ALONE MOUN­TAIN.

PEO­PLE TEND TO RE­MEM­BER THE FIRST TIME THEY SEE

SKI - - CLINIC -

Turn­ing off a two-lane Mon­tana high­way, tightly hemmed by tim­bered moun­tain­sides and river rapids, the sky sud­denly opens into a vast, high meadow. The peak sweeps into view like some­thing alive against that fa­mously big sky, a great pyra­mid of rock and ice and snow that com­mands the hori­zon. Still 10 miles dis­tant and nearly a ver­ti­cal mile above the river, the 11,166-foot peak is iconic—a moun­tain in the like­ness of what a child would draw; a near car­i­ca­ture of sharp lines and airy pitches, com­plete with piked sum­mit. The feel­ing it pro­duces can only be de­scribed as je ne sais

quoi— I know not what. There’s a light­ness and ex­cite­ment, an in­tim­i­da­tion and an­tic­i­pa­tion. It is a gut­tural, emo­tional re­sponse: There it is—there’s the moun­tain. And as the peak grows nearer with ev­ery bend in the road, it looms larger over- head, lit­er­ally shad­ing the tiny tram cars that scale its sheer north­east face and cast­ing a wedge-shaped shadow miles across the earth.

It’s a feel­ing few peaks can elicit, a unique and pow­er­ful Mon­tana con­nec­tion that is in­stant and last­ing even be­fore skis hit snow. And it is this feel­ing—an ethe­real rev­er­ence de­manded by ge­o­logic sin­gu­lar­ity—that de­fines Big Sky Re­sort, jus­ti­fies an on­go­ing $150 mil­lion in­vest­ment in lifts and in­fra­struc­ture, and be­lies the re­sort’s bold procla­ma­tion that Lone Moun­tain is, un­equiv­o­cally, Amer­ica’s Alp.

GE­O­LOGIC AD­VAN­TAGES ASIDE, Big Sky has been a workin-progress for nearly 40 years. Dreamt up by TV an­chor­man Chet Hunt­ley in 1968, Big Sky be­gan as a swath of pri­vate

land sur­rounded by wilder­ness—the only gap in the con­tin­u­ous moun­tain cor­ri­dor of the Madi­son Range ex­tend­ing from Yel­low­stone National Park to Gal­latin Val­ley. Os­ten­si­bly sold for tim­ber har­vest, Hunt­ley saw some­thing else in this land: He saw world­class ski­ing. So, with the back­ing of a who’s-who of out­side cor­po­rate in­ter­ests (Chrysler, North­ern Pa­cific Rail­road, Conoco, North­west Air­lines, and oth­ers), he broke ground on the un­de­vel­oped moun­tain meadow in 1970. The first lift spun in 1973, and Hunt­ley died of cancer in 1974 as the na­tion fell into a re­ces­sion. Chrysler went bank­rupt in 1976 and sold the im­ma­ture re­sort to Boyne Re­sort’s founder, Everett Kircher, for pen­nies on the dol­lar.

Fast for­ward to 2017, and Boyne still owns Big Sky (along with 10 other re­sorts across the U.S.). Everett’s son, Stephen, is com­pany pres­i­dent and the ar­chi­tect of Big Sky’s am­bi­tious devel­op­ment plan. With a sus­tain­able busi­ness model made pos­si­ble by the 2013 merger with neigh­bor­ing Moon­light Basin Re­sort and Club at Span­ish Peaks, Boyne is in the open­ing phases of in­vest­ing $150-$200 mil­lion by 2025. The aim? To make the re­sort the largest in North Amer­ica, and mir­ror the Euro­pean ski ex­pe­ri­ence with high tech lifts, op­tions in on-moun­tain restau­rants, and year-round ac­tiv­i­ties. Kircher calls the Amer­i­can Alp ini­tia­tive a “com­ing of age.”

“We’re not say­ing we’re go­ing to make it kitschy Swiss-Amer­i­can ar­chi­tec­ture,” Kircher says. “The fo­cus is on the moun­tain, the lift sys­tem, the on-moun­tain ex­pe­ri­ence in four sea­sons, the moun­tain vil­lage, and cer­tainly in­ter­fac­ing with the Big Sky greater com­mu­nity.”

Much has changed since 1973, but Lone Moun­tain re­mains an im­pres­sive skier’s moun­tain, with wide-open alpine turns, puck­er­ing couloirs, and 300 de­grees of in-bounds ski­ing off of the sum­mit. But even more than its in­cred­i­ble cat­a­log of ter­rain, Big Sky is known for its lack of crowds—the re­sort boasts a typ­i­cal skier den­sity of two acres per skier. On a blus­tery mid­week day in March, there are fewer peo­ple yet, and it’s al­most lonely. On a warmup lap in The Bowl, just below a se­ries of toothy chutes called the Gul­lies, there’s not an­other soul vis­i­ble as my ski part­ner and I tra­verse into a shady, steep pitch of wind-buffed re­cy­cled pow­der. Fine spin­drift chases us down with each fast, smooth turn.

