Imagine a business where your product is so popular that you have to turn customers away.
“For a marketing guy, it’s kind of counterintuitive,” said Doug Wales, marketing director for Bridger Bowl Ski Area.
But that’s essentially what the ski hill northeast of Bozeman was doing on Feb. 22 — encouraging skiers and snowboarders driving up to the mountain to turn back or not come at all, saying the parking lot was full.
Those who defied warnings — broadcast on the radio, the Bridger snow phone recording, posted on the ski area’s website, Facebook page and on a lighted sign on the road coming up — may have been shocked at what they encountered: a 4-mile long line of vehicles crawling forward at less than 5 mph.
“I thought there was a car accident because we’d never seen so many cars that far away from the ski hill,” said Billings skier Shawn Petrie. “It was probably the most cars I’ve ever seen on that road.”
Welcome to Montana rush hour traffic, except instead of people commuting to work, skiers and snowboarders were trying to take advantage of 13 inches of fluffy light new snow, known locally as cold smoke. There were also three different events taking place at Bridger Bowl that Saturday, which likely boosted attendance beyond normal and increased competition for parking.
Go on or go home
Some skiers, like Petrie, saw a Montana Highway Patrol trooper’s “Lots full” sign that he held out his car window toward hill-bound traffic and turned their vehicles around.
“Some people kept going, but we thought, ‘What’s the point?’” Petrie said. “Why keep on going if the lots full and we’ve got 2 to 3 miles to go?”
Others parked at the Olson Creek parking lot used by snowmobilers, more than a mile away, and hitchhiked up to the mountain. Others parked closer to the hill but still on the highway — but Petrie’s Bozeman friends told him he’d be ticketed if he did that.
Passengers in cars driving back to Bozeman videoed the amazingly long line of cars with their smartphones as they drove past, a sight they had never seen.
Yet for some who persevered, they reached the mountain only to find that there was parking in a lot at the very bottom of the mountain. What the heck?
“What we did was we tried to anticipate, knowing there was a long line of cars coming up,” Wales said. “We weren’t trying to turn people away. We were trying to inform people so they could decide how to handle it.”
Petrie was puzzled, though.
“How is it making them aware if it’s not really full?” he asked.
The crazy thing was that, once skiers and snowboarders had endured the slow commute and hauled their gear up to the base of the mountain, the lift lines were relatively short.
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“I had friends ahead of me about 15 to 20 minutes that, once they were on the hill it was no problem,” Petrie said. “It’s disappointing, especially when everyone was telling me how great the skiing was.”
The exception, according to one veteran Bozeman skier, was the expert Schlashman’s lift where a long line required powder-hungry riders to wait for up to an hour. There was also a backup of powder-seeking skiers and boarders hiking to The Ridge atop the Bridger lift.
Wales said there were probably about 4,000 skiers and snowboarders on the mountain Saturday, one of the best turnouts of the season.
“The mountain really does handle the traffic,” he said. “The weakest part of the whole chain is parking.”
One of the obvious solutions to the problem is for skiers and boarders to carpool. Bridger has been promoting carpooling at different times of the season by offering discounted tickets when there are three people in the car. The ski area also underwrites the cost of buses that shuttle riders, for free, from the county fairgrounds to the ski hill. And the ski area has asked the county for permission to expand its parking from the 1,500 vehicles it can now handle, but that will take time to get a variance.
“We’re trying to create a cultural shift,” Wales said, but the ski area’s close proximity to Bozeman — usually only a 20-minute drive — is one of the great attractions to skiers and snowboarders with season passes who may drive up for only a few runs. “No friends on powder days” is an oft-Tweeted slogan.
“People take it literally and leave spouses at home,” Wales said.
Part of Bridger’s parking problem is also probably due to Big Sky Resort’s purchase of adjoining Moonlight Basin ski area this year. Although farther away from Bozeman, Moonlight used to be a price competitor with Bridger Bowl. Now that Moonlight is under Big Sky’s umbrella, an adult day ticket pushes $100 to ride both mountains. That compares to $51 for an adult ticket at Bridger Bowl.
“Bridger really does represent the value skiing experience here,” Wales said. “The two new lifts (servicing beginner and intermediate terrain) may have a lot to do with it, as well. That’s been going over with great success.”
There’s no doubt, too, that Bridger Bowl’s good snow year has also boosted attendance, but that hasn’t been particular just to Bridger. All of Montana’s ski hills are reporting strong powder days. But Bozeman arguably has the largest base of powder hounds of any town in the state. Students specifically attend college at Montana State University in Bozeman just to get a Ph.D. in skiing. New snow, and lots of it, drives those riders to the slopes in search of face shots — blasts of powder snow to the face.
Between Feb. 18 and 26, Bridger recorded 42 inches of new snow on a base of 90 inches with more snow forecast over the weekend. As of Wednesday, the hill had recorded 146,000 skier visits, 69,000 of them purchasing day tickets while the other 77,000 were season pass holders. The ski area’s last day is scheduled for April 6, but when snow falls, extra days are sometimes added. So if you want to avoid 4 miles of gridlock, waiting a few weeks may be to your advantage.
“Toward the end of March, things definitely wind down when those other four-letter sports come out — golf, fish, bike,” Wales said.
But even then, he noted, “If it’s big snow, people are always ready to come out and play in the powder.”