The Apocalypse has hit Montana. Chad Jones (Big Sky PR), my brother and I are the only ones left. At least, that is what I think as we stand on our boards at the top of the Challenger lift. We are looking across yards of open white without a single inhabitant in sight. It is a clear, crisp Thursday at Big Sky Resort and by our third run I am still surprised at all the open space waiting for us without a person to avoid.
Chad explains to me that “feeling as if you didn’t get the memo on ‘no skiing today’ is how it is always like mid week skiing in Montana.” No matter how large the resort is, Montana remains virtually crowd free (and this statement applies to the resorts across the board, Big Sky being the largest). When he told us ‘ski in and ski out’ I didn’t realize he was literally referring to the lift, not the just accommodations. It’s Big Sky, Montana and there isn’t a line even to the morning coffee hut.
My brother and I have come to Big Sky to see what it is all about. We grew up riding Whitefish Mountain Resort yet we have not had the chance to travel the five hours east to hit Bozeman for Big Sky and Bridger. We are expecting a large resort and it is. Although it doesn’t have the same large resort feeling as you get in Mammoth or Vail, for example. This is not to say that it doesn’t have the amenities or volume, it’s just that it is so relaxed and easy going that you feel as if you are at your local hill.
Chad explains, “we see about 500 people here daily.” Something I would have never guessed as I have yet to see more than a few people at a time on a lift. “The mountain is so spread out and there is so much terrain that people are able to extend across the faces and choose so many different types of slope.”
With a summit elevation of 11, 166 vertical feet and 3800 acres of terrain, Big Sky is a white amusement park. With a lift capacity of 23, 000 per hour there is a small percentage of actually having to wait in line (clearly something I just can’t get over!). This year Big Sky remains slightly below annual snowfall but averages about 400 or more inches per season normally.
My Brother skateboarding
After a morning of exploring we head to the base to put some of the amenities to the test. We head back to where we are staying, The Summit, which is located at the bottom of the main lift, Swift Current. The three of us walk into Peaks Restaurant fully geared for a ‘casual, fine dining experience’ mid day. The atmosphere is upscale and welcoming, although I am shocked to open the menu to cafeteria prices. Most meals range from ten to fourteen dollars with choices from ahi tuna salads to wild game sandwiches. My brother went for the elk Ruben which was to die for. As an elk hunter himself, he is a tough critic but had to agree that it was the best ski lunch he has ever had. Growing up on cup of noodles lunches and pocketed PB & J’s we are pleased for the upgrade.
After lunch we head back out to the slopes with our eyes set on the top tram. The top tram is a fairly recent edition to the Big Sky Resort.Built on December 23, 1995 the tram catapulted the resort onto the major resort map. “It took over 300 helicopter trips to the top to build the tram” explains Chad as we wait in line. Each tram holds 15 people and moves on at a time across the lone cable. Chad filled us in on the trivia knowledge as we rode explaining that the cable stretches at the same pace as the bottom station moves annually on the glacier that it is built. An amazing engineered feat, the tram boosts Big Sky onto the radar to the likes of Jackson Hole with 1200 acres of controlled terrain with a backcountry feel. Runs like Dakota and shed horn can be accessed from the tram giving skiers and boarders the idea that they are skiing out of bounds while knowing they are still safe in a controlled area.
Although, My brother and I agree, that for the first time in our snowboard careers we have been given access to terrain that we actually wouldn’t tackle. “If you lose an edge of ‘Little Couloir,’ a chute than you will be sliding the rest of the way down” like it is a waterpark at West Edmonton mall. Except the rocks aren’t optional. ‘Little Couloir’ sits at about a grade of 60 and it is nothing short of terrifying. You must surely have balls of steel to tackle not-so-little Couloir.
The tram does have its limitations to prevent the wrong skier from dropping such epic terrain. To ski 90% of the terrain off the tram, Big Sky requires a transceiver, partner, and probe. Before your run of choice, you must check in with the patrol and read the condition summary. It’s just a mandatory precautionary that turns backcountry into public domain for the boldest at heart. Having access to this terrain safely is a pleasure and freedom that many of us skiers at large resorts have yet to really see.
Unfortunately, we did not come prepared today and the conditions aren’t favorable due to ranging temperatures over the past week. Luckily, Big Sky has terrain for all die hards including the A to Z chutes which are steep chutes located above the Challenger lift with no mandatory cliff drops. The A to Z’s are separated by rock bands and offer a choice of degrees of steepness ranging from less than a grade of 60.
After exploring the mountain all day we return to the Summit Lodge to hit their massive outdoor and indoor hot tub. Since Chad is also a punk rock and heavy metal connoisseur we chat music and drink our seasonal winter ales while warming up after the crisp day on the slopes.
That evening we head to Chet’s in the village for wild game sliders and meat loaf. Chet’s features large meals for the same great dining price as Peaks. During our Big Sky experience, I must say, the village has treated us very well. Family friendly and extremely Montana cozy, the village offers a range of dining experiences, live music, events, and fitness facilities.
On a that note, Big Sky is primarily a tourist destination and being 45 miles from Bozeman tends to attract less of a local crowd. My brother and I adored the village, but agreed that Big Sky is not a resort to ski bum but rather a great vacation resort.
Looking around we noticed the crowd to be primarily families from out of town. The resort offers a very casual style as well as terrain for all levels. As a vacation resort, the versatility is uncanny. Customer service is friendly and approachable although it’s not to the level of Aspen. Expect a little bit of Montana do it yourself attitude even though the luxury can be compared to that of its large counter part resorts. If you are looking for a ski travel destination, Big Sky is nothing short of fabulous from the perspective of amenities located near by.
Although I must be honest, I do have some small disappointment from my perspective. The next day, we set out to explore the terrain park which turned into a huge disappointment. Chad explained that the funding had been cut for this feature of the resort as the last few years have been below normal for snow levels. This February, Big Sky was finally beginning to catch up but still behind their usual snow fall and base levels. This year, the super pipe was built but not cut. They decided to budget this out leaving just some banked walls next to the race course. The park was also decreased with only two jumps and about 8 street style rails. The large park is located below the Swift Current chair which is also next to the medium park that has three ride on features. Over towards moonlight (an attached resort that when combined makes the ski fields the largest in the country) is zero gravity which is the small, beginner park.
We cruise through for about an hour before categorizing Big Sky as a non-park but rather free ride and big mountain resort. If you are going for terrain parks, Montana overall is not your stop. If you want to ride big mountain to the likes of Jeremy Jones, Douglas Combs, and fellow (Kalispell) local Tanner Hall, Montana is a sure fire stop.
After three days of exploring and reviewing we are satisfied with our visit. The village is more than pleasant and a true Montana experience. The terrain is large, uncrowded and versatile. But perhaps my most interesting note of the tour with Chad is my fascination with the Yellow Stone club (literally a private resort for the nation’s richest located on the side of Big Sky Resort). If you have not heard of the Yellow Stone Club you are sure to be mesmerized by the grandiosity that money can buy in snowsports. And for those of us normal enthusiasts, luckily there is Big Sky. Because mounds of money can’t necessarily buy a great day on the slopes.