On the next lap, we head to the tram and are pleas­antly sur­prised to find just a few reg­u­lars in line—a far cry from the hour-plus queues that form on a week­end pow­der day. We sign out with pa­trol and head to the North Sum­mit Snow­field, an area with sev­eral steep lines that ul­ti­mately spill 4,100 ver­ti­cal feet from the sum­mit to the bot­tom of Six Shooter, on the for­mer Moon­light Basin side of the

BIG SKY IS KNOWN FOR ITS LACK OF CROWDS— THE RE­SORT BOASTS A TYP­I­CAL SKIER DEN­SITY OF TWO ACRES PER SKIER.

moun­tain. This sum­mit ex­pe­ri­ence is what sets Big Sky apart in Amer­i­can ski­ing, and Kircher re­gards it as the linch­pin to Big Sky’s suc­cess.

“Ski­ing off of Lone Moun­tain is a dif­fer­ent feel­ing than Vail or Park City,” he ex­plains. “Those are foothills ex­pe­ri­ences—you’re re­ally ski­ing around in the foothills.” And if any­thing, Big Sky is only get­ting big­ger. By 2025, Kircher says, the re­sort will have grown from its cur­rent size of 5,800 acres (roughly the size of Jack­son, Wyo.; Snow­bird, Utah; and Stowe, Vt., com­bined), to nearly 9,000 acres, mak­ing it the largest sin­gle ski area in North Amer­ica. As Kircher puts it, “It is ab­so­lutely Euro­pean in scale.”

STAND­ING AT THE TOP OF THE NORTH SUM­MIT, look­ing 4,000 feet down be­tween our ski tips, the scale is clearly ev­i­dent. It’s an im­pres­sive run, with a bit of ev­ery­thing: steep, chalky turns off the top, fun­nel­ing be­tween jagged piles of shale into the tree­line, where swoop­ing gul­lies and mini ridges pro­vide hid­den pow­der stashes and banked turns. Once on Moon­light’s wide, rolling groomers, we crack the throt­tle and carve high-speed arcs down empty runs, ar­riv­ing at the chair with burn­ing quad and heav­ing chests. The liftie pans, “Looks like you guys had a good one.”

But ter­rain and el­bow room have never been fail­ings of Big Sky—lifts, ameni­ties, and in­fra­struc­ture have been. Last sea­son, Big Sky started what amounts to an al­most com­pre­hen­sive re­tool­ing of its lift sys­tem. The tired and fail­ing old triple chair in The Bowl is now a high-speed six-per­son bub­ble chair (com­plete with heated seats), and the ven­er­a­ble Chal­lenger dou­ble chair is now a much faster triple. “Be­fore, we had an older, ag­ing, lower tech­nol­ogy set of lifts,” Kircher says. “Now we’re ba­si­cally leapfrog­ging from that, past where ev­ery­body else is at, and go­ing to the next gen­er­a­tion of those tech­nolo­gies.”

Ul­ti­mately, the re­sort will add, re­place, or up­grade 15 to 18 lifts by 2025, in­clud­ing a re-en­vi­sion­ing of the flag­ship tram, which cur­rently de­liv­ers just 15 peo­ple at a time to the craggy sum­mit of Lone Moun­tain. A sec­ond lift to the sum­mit, from the south side, is also on the ta­ble—more on that later.

At least five new on-moun­tain restau­rants are planned at var­i­ous points around the moun­tain, to pro­vide “ski-around” din­ing á la Europe. And to help al­le­vi­ate Big Sky’s rep­u­ta­tion

as a BYOE (Bring Your Own Entertainment) des­ti­na­tion, the moun­tain vil­lage is set to un­dergo an ex­pan­sion and re­vamp­ing with new ho­tels, shops, restau­rants, and bars that will make it “sev­eral oc­taves more ex­cit­ing than it is now,” Kircher says. And that’s just what Boyne is work­ing on; out­side de­vel­op­ers are busy, as well.

“There are a half a bil­lion dol­lars of ho­tels go­ing up around us,” Kircher ex­plains, along with an ex­pand­ing town cen­ter in the meadow vil­lage seven miles below the re­sort, which has grown to in­clude a gro­cery store, hos­pi­tal, hard­ware store, and sev­eral new restau­rants, brew­eries, and more. Some es­ti­mates put the to­tal in­vest­ment in Big Sky over the next 10 years at up to $2 bil­lion.

Building also con­tin­ues at a fevered pace in the ad­ja­cent pri­vate fief­doms of the Yel­low­stone and Span­ish Peaks Clubs. (Locals dis­tin­guish them by in­come bracket: Yel­low­stone Club is for bil­lion­aires, while Span­ish Peaks is for mere multi-mil­lion­aires.) Mem­bers of both fre­quent Big Sky, and both con­trib­ute to the boom­ing in­dus­try of Big Sky’s rapid build­out.

