By Maria Wyllie
Explore Big Sky Associate Editor
BIG SKY –Named the “Biggest Skiing in America,” Big Sky Resort boasts 5,800 acres, 30 chairlifts, and 300 named runs. To make it all work, it takes lift operators and mechanics, patrollers, snow forecasters, marketing and sales reps, and the list goes on. One of those people, working hard behind the scenes, is Lift Maintenance Foreman Ben Macht.
Originally from Marshfield, Wisc., Macht, 38, moved to Vail, Colo. in 1994 and had planned on spending a year in the West before heading to college. This year, however, marks his 20th in a resort town, having shifted to Big Sky in November 2002.
“I started as a lift operator [in Vail]– that was my dream job,” Macht said. “I did that in the winter and then was a mechanic’s helper in the summer, and then I did lift construction – building lifts – for a while.”
Now Macht works with foreman Joe Bertucci, manager Jerry Kranz, and a crew of roughly 20 additional mechanics, and says the biggest misconception about the job is that people think the team is done working when the ski hill closes for the season.
“The day the lifts shut down is when we get busy,” he said.
Southwest Montana’s short spring is the busiest time for Big Sky’s lift mechanics. With a two-month window before summer hits, they quickly have to work any kinks out of the chairlifts – including the tram, Swift Current and Explorer – before summer visitors arrive. For the remainder of the season, Macht and his team do routine maintenance and special projects on the rest of the lifts, ensuring they run smoothly for winter.
“They’re these giant, complex pieces of machinery… it’s fun to see how they work,” said Macht, a self-proclaimed nerd. “No matter how long you do it, you’re going to learn something every day.”
Although the winter season is slower for lift maintenance, the crew still plays a large role in ensuring the mountain is safe for skiers and snowboarders. Every morning at 6:30 a.m., before ski patrol heads up to do control work, mechanics start the lifts to ensure everything is working properly.
During operating hours, Macht says his team is scattered around the mountain, ready to assist should anything on the lifts go wrong. There’s a laundry list of risk elements that comes with the job: heights, high voltage, heavy rigging situations.
“One of our biggest enemies here is the wind on Lone Peak,” Macht says. “We try to keep lifts running, but the big fear is you’ll derail a chair if it gets too windy.”
Like avalanche technicians, Macht’s crew works hard to provide mountain safety, but he says the science involved in lift maintenance has fewer variables.
“We have super knowledgeable avy techs, but [the mountain] still avalanches. You could throw 100 [hand charges] on Liberty Bowl and then the next skier goes down and it rips out,” Macht said. “With us it’s cut and dry.”
Although Macht seems to have found his calling, it wasn’t a one-way street to lift maintenance. He took a break after his maintenance gig in Vail to become a foodie, selling food and wine to various Montana businesses. He worked as assistant food and beverage director at the Yellowstone Club, and co-owned Trailhead Pizza in Big Sky with local chiropractor Jeff Saad before calling it quits.
“[Macht] pretty much gives 100 percent with whatever he’s working on,” said Saad, who first met Macht while playing softball in Vail. “Whether it’s music, biking, rafting, [or] working, you can count on him.”
An avid outdoorsman, Macht also had a stint working at Grizzly Outfitters’ bike and ski-tech shop. But he finally made his way back to lift machinery, where he’s been working since November 2012.
Macht says lift maintenance still isn’t his top career choice. “In a heart beat, I would stop being a lift mechanic and be a rock star full time,” he said.
When Macht isn’t 30 feet in the air working on chairlifts, he spends much of his time with a much smaller instrument – the mandolin. He got his first mandolin in 2005 and now plays with Big Sky’s bluegrass rock band the Driftwood Grinners, as well as the Gallatin Grass Project out of Ennis.
Inspired by Michael Kang of the bluegrass-jam band The String Cheese Incident, Macht has fun taking a traditional string band instrument like the mandolin to new places. He also has the mind for it.
“My brain works in a mathematical, engineering way to work on lifts… music really is like that,” Macht said. “Rather than thinking of [chords] as A, B, C, D, you start to think of [them] as numbers that all relate to one another in patterns.”
Whether it’s giant machines or tiny instruments, Macht’s discovered his mathematical side is good for the rest of the community – he keeps Lone Mountain’s lifts turning and Big Sky’s music fans dancing.