The great white winter of 2013-14 caused countless strained backs and worn-out snow shovels thanks to a record 99 inches of snowfall that buried Billings. But all of that snow proved to be a bonanza for Montana ski areas.
There’s no way of counting how many skiers might have called in sick to work, self administering a powder day as a sure-fire cure for a wide range of winter ills. But Montana ski areas, flush with snow that fell early in the season and kept on coming throughout the year, reported strong visitation heading into the final weeks of the season.
While final numbers have yet to be tallied for the 2014 ski season, research shows that Montana’s ski industry supports thousands of jobs and brings millions of dollars to the state. According to the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, non-resident skiers had an $83 million economic impact during the 2009-10 ski season.
“Our snow has been fantastic. We’ve had consistent storms, and we’ve had some of the best ski conditions that we’ve seen in a long time,” said Jeff Carroll, director of sales and marketing at Red Lodge Mountain. “Our base is 70 inches, which is great by our standards,” Carroll said in late March. “The only thing that hurt us was a couple of cold snaps in February.”
Carroll said Red Lodge’s favorable snow conditions brought skiers in from its primary market: Montana, Wyoming and Minnesota. Red Lodge was also popular with energy workers from North Dakota, and even skiers from the Bozeman area visited Red Lodge this year, Carroll said.
In late March, Bridger Bowl Ski Area southeast of Bozeman was on pace for more than 200,000 skier visits. Because of ample snow and continued winter-like weather, Bridger Bowl extended its season until April 14.
As an illustration of what kind of year it has been, managers at Bridger Bowl were so inundated with traffic on Feb. 22 that they encouraged skiers and snowboarders on their way to the mountain to turn back because the parking lot was too full.
Those who defied the warning encountered a 4-mile long line of vehicles crawling forward at a snail’s pace. Bridger Bowl’s decision to turn back visitors happened on a big snow day that featured 13 inches of fresh powder. It also coincided with a busy day of sporting events on the mountain, said Doug Wales, Bridger Bowl’s marketing director. Despite the traffic bottleneck, Bridger Bowl had short lift lines and excellent snow that day, Wales said.
He said Bridger Bowl is trying to get the word out that car pooling and ride sharing are good options for freeing up parking spaces at the ski area.
“Parking is the weakest link of our operation,” Wales said. “We have plenty of capacity on the mountain. But we’re trying to help curb the culture in which people thought they could hop in the car and go skiing any time.”
Skier visits at Big Sky Resort and the nearby Moonlight Basin were expected to eclipse 400,000 this year, a 20 percent increase from last year, by the time the ski area closed on April 20.
“It’s been a phenomenal season with great snow conditions,” said Sheila Chapman, manager of public relations for Big Sky. “We always have good, consistent snow. But some great storms came in for us, especially at the beginning of the season.”
Big Sky became the nation’s largest ski area last year after it acquired a private ski area on Spirit Mountain, and added Moonlight Basin ski resort in October. Big Sky now comprises 5,750 acres, edging out Vail, which has 5,289.
Bob Dixon, ski patrol director at Big Sky, has been coming to the resort for his entire life, and he couldn’t remember a better snow year, Chapman said.
When Utah was short of snow early in the season, Big Sky drew a number of early-season snow searchers, and the conditions have been favorable throughout the winter, Chapman said.
Bozeman’s efforts to boost its air service have also contributed to skier numbers, Chapman said.
“The direct flight from New Jersey has brought in a lot of New Yorkers and people from New England,” she said.