Summer ski area shutters 2015 season

By Beau Fredlund Explore Big Sky Contributor

RED LODGE – Beartooth Basin typically starts running its Poma surface lifts Memorial Day weekend, when the Beartooth Pass traditionally opens for automobiles. Skiers and snowboarders use the lifts to lap the Twin Lakes headwall through mid-July, and the ski area offers riders the unique experience of dropping off the Beartooth Plateau at 11,000 feet.

The landscape is notoriously big and dramatic, and often develops a deep snowpack – it’s not uncommon to drive between 20-foot-high snow banks on the pass between Red Lodge and Cooke City. This year, however, is a different story.

Beartooth Basin, formerly the Red Lodge International Ski and Snowboard Camp, will not operate its ski lifts this summer due to low snowpack.

Austin Hart along with the other three Beartooth Basin owners – Justin Modroo, Kurt Hallock and David Leuschen – made the official call on May 4 after scouting conditions and assessing the remaining winter snow coverage.

“I think we had more snow last season when we closed on July 6, than we do at the moment,” Hart said, alluding to the large spring snowfalls Red Lodge and the Beartooth Front often receive. “It would be a tough go for us, even if we did get a 6-foot, May miracle.”

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service – which studies annual snowpack around the western U.S. – as of May 5, the Upper Yellowstone watershed was at 62 percent of normal for Snow Water Equivalence.

The NRCS documented above average temperatures and below average snowfall this winter across the West. During March, when Beartooth Basin often receives big snowstorms, the Upper Yellowstone SNOTEL sites reported 44 percent of average precipitation.

Jeff Gildehaus, an outdoor recreation planner for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, and snow ranger for the Beartooth Ranger District, spends his winters doing snow survey fieldwork and joked about using an ATV to access remote valley sites. In the past, he’s used a snowmobile.

“Conditions are just so variable, drainage to drainage, and the snowpack [is] very dependent upon the wind and its direction,” Gildehaus said, “particularly in places like the upper Rock Creek.” The upper Rock Creek drainage is located on the north side of the Beartooth Plateau and is a popular ski route once the pass opens each year.

Hart had similar thoughts on how wind can affect the Beartooth Basin snowpack, and says he may look into snow fences or catchment engineering. “It might become an important component for our operation in the future,” he said.

A look at Beartooth Basin’s online calendar shows how busy it’s become for summer ski camps and events. “[Closing is] a tough blow to our marketing and awareness momentum, but I see this year as a time to improve overall facilities and goals for the Basin,” Hart said. He plans to take the summer off to perform maintenance on their Sno-Cat and Poma lifts.

The Beartooth Pass ski community is rallying around and supporting the unique ski area. Alex Buck, owner of the Bozeman-based backpack company Buckproducts, is an avid supporter of Beartooth Basin and was planning a new banked-slalom event at the ski area for Memorial Day weekend, but has postponed the event in light of the news.

“If it all lines up next year, we will try again for sure,” Buck said.

Beau Fredlund is a backcountry ski guide for Beartooth Powder Guides and a photographer based in Cooke City, Mont.