Montana’s Big Sky Ski Resort Finally Gets Its Moment in the Sun
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- When Dave Stergar started skiing at Montana’s Big Sky Resort in the early 1990s, few lifts had safety bars, and most moved at a snail’s pace through 15 degree temperatures and 30 mph winds. After offloading, he’d then have to hike an hour to reach the extreme runs off the 11,166-foot Lone Peak.
Stergar, a 54-year-old retired middle school teacher from Helena, Mont., was one of the many die-hards happily willing to forgo the comforts of a full-amenity resort to race down Big Sky’s 50-degree chutes; narrow, no-mistakes couloirs; and leg-burning, 6-mile bowl runs all by himself. With more skiable acres than Telluride and Jackson Hole combined—and 4,350 vertical feet—it rivaled anything he’d experienced in France or Italy.
Now, some 30 years later, Big Sky has a lift system to match. When Stergar checked into his vacation home there in December, he found himself zipping along on a heated chairlift (shielded by a wind-resistant bubble) to his favorite double blacks in the high alpine terrain.
In 2016, Michigan-based Boyne Resorts, owner of Big Sky, unveiled a 10-year, $150 million capital investment plan to transform not just the resort but also the small mountain community bearing the same name from a remote outpost to a full-fledged luxury destination.
Boyne Resorts was founded in 1947 by late visionary Everett Kircher. It purchased Big Sky in 1976. Since then it’s acquired other properties such as Sugarloaf in Maine and the Summit at Snoqualmie in Washington, making the family-owned company the third-largest ski operator in North America behind conglomerates Vail Resorts Inc. and Alterra Mountain Co.
Now run by Kircher’s son Stephen, Boyne is looking to make Big Sky more of a diamond and less “in the rough.” Fast, comfortable chairlifts are just one part of the enhancement plan. The Chamonix-inspired lifestyle—with its posh après-ski spots and leisurely, on-piste lunches—is up next. “Our goal is to be America’s Alps,” says Kircher.
His dream has a ways to go. But on opening day this year—slated for Nov. 25—the resort will welcome the fastest six-person chairlift in North America as well as two huge hotel renovation projects. On Dec. 15 the area’s first five-star resort, Montage Big Sky, will open with 150 rooms and ski-in, ski-out access. The town itself will get an ice rink this season, just one piece of a $20 million community center that’s expected to open by March, complete with a climbing wall and art galleries.
Some locals and devotees had wondered what took so long. A sort of Wild West for skiers, Big Sky had no historic mining town, like Steamboat Springs or Park City, to anchor a resort. Given Big Sky’s reputation among freeskiers for extreme thrills, Boyne long focused on servicing its most gnarly peaks, leaving the beginner-area chairlifts in such decrepit shape that they’d frequently break down. When the Lone Peak tram opened in 1995, a decade before the town of Big Sky received a medical center, it tripled the resort’s expert terrain—runs that, at the time, most resorts considered liabilities.
Prioritizing adrenaline and adventure above all else became Big Sky’s selling point as much as its limitation. There wasn’t even a grocery store to stock up your rental condo until 2014. So anyone seeking thrills both on- and off-mountain headed to Jackson Hole and Whistler Blackcomb instead.
But it’s becoming easier than ever to get to the town of Big Sky. In the last year, its closest airport, Bozeman Yellowstone International, began welcoming direct flights from 29 major hubs, including all three New York City-area airports, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The unincorporated community around it, which had barely 500 residents in 1990, grew 56% in the last census and now has a full-time population of just over 3,600. Like in many mountain towns, demand increased amid the pandemic: Real estate sales doubled, to $725 million, in 2020.
Even without all that, powder hounds have been catching on. The resort experienced 46% growth in skier visits over the past five years—a boost that can be attributed, at least in part, to its participation in the multiresort Ikon Pass since 2018. As a result of its infrastructure upgrades, more than 41,000 riders can be moved per hour across 39 lifts and 5,850 skiable acres. Add its proximity to Yellowstone National Park, roughly an hour’s drive southeast, and there’s nothing else like Big Sky in the lower 48.
Boyne maintains that it hasn’t lost sight of Big Sky’s appeal as an uncrowded destination, noting that other major resorts have 200% to 400% more skier density per acre. And yet, bottlenecks have emerged. This past winter, Big Sky resident Ashley Dodd, 44, rode the Lone Peak tram just once because of two-hour waits.
“Last season the lines grew beyond what we thought was acceptable,” says Troy Nedved, Big Sky Resort general manager. As a result it will now charge $20 to $80 extra per day for tram access—on top of regular lift ticket prices, which during the winter holidays can cost $222 a day.
The biggest change, though, is that for the first time, Big Sky has tempting reasons to take a break from the slopes. There’s a food hall with sushi and ramen restaurants, plus craft cocktails at renovated après-ski hangout Westward Social—both products of a $13 million overhaul to the base area that made its debut last year as part of the broader investment plan.
Loyal fan Stergar still thinks they can do more. “In Europe, you can stop in a little mountain hut for hot chocolate or wine and cheese,” he says. He wishes that U.S. ski areas would fixate less on “things that are all about making money” and more on adding perks that contribute to the overall experience.
December’s opening of the Montage at the base of Spanish Peaks will add some Zermatt-worthy glitz, at the very least. Building on the exclusivity of the Yellowstone Club, a private skiing and residential community introduced on a neighboring mountain in 2019, the hotel is certain to attract a luxe-loving crowd to its 150 rooms and 39 residences, which are priced from $8 million. Its amenities include a 10,000-square-foot spa, a Northern Italian-inspired fine-dining restaurant, and ski lockers and valets.
One&Only Resorts is coming next: The nature-focused five-star brand has chosen adjacent Moonlight Basin, also owned by Boyne, for its first U.S. location. (Details surrounding that project remain confidential, though representatives have confirmed that it has broken ground.)
Some locals, like Dodd, a cafeteria worker at Ophir Elementary School in nearby Gallatin Gateway, wonder how these high-end venues will fit into the laid-back Big Sky vibe—or whether they will even be able to afford an après-ski cocktail at Montage’s Alpenglow lobby bar.
“I really hope we can keep the community feel,” adds Chris Walch, a ski instructor at the Yellowstone Club and founder of Women of Winter, a nonprofit that helps women of color become ski instructors.
Ultimately, Walch doesn’t think Big Sky will turn into a corporate resort, pointing to the fact that Boyne has “promoted a lot of local voices into some of the highest positions of leadership” and invested heavily in workforce housing, parking, and shuttle capacity. It’s also prioritized sustainability by announcing a commitment to operate with net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.
Montage Big Sky Vice President Rick Riess is optimistic, too; then again, he probably has to be. “Over half of our food and beverage revenue at our Laguna Beach and Healdsburg [California] hotels comes from the local community,” he says. And at first, “they were very wary of us.”
The capstone of the enhancement plan is an ambitious gondola system by 2025, but smaller improvements will continue to roll out before then. So far, even long-time visitors such as Stergar welcome the changes. “Our lifts now, in my opinion, are awesome,” he says. “It used to take 20 minutes or more just to reach the base of the bowl without any wind stops. Now I can get there in less than 10 minutes.”
And he’s unfazed about crowds descending on—much less ruining—his happy place. “Big Sky is so big, there is always good snow somewhere,” he says. “And we veterans have our secret stashes.”
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