Putting the 2017-2018 season in perspective

By Doug Hare
EBS Staff

BIG SKY – What a winter it has been. This ski season in Big Sky started auspiciously on Thanksgiving Day, boasting nearly twice the average snowfall for late November-impressive for a mountain known for its historically low standard deviation in snowfall. With a 36-inch base on the summit-and despite above-freezing temps-ski patrol was able to open the iconic Big Couloir on opening day, a rare occurrence.

The skiing has only gotten better since then, registering 66 days and counting with reported snowfall and no shortage of bluebird days in between. While Big Sky Resort will still be turning the lifts until April 22, it’s safe to say that the 2017-2018 season will be remembered as one of the best winters in recent memory.

One thing is certain: the favorable ski conditions compared to other ski destinations in the American West brought more visitors to Big Sky, many for their first time, and local businesses have been thriving as a result. “I think we’ve been discovered-the cat’s out of the bag,” said Joe Muggli, master bootfitter at Grizzly Outfitters, where a few patrons were waiting on his services.

“March is the 35th consecutive month of year-over-year growth [for my business],” said Steve Nordahl, owner of Lone Peak Brewery. “Combined with better-than-average snow and poor conditions elsewhere, this season has been nuts. There’s been a big influx of first-timers-people from Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.”

According to the photographer’s notes on the slide sleeve of this image, 148 inches of snow was measured in The Bowl when this photo was taken in the spring of 1997. PHOTO BY LONNIE BALL

How does this season stack up against some of the other epic winters in Big Sky’s history? A good point of reference is a direct comparison with the 1996-1997 winter season, which also stands out for well-above-average snowfall.
The Lone Peak Tram had opened the previous season, carrying skiers and snowboarders to the 11,166-foot summit and expanding Big Sky’s skiable terrain by approximately 50 percent. Originally, it was painted pink inside to calm riders, and this was the year that Big Sky Resort began to gain recognition for lift-accessible, expert terrain that drew comparisons to the Alps.

Bob Dixon, ski patrol director for 37 years, recalls a storm around Christmas that season that left more than 2 and a half feet of snow on the mountain. “That was one of the biggest dumps that I’ve ever seen in southwest Montana,” said Dixon. “There were major avalanche cycles in early January-those are hard to forget.”

While the memories of past seasons will fade, the economic impact of winters such as this one will be long-lasting, with businesses not only seeing a rise in short-term profits, but Big Sky Resort continuing to prove its merits as a world-class ski destination.

This toboggan was hurled more than 300 yards, and lodged 12 feet up in a tree, by the wind blast of an avalanche that ripped down the south face of Lone Mountain on Dec. 26, 1996. It was first published in Powder magazine in 1998. PHOTO BY LONNIE BALL

“We’ve grown tremendously in the last 20 years,” said Ryan Kunz, general manager of Lone Mountain Ranch. “This is a record year for us in terms of cabins and dining. It’s the busiest year we’ve seen, and I imagine it’s been the same for the rest of the town. It’s been a perfect storm for Big Sky.”

Kunz added that Lone Mountain Ranch, which has 24 cabins, has been at over 90 percent occupancy all season and after speaking with other property owners and general managers, he estimates that businesses around town have been trending up 20 or 30 percent.

Jackie Robin, owner of the Hungry Moose Market and Deli, remembers 1996-1997 as the first winter after the birth of her son Micah, and still jokes that his early exposure to massive snowfall is the reason he enjoys skiing so much. Robin recalls cross-country skiing right out of her door in the Westfork neighborhood, and her then 4-year-old son Andrew climbing snow banks the size of “small mountains” on his way to look at the fire trucks at the nearby station.

When the Hungry Moose opened in 1994, their original shop on Lone Mountain Trail was only 700 square feet. “Now we have two locations,” Robin said. “Both stores have been very busy this winter. It’s great to have a season where no one-staff, locals, visitors-is complaining about lack of snow or poor conditions. Everyone is happy and having fun. The only problem, of course, is keeping up and not having enough staff.”

While the weather patterns and snowpack characteristics are comparable between the two seasons, with the 1996-1997 winter probably edging out this year in terms of total precipitation, other statistics reveal a ski community that has nearly doubled in its capacity to entertain those who come to recreate on and around Lone Mountain-in under a quarter century.

While future snowfall in Big Sky is unpredictable, the continued growth of the resort and town-more chairlifts, more housing units, more shops and restaurants-is not. Having winter seasons like this one will only expedite the process.

EBS Senior Editor Sarah Gianelli and Jessianne Wright contributed reporting to this story.