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Mountain ops preps for historic season

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Big Sky and former Moonlight tackle Lone Mountain side by side

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

BIG SKY RESORT – On Tuesday Nov. 19, nine days before the first chairlift would load public skiers, Jake Porter was working at the bottom of Sacagawea Camp in the Club at Spanish Peaks, trying to get a booster pump and a Techno Alpen M18 snow gun into working order.

The guns on the once private resort’s slopes had been idle for three years, and when Porter first turned this particular one on, black pond water spewed out. The resort’s Snowmaking and Grooming Operations Manager, eventually got it going and that morning was checking to be sure the well wasn’t frozen.

With Big Sky Resort now managing operations across nine square miles – made up of the terrain formerly owned by the Club at Spanish Peaks and Moonlight Basin, plus Big Sky – Porter has a lot on his plate. The snowmaking department is at 36 personnel this year – up from 20 last year. Also, the Spanish Peaks and Moonlight systems are new to him.

“We had to find where all the hydrants and pumps were, and how they worked,” said Porter, who’s been with the resort 15 years. “Now we’re training the rest of the crew and getting them familiar with all that, so when we do have [cold] temps they can fire it up and be ready for opening.”

Porter isn’t alone in the on-the-ground learning process that is the operations side of the merger, and those in upper management said they’ve done everything possible to put the strongest team on the ground.

“The goal is to take the best of both and make it all better,” said Mountain Operations Director Mike Unruh, who’s been at Big Sky since 2007.

Sharing an office with Porter is Ross Smethurst (pictured at right), formerly head of lift operations at Moonlight Basin and now Big Sky’s lift operations manager.

“There is a lot to learn right now,” Smethurst said, sitting in his office. “With combining all three of these ski operations, we’re just trying to figure out how it all works together. It’s definitely a larger scale – going from seven chair lifts to 33 chairlifts, from 36 employees to 135.”

Upstairs, Mountain Operations Manager John Knapton walks inside to Unruh’s office. Knapton, who worked at Big Sky before Moonlight Basin first opened, was Moonlight’s first ski patrol director and its mountain manager until the merger. He’s just been out somewhere on the mountain’s 5,750 acres –he won’t say where – looking into future expansion. With the merger, he joined Unruh in a key leadership role.

In his new role, Knapton oversees snowmaking and grooming, vehicle maintenance, roads and base operations. Unruh is in charge of ski patrol, lift operations and maintenance, and parks.

“This is two-thirds more terrain from a grooming standpoint, two-thirds more equipment to maintain, two-thirds more parking,” Knapton said, comparing it to his responsibilities at Moonlight Basin.

These integrations have filtered down the chain of command. In lift operations, for example, there are six supervisors – three from the Big Sky crew, and three from Moonlight.

Almost 90 strong this year, the professional ski patrol is now one of the largest in the country. Jim Humphries, who’s been with the Big Sky patrol 19 years, will be assistant director in charge of Lone Peak-south, and Dave Benes, who worked at Moonlight for eight years as a supervisor, is now a second assistant director and in charge of Lone Peak-north, or the historic Moonlight terrain, plus Challenger.

Benes interviewed for the position, he said, to “represent the staff of Moonlight and all the hard work we put in. To see the whole thing carried forward effectively was the motivation behind it.”

During their two-week training, he was feeling positive.

“It’s a cool dynamic to have [these] two hills that have a lot to gain from each other… Seeing everybody in the locker room after the refresher days and the way the two staff complement each other to become one big staff is really, really cool… you can’t help but be excited.”

Changes on and off the hill

On Thanksgiving, Big Sky Resort’s traditional first day, the resort opens for skiing in the area around the Big Sky Mountain Village.

“The goal is to give people the terrain that we can,” Unruh said. “We’re not known for holding back on terrain. If we can get the Bowl [or Challenger] we’ll do it. Minimum is Swift Current and Explorer.”

Next will be the Iron Horse area on the Moonlight side, opening Dec. 6. The following day, Unruh said, they’ll open everything possible on the north side.

As for the expansion plans Knapton was investigating, news of this will come later – and not this year, he says. “Right now we’re focused on operations.”

But guests will see a few changes, namely new glades in the Shedhorn and Explorer areas; a more substantial park next to the Explorer Lift replacing the small-feature area; better grooming due to the purchase of a piece of machinery called a renovator; and new electronic signs showing lift and run status at a number of lifts.

Trail names and signage will remain the same this year, but the on-hill trail maps will no longer say Moonlight Basin Resort.

Off the hill, the Mountain Mall has been renovated, and the Free Skier Parking Lot will be maintained differently this year to increase capacity and ease. Taking a cue from Moonlight – and using a grater acquired from Moonlight – orange flagging and posts will delineate parking instead of snow berms, which will help prevent the major mud ruts of the past.

Additionally, Big Sky now plans to ask employees to park further away – as Moonlight did previously – and to start running employee shuttles at 6:15.

The Moonlight vibe and brand

Moonlight Basin Resort is gone, but no one wants to see its essence disappear.

“There’s a certain emotional connection to Moonlight that comes from the people and the employees,” said Big Sky General Manager Taylor Middleton. “It’s less formal, fun and event-based, [with] things like the Subaru Freeride World Tour and the Turkey for a Ticket [food drive]. We’ve made sure that we’ve retained as many of these events as we could.”

The goal, Middleton said, “is to not take anything away from Moonlight, to not reduce that experience.”

On trail maps it remains the “Moonlight Area.”

“The brand for our community is Big Sky Resort. The brand of Moonlight Basin Resort as a freestanding resort goes way. But the brand of Moonlight Basin as a village, and as part of the Big Sky community is very important, and that’s here to stay.”

The whole thing, he said, is a work in progress. “We don’t have all the answers to it, but these are the plans that we have for winter operations.”

The new Big Sky

This merger is a rare opportunity, and Middleton knows it.

“You read a lot of stories about people screwing up integration. Myself and the Big Sky leadership team decided early on what our vision was for this integration. We articulate it specifically as ‘the most successful integration of neighboring competitive ski resorts that the ski industry has ever seen, as measured by guest satisfaction, employee satisfaction and owner satisfaction.’”

Also important, he said, is the fact that the Biggest Skiing in America brand is now secure.

For Smethurst and many other long time locals and employees, that’s a good thing.

“We’ve all been here for the same reasons: Because we love the mountain, plain and simple. Lone Mountain’s not changing,” Smethurst said.

“Coming from Moonlight, our hands have been tied for a long time. It’s nice now working for a company that’s been in the ski industry for 60 years, not a bank in New York City… The sky’s the limit now.”

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