But not ev­ery­one is ex­cited by the prom­ise of in­creas­ing traf­fic on and off the moun­tain. The cur­rent tram pro­vides a unique and in­ti­mate moun­tain ex­pe­ri­ence, and nat­u­rally lim­its the amount of skier traf­fic on clas­sic lines like the Big Couloir, Marx, and the North Sum­mit, which along with Big Sky’s ever-buff­ing wind ef­fect pre­serves ex­cel­lent ski con­di­tions. “A south-side quad, or hun­dred-pas­sen­ger tram like Jack­son has, would wreck the ski­ing on Lone Moun­tain,” says Tim Brown, who’s skied Big Sky for more than 10 years. “It’d be huge bumps, and a to­tal mob up there.” Among Big Sky locals I spoke with, in­clud­ing sev­eral vis­it­ing sec­ond-home own­ers, their con­cerns lay al­most ex­clu­sively with the treat­ment of Lone Moun­tain. It’s clear that Lone is the soul of Big Sky, and peo­ple are wor­ried.

Be­sides more crowded slopes, growth also threat­ens the wild char­ac­ter that has long at­tracted peo­ple to Mon­tana in the first place. As the moun­tain ex­pands with roads, homes,

golf cour­ses, and ski lifts to the north­west, the last re­main­ing open wildlife cor­ri­dor be­tween Yel­low­stone National Park’s south­ern Madi­son Range and the Lee Met­calf Wilder­ness to the north will be all but sev­ered. Al­ready, more than 5,000 peo­ple a day drive 40 slow, twist­ing miles of river-bound two-lane high­way up Gal­latin Canyon each day to work in Big Sky. And as with most re­sorts, em­ployee hous­ing is scarce and ex­pen­sive, and sky­rock­et­ing home prices have made putting down roots dif­fi­cult.

But per­haps the big­gest is­sue with con­tin­ued un­fet­tered growth in Big Sky is wa­ter: At cur­rent growth rates, Big Sky will ex­haust its avail­able ground­wa­ter sup­plies, and ex­ceed its waste­water dis­posal ca­pac­i­ties be­fore the 2025 ini­tia­tive is com­plete. Clearly, the task of building Amer­ica’s Alp has chal­lenges be­yond avoid­ing kitschy Euro ar­chi­tec­ture.

BIG SKY MAY WELL BE DES­TINED

to be­come Amer­ica’s Alp—it has the ter­rain, it will soon have the lifts, lodg­ing, entertainment, and trans­porta­tion to back up such a ti­tle. “I was first [in Big Sky] when I was 12,” says Kircher. “I’m most ex­cited about Big Sky com­ing of age and ma­tur­ing into its full po­ten­tial—what my fa­ther en­vi­sioned back in 1976 and my brother helped pro­pel in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s com­ing of age, and the pieces are all in place.”

In the end, for Hunt­ley, and the Kirchers, and all those who have landed in Big Sky, the changes and op­por­tu­ni­ties, the ques­tions of growth and responsibility, and the over­ar­ch­ing cul­ture of ski­ing all come back to that sim­ple, pow­er­ful feel­ing: the light­ness and ex­cite­ment, in­tim­i­da­tion and an­tic­i­pa­tion—that wild Mon­tana je ne sais quoi of Lone Moun­tain ris­ing against the west­ern hori­zon.

Big Sky’s ap­peal—the feel­ing it elic­its, based not just on size and ski­ing, but on its prox­im­ity to wild­ness and “real” Mon­tana—is as unique as it is frag­ile. By all ac­counts, keep­ing that feel­ing alive will de­ter­mine whether Big Sky can grow suc­cess­fully, or be­come just an­other re­sort. After all: There are al­ready plenty of alps in Europe. Free­lance writer and fre­quent SKI con­trib­u­tor Drew Pogge lives in Boze­man and is the owner and lead guide at Bell Lake Yurt, of­fer­ing guided ad­ven­tures over 14,000 per­mit­ted acres.

BE­SIDES CROWDED SLOPES, GROWTH ALSO THREAT­ENS THE WILD CHAR­AC­TER THAT HAS LONG AT­TRACTED PEO­PLE TO MON­TANA.

Up-and-com­ing freeskier Maria Lovely en­joys a day at her lo­cal hill; Jed Don­nelly plows through The Bowl, ac­ces­si­ble off the new Pow­der Seeker six-pack, on a le­git blue­bird pow­der day.

Left: Lone Peak Tram as seen from the lift line. Note Big Couloir to looker's right. Below: Greet­ings from a moun­tain goat, com­mon in the high alpine of south­west Mon­tana. Op­po­site: Dave Ster­gar airs it out in Dic­ta­tor Chutes, ac­ces­si­ble off the tram.

Erik Lo­vold in Lone Moun­tain's Dic­ta­tor Chutes; an aerial view of Big Sky shows Lone's sin­gu­lar majesty, with the trails on the Moon­light side spilling down.

Big Sky Vil­lage under the stars with Lone Moun­tain ris­ing in the back­ground.

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