Story and photos by Joseph T. O’Connor Big Sky Weekly Editor
BIG SKY – At 8:30 on Thanksgiving morning, clear skies greeted early risers and temperatures hovered around 18 degrees at the base of Big Sky Resort’s Swift Current chairlift. Skiers and snowboarders, putting off turkey preparations a few hours, stood in line stamping feet or bouncing to stay warm.
There was silent excitement. With the sun shining on snow-blanketed Lone Mountain Peak, everyone in the lift line could feel it: it was opening day.
At 8:48 a.m., echoes of explosives from ski patrol shots in the distance, lift operator Megan Turner gave the word.
“Are you frickin’ excited?” she yelled. The crowd erupted as she loaded the first chair.
Aaron Hurlburt was stoked.
“It’s my first time here,” said Hurlburt, a native of Amherst, Mass. and a freshman at Montana State University. “I’ve been waiting for this.”
Ben Sullivan, with Big Sky lift operations, was waiting for friends near the lift and getting his blood flowing in a unique way.
“We do burpies to warm up,” he said, demonstrating the exercise by dropping to his belly, doing a push-up and then hopping back on his feet. “It’s gonna be a great season.”
In his office, Chad Jones, public relations manager for the resort, was suiting up to get on the hill. Since Thanksgiving came a week earlier this year, Big Sky had plenty to do to prepare for opening day, but adding additional snowmaking capabilities and a new PistenBully snowcat has made things easier.
“It felt like it was coming up much quicker,” said Jones, a native of West Virginia who’s in his seventh season with the PR department. But the mountain takes appropriate measures to be ready, he said.
“In November, the second temperatures drop below freezing, the snowmakers are blasting [the hill]. We’ve always worked hard to provide terrain over the Thanksgiving holiday.”
And that terrain will only be expanding. Big Sky opened the Swift Current and Explorer lifts today, with Mr. K open from top to bottom. The Swifty 2.0 terrain park also opened with 11 features.
The forecast may help. The National Weather Service is calling for up to a foot of snow this weekend in Madison County, including Big Sky.
Opening day is always a privilege for Jones, he says, because of the people you run into and a feeling that the family is getting back together.
“Regardless of snow conditions, you get to come back,” he said. “Seeing friends and other seasonal employees… You remember why you love it here.”
Whether it’s “a high-five or a hug, everyone is here for the same reason. We all feel really good.”
One seasonal employee at Big Sky has seen the resort change over the course of three decades. Frances Balice, a 91-year-old mountain host, came to Big Sky by accident in the winter of 1973, the year the resort opened.
“We were going to West Yellowstone and they closed the road because of a big storm,” Balice said. “A ranger turned us around and said, ‘You should try out Big Sky. They just opened.’ We had a hell of a good time.”
Balice, a host since 1995, agrees that the best thing about opening day is the company.
“There’s a lot of people here,” Balice said. “I love talking to people, meeting people. You see all your old friends.”
Not everyone at Big Sky’s opening day was local. Trish Mace, from Washington, D.C. and her mother Jane, who lives in Palm City, Fl., were sitting on a lift chair converted into a seat overlooking the Swifty lift.
“We’re enjoying all the snow and sunshine,” Jane said, leaning back into her seat.
“There’s eight of us here,” said Trish, whose family is in town visiting her son, a student at MSU. They are having Thanksgiving dinner at Buck’s T-4 after the family is done skiing.
For Trish and Jane Mace, opening day at Big Sky need not include skiing. They say Thanksgiving is fine from any lift chair.