Bridger, Moonlight and Big Sky

By Jamie Kujawa Explorebigsky.com Contributor

“Don’t duck the ropes!”

“Turn toward your partner and look for the center
pole.”

Most Bridger locals have heard these phrases
many times from the relentless lift operators.
Bridger’s unofficial motto “Bridger Bowl, center
pole,” stems from the fact that it’s one of few
mountains left in the nation with Riblet center
pole chairlifts.

Bridger lifties typically work a four-day week,
and are the only lift ops in Southwest Montana
that don’t get ski breaks during workdays.

A typical day for a Bridger lift op starts with
catching the free bus from the fairgrounds at 7:25
a.m. On a good day, most everyone sleeps, allowing
a few extra minutes of much-needed shut-eye
before the day unfolds 8 a.m. in the “pits,” the
Bridger lift ops locker room.

The pits were named after the pits at a Nascar
race, says Dan Boehmer, head of Bridger lift
operations. On any given morning, lifties barge
into their lockers, backpacks on, changing gear
quickly, checking the white boards, listening
to Boehmer assign work stations and announce
important information.

photo by Jennie Milton, Bridger lift ops goofing off

Boehmer pulls
people aside to talk
particulars about
their stations that
day.

By 8:15, the lifties
load the Powder
Park quad and head
to his or her workstation.

The eight minute
lift ride is
a welcome relief
of solitude and
scenery before the
day unfolds. Morning
duties include
setting up cones
and shoveling fresh
snow, safety checks,
talking to patrol,
and firing up the
engine. All of this
should be done before 9 a.m., when the public
arrives.

Meanwhile, over at Moonlight Basin the day
unfolds quite similarly, starting at 7:45 with a
morning meeting in the locker room that covers
current events and weather conditions. Lift assignments
are on a first come-first serve basis and
everyone is trained on every lift.

This system works because operators don’t get
burned out doing the same thing, says Ross
Smethurst, Moonlight’s head of lift operations.
Throughout the day, operators rotate between
the three stations of bottom operator, top operator
and ticket scanner.

Moonlight’s crew is “an extremely close group of
ops,” Smethurst says, with 21 returnees from last
season and 10 lead ops.

Smethurst’s priorities are safety and customer
service. He explains that his operators take pride in
their work and it shows. He encourages his crew to
be friendly and engaging, because “having fun rubs
off on guests.”

photo by Doug Wales, Loading chairs at Bridger

Next door at Big Sky, tram operator Nolan House
grabs his radio at 6:35 a.m. after gearing up in the
lift ops’ locker room. He and his other tram-mates
access their station via two lift rides. The conditions
will dictate their morning.

Tram operators are at the mercy of ski patrol,
House says. It’s the operators’ duty to “keep our
ear on the radio,” paying attention to when and
where patrol will be deploying explosives for
avalanche control.

Once at the tram, House has a big list of safety
checks and regular maintenance. Plus, so much
snow blows into the terminals overnight that
they often have “an incredible amount of digging”
to do.” The three-member tram crew splits
up in the morning after patrol has cleared them—
two to the top and the third to finish up at
the bottom.

The trench at the top terminal, where the
tram cabin would drag in the snow if not
maintained, is about 85 feet down the
mountain from the terminal, and about as
wide as a semi. Shoveling it out requires
a tram op to wear a full body harness and
safety line with four anchors, as well as
an avalanche transceiver. They dig directly
above the 1,000-foot face beneath
the tram, and the shovels used for the job
are all attached to lanyards, House says,
chuckling as he thinks about the exposure.

It’s also a spot with significant avalanche
danger.

Once the morning chores are complete,
House and his team take in the view and
wait for opening. The real work begins
when the tram opens for the day.

The tramline is a mixture of tourists and
picky locals, House says, as well as the priority
riders like patrol and instructors with lessons.
But, it has perks. Tram ops gets to hear about
what’s skiing well that day, so they knows exactly
where to go on ski breaks.

“Once you get in the groove, it’s a good deal,”
House says.

Jamie Kujawa has lived, worked and played in Bozeman for the past four years. When not writing,
she’s likely swimming, doing yoga or recreating with her dog.