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Inaugural Winter Fest celebrates Big Sky culture

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Community collaboration yields successful four-day event


Winter Fest is an Outlaw Partners event. Outlaw Partners publishes Explore Big Sky.

BIG SKY –The winter season is woven into Big Sky’s identity. When snow starts to fall and the outside world is put to rest, Big Sky comes to life. This year, the inaugural Winter Fest celebrated this identity with four days of events, each highlighting unique facets of community culture.

Like many of Big Sky’s most successful endeavors, the concept for Winter Fest was born at the intersection of complementary community interests. After losing valuable dollars when they weren’t able to sell fireworks this year, Big Sky Ski Education Foundation sought a winter fundraiser.

Outlaw Partners, which publishes Explore Big Sky, had at the same time been in communication with the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky to hold an event to celebrate the winter season and support community economic development. Other community organizations including the Big Sky Community Organization and Big Sky Skijoring provided additional ideas for how to bring Winter Fest to life.

“This town has always needed a Winter Fest event,” said Ennion Williams, vice president of events for Outlaw Partners. “Through collaboration and partnerships throughout the community, we were able to bring together a communitywide, community-supported event, which we hope will grow in the future to include more organizations and more participations.”

With fundraising at the core, Winter Fest raised nearly $20,000 for BSSEF through a 50/50 raffle and a skijoring Calcutta.

“What a powerful testament to the collaborative nature of this town and the spirit of the Big Sky community,” said BSSEF board member and fundraising chair Erin Arend with BSSEF.

Williams, who’s seen 28 winters in Big Sky, described the uniqueness of the area’s longest season in terms of the activities it presents and Winter Fest included ice sculpting, a winter obstacle course, a retro ski film night, Nordic racing, live music and skijoring, breathing celebration into these frigid days.

Thursday, Feb. 3

At Winter Fest’s first event, nearly two dozen young Nordic skiers-in-training shimmied in a collective Macarena dance on Feb. 3 to warm up at the start line of this season’s third Viking Nordic Race.

The event’s youngest competitors kicked off the evening with a 1K skate ski at the Big Sky Resort Nordic Center on the Big Sky Resort Golf Course and were followed by 3K and 5K races. Though the air was brisk as the sun dipped below the mountains, a lively crowd of supportive friends and family—some decked out in Viking apparel—made the first event of Winter Fest feel warm and merry.

Since December, BSSEF’s Nordic Board has held monthly Viking Nordic Races to create competitive opportunities for beginner and elite athletes alike. The event, according to BSSEF Nordic Coordinator Nicole Barker, is also intended to bring together community to celebrate and use some of the world-class trails in Big Sky.

“We feel it was a huge success, thanks to the support of our community and volunteers,” Barker wrote in a statement. “The energy and excitement of the crowd, the heroic efforts of the racers, all made for a lively kick-off to Winter Fest.”

Friday, Feb. 4

Festivities picked up again Friday afternoon starting with the Frozen Foot Obstacle Course in Len Hill Park, organized by BSCO. Big Sky families sledded, crawled through hoops, parachuted and sipped hot chocolate beneath a glowing winter sun, giggling and smiling through balaclava-covered faces.

The fun continued nearby in the Town Center Plaza where Corey and Lisa Gransbery of Butte-based Absolute Zero Ice Design displayed their ice carving skills, shaping solid blocks of ice into Winter-Fest branded picture frames and dynamic fish.

As the weekend rolled in, Winter Fest was fully underway. At Retro Movie Night, local ski legends Scot Schmidt and Dan Egan recounted stories of their glory days filming with the likes of Warren Miller and Greg Stump in between screening clips from some of their favorite films to a sold-out crowd.

For a few hours, a packed audience at The Independent theater relived the ‘80s and ‘90s on slopes from Montana’s Bridger Bowl and Big Sky Resort to Turkey and Chile with Schmidt and Egan, cheering them along on some of their most famous lines and cringing at their legendary wipeouts.

“I think one of the best things about this is we have two legendary pro skiers that … have such a great history in the ski film industry and with Warren Miller, but also more importantly, they’re familiar faces here and they’re community members and friends,” said audience member Ben Brosseau, a ski guide and instructor in Big Sky for 18 years. “It’s just really great to have an atmosphere like this where you can kind of relive some of those moments and see and hear a little bit of the behind the scenes of what we’ve all lived and seen and been entertained by for 30 years.”

For those looking to loosen up after a long winter week, Bozeman DJ Daniel Kern spun electric tunes at the Town Center Plaza for the Silent Disco, heard only by those wearing special headphones.

“I think people really leaned into that invitation to just have some fun, play, be weird, sing out loud, and really enjoy the night,” Kern said.

The experience was amusing for the outside spectator, as well, as people dancing wildly to what seemed like no music for hours. Dancers pleaded Kern to keep playing before the event finally ended near midnight.

