WAPITI, Wyo. — Sleeping Giant ski area has lived up to its name recently, lying dormant for winter after winter.
But as a small army of volunteers and newly hired workers finished preparations for today’s grand reopening, a few dozen early birds took to the slopes on Friday for the first day of paid public skiing in years.
“I grew up here, so it’s great to be back skiing here again,” said Rebecca Abarr, 35, who was following her son, Hadley, 6.
Hadley was barely old enough to walk when Sleeping Giant closed in spring 2004. But he was skiing with ease Friday as he glided past some of the many Cody High School students and others who were on hand to help put staffers and equipment through an early test run.
“I can go pretty fast, but I’m not allowed to crash into things to stop,” he said.
“He doesn’t like to slow down,” Abarr said.
First opened in the late 1930s, Sleeping Giant was for decades a favorite family spot for skiers of all abilities. But a run of dry winters, a substantial maintenance backlog and rising operating costs closed the ski hill, a fate shared in recent years by many other small community ski hills.
A nonprofit group led by Cody oil and gas executive Jim Nielson has worked since 2007 to reopen the ski hill, making more than $3.4 million in repairs, upgrades and expansions, including extending ski runs, clearing trees and installing a new bridge and triple-chair lift.
“I’ve been waiting for this since 2005,” said Julie Lyons, a recreation specialist with the National Forest Service, who transferred to Wyoming four years ago from the Sequoia National Forest.
Sleeping Giant sits in the Shoshone National Forest, near the eastern boundary of Yellowstone National Park, and operates under a special-use permit from the Forest Service.
“I’m just out here checking to make sure everything is looking good, and it definitely is,” Lyons said.
She said small ski areas like Sleeping Giant rely heavily on local skiers, since they typically are not destinations for vacationers.
“Community support means a lot, and I think they have that here, especially now that there has been a lot of effort by a lot of people” to rehabilitate the ski area, Lyons said.
Volunteers have worked countless hours on the project, and local private donors have given about $900,000 to the cause. State and county funds totaling more than $588,000 have helped pay for snow-making gear and other improvements.
“It’s a small area, but it’s really got fantastic terrain. There’s a really good mix of beginning and advanced runs,” said ski instructor Jasen Hansen, 27.
Hansen, a lifelong skier, said he was surprised to see so many snowboarders on opening day.
Jordan Blaylock, 18, a Cody High School student, was among dozens of snowboarders who were testing the slopes.
“I skied here a long time ago when it was open before, but now they have a lot more new stuff, and it’s a lot nicer than it used to be.” he said.
Blaylock said he wanted to try out the terrain park — a special area set up for snowboarders that is new this season — but it was closed due to lack of snow.
Complications in permitting and operating new equipment has meant a late start to snow-making, forcing a reliance on scant natural snow. A new triple-chair lift is still awaiting final certification.
Alex Housel, 17, said she preferred the snow this year at Red Lodge, where she and others on the Cody High School ski team practice and compete.
“We practice there because that’s where our races are, so we know the course,” she said. “But this is a lot closer to come for a quick ski trip.”
Andy Quick, area manager for Sleeping Giant, has long had a special fondness for the ski hill, and has even hiked to the top of its slopes in recent years when lifts were closed, just to enjoy a run down the hill in splendid isolation.
“You definitely earn your turns doing it that way,” he said.
“But it’s great to see paying customers back on the slopes. It’s an outstanding thing,” he said.