous for) and exploring the supersize terrain never got old. As for the après-ski espresso I gulped every afternoon at Vista Hall, it tasted like a million bucks.
The mood was considerably lower-key at Bridger Bowl, a nonprofit hill 30 minutes north of downtown Bozeman. There, the skiable terrain is 2,000 acres and an adult day ticket is $84 ($69 if purchased in advance online).
It was at Bridger that I met Jack and Sandi Engel, 83 and 79. Every winter they leave their Michigan home for a multiweek road trip that once included Big Sky. “For my kind of skiing, I didn’t enjoy it as much as some other areas, due to the terrain and the distance to get back down to the bottom,” said Mr. Engel. A bigger problem, though, is that Big Sky has become too expensive, he said. “There are a lot of people who made a lot of money on the market — we’re not one of them,” he said, dryly. “All of a sudden, the prices went the same as in Colorado,” added Ms. Engel.
We talked over hot chocolate that came out of a self-serve machine, then hustled back on a lift that was not covered, let alone heated and swung wildly in gusts of wind as it slowly made its way up the mountain. The experience was rather different from the one at Big Sky, but just as pleasurable in its own way. As long as the ski industry figures out a way for both to coexist, it might make it yet.