“I will give you all of the money out of my pockets right now to play one more song,” one attendee told Kern.

Saturday, Feb. 5

On Saturday, a painted pony trampled through soft snow in the heart of Big Sky. Local Haley Hodge rode the horse, towing her brother Cody, who was on skis.

The sibling duo was one of several to compete in day one of the Best of the West Skijoring Competition, what Williams described as “the anchor event” of Winter Fest. Day one of skijoring saw nearly six hours of competition including seven divisions including Novice, Junior, Women’s, Sport, Snowboarding, Switcharoo and Open.

Horseback riders, skiers and snowboarders from the local Big Sky community and around the country kept a full crowd on their feet all day to enjoy the spectacle of winter athletes navigating an obstacle course while being towed at adrenaline-worthy speeds by a horse.

“It’s just so fun to see all the different kinds of athletes that there are here—the skiers, the horses and the riders,” said Bozeman resident and longtime skijoring fan Lindsey Grauman.

“It’s so Montana,” Grauman’s friend Brittany Peters chimed in. “In the winter, you get outside and the weather doesn’t stop you … it’s such a Montana thing to be at.”

While skijoring events take place around the country, the sport is a unique combination of the blended culture in Big Sky. Longtime locals in the crowd represented both skiers and cowboys, all sharing a day together to enjoy a good time.

The end of the day was punctuated by the competitive Open Class division, where highly skilled athletes like 2019 national champion skijorer Colin Cook picked up the pace and made use of the bigger course features.

While skijoring was underway, six competitors were competing in ice sculpting in the Town Center Plaza. Though it was a competition, participants showed camaraderie.

“The best part about ice carving is the people,” said Aubrin Heinrichs, who entered the contest on a team with his son.

The Big Sky Chamber judges awarded Chris Berryhill and Melanie Mangione of Butte with the first-place prize of $500. All other competitors received cash prizes, as well.  

After riders put their horses to bed and skiers clicked out of their boots, the party continued in Town Center, where local DJs Take a Chance and Jenn and Juice opened for music duo Forester, who spun electronic mixes into the night as light snow drifted down on a crowd of dancers. Between the energetic music, dancing and 406 Agave tequila, which launched its brand for Winter Fest, the winter evening was warmer than most.

Sunday, Feb. 6

After bracing bitter cold winds on Saturday, the sun shown for a few hours on Sunday afternoon keeping the spectators warm and rowdy. Skier, horse and rider trios were seeking both redemption and speed to close out the second day of competition and clinch their respective division victories.

“[Big Sky’s event] is really well put together, and I love the course too.” said competitor Phoebe Alverson, 14, who skied behind her sister Fiona, 15, in the Switcheroo division. “This event usually has more spectators than others, too.”

The carefully curated track complete with berms and jumps also allowed skijoring viewers an intimate view of the competitors.

Day two featured a special guest to welcome the final Open Class division: Olympic and World Champion gold medalist Bode Miller rigged himself up on skis behind a large draft horse from Lone Mountain Ranch to give his best shot at skijoring for the first time. The crowd gave him some hometown love as he successfully maneuvered the course.

The Open Class competitors came to play. Two-time National Champion and one of the event organizers, Colin Cook, literally turned up the heat up by igniting a flame under one of the larger course features. Open division skiers flew over the flame as they rounded the turn in front of VIP section spectators. The crowd went wild, ringing their cowbells and cheering the top competitors on as they closed out the event.

The awards ceremony at Tips Up featured cash prizes for both day winners and the overall champions. The overall winners received belt buckles in addition to cash. Rider Sarah McConnell and skier Tyler Smedsrud teamed up with their horse Derby to bring home the winning Open division prize of more than $2,500.

Big Sky locals and best friends Matty Kirkland and Drew Vanyo decided to register at the last minute and ended up taking home first place in the Novice division. Though Vanyo said he’s been skiing for 38 years, this was his first time doing it behind a horse and is already looking forward to skijoring again next year. While their goal was only to complete two runs, Vanyo and Kirkland were thrilled to end the weekend with a buckle.

“Everybody involved was super nice,” Vanyo said. “I got lots of encouragement from competitors, people putting the event on, all the cowboys. Lots of helpful tips on how to hold the rope, where to pay attention on to the course. I just [had] even more fun than I could’ve pictured.”

Justa Adams, who’s been an event organizer with Big Sky Skijoring since the skijoring sanctioned nonprofit started in 2018, reflected on the novelty of the event, especially for a community like Big Sky. Raised in the horse and cattle industry and now a resident and recreator in Big Sky, Adams said the sport brings together the best of two worlds.

“Nothing makes me happier than a horse,” she told EBS after the event, “but an actual horse racing in a Western saddle pulling a skier just brings together my two heartbeats.”

Gabrielle Gasser and Tucker Harris contributed reporting to this article.

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