In that time frame the ski area has widened some runs, increased the amount of tree skiing and added a new beginner’s lift. There also seemed to be more groomed runs than I remember. All this for the price of a $49 lift ticket for adults — $30 if you feign sickness at work to ski or snowboard on Thursdays.
“Some Thursdays we are slammed,” said Katie Boedecker, ski area manager.
This winter the ski area has been blessed with good snow, making the four-hour, 184-mile drive from Billings more than worthwhile.
Since the mountain is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, a big snowfall in those days can draw carloads of powder hounds from Bozeman and Helena on Wednesdays, Boedecker said. The weekdays are also when busloads of students from surrounding communities take part in learn to ski programs. Last year Showdown hosted 7,000 youngsters, coming from as far away as Malta.
The ski area isn’t close to any of Montana’s bigger towns, which can make it challenging to draw customers. Helena is 107 miles away, Butte 164 and Missoula 225. Great Falls provides many of the ski hill’s riders, since it is only an hour away. White Sulphur Springs, with its 1,000 residents, is the closest community of any size, a mere 30 miles distant.
“White Sulphur has become quite the little getaway,” Boedecker said.
The town is a great jumping-off place for fly fishing on the Smith River, 200 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in the Little Belt Mountains, 20 miles of Nordic ski trails and lots of places for trail bike riding, Boedecker said.
In addition to being close to such great outdoor recreation, White Sulphur Springs has a natural hot springs to soak away any aches and pains from overexertion in those activities. Three pools of varying heat are open to the public at the Spa Hot Springs Motel. Get a room at the motel and the hot springs are free, in addition to being right next door. About eight months ago the changing rooms were updated. It’s nice to see the continuing improvements at the small business.
White Sulphur Springs is also home to 2 Basset Brewery, serving local craft beers in a cozy setting — many with pooch-friendly names like Dawg Days and Harvest Hound.
In an era of ever-rising ski lift prices at other ski areas — and the closing of smaller ones like Sleeping Giant near Cody, Wyoming — Showdown has continued to keep its costs down. Boedecker said that’s largely because her father George Willett, the 78-year-old owner of the ski area for the past 48 years, is also a certified public accountant. He keeps a close watch on the numbers.
“We’re just so blessed to be where we are,” Boedecker said. “And we have a loyal base of customers.”
As the public face of the ski area over those many years, Willett has embodied the ski area’s family-friendly atmosphere in addition to being willing to try new things. One is the ski hill’s $100 learn to ride program that includes three two-hour lessons, a lift pass and rentals. Although other ski areas offer a similar teaching program, Showdown goes a step farther and includes a season pass for Sundays that includes rentals.
“It’s basically giving it away,” Boedecker said.
Skiers and snowboarders can also purchase a $299 season pass (adult price) beginning March 1 that’s good for the rest of the season and next year.
Another cool thing about Showdown is that it’s a family operation. Even after breaking his neck two years ago Willett is still at the helm. His son Charley still works part-time at the ski area and Boedecker's daughter, Avery Patrick, is the marketing director. Twelve employees work year-round to keep the facility operational.
Rediscovering Showdown was a fun road trip. The only downside was due to my own neglect. I forgot to pack my daughter’s ski pants — it’s always something — so being a good father I let her wear my snow pants, and I skied in my jeans.
I hadn’t skied in blue jeans since the 1970s, and for good reason. When jeans get wet and freeze it’s like wearing stovepipes on your legs: cold, stiff and uncomfortable. Luckily, I don’t fall as much as I did in the 1970s, so I avoided the stovepipe feel, but the fear of fashion shaming did occur to me.
Although jeans were all the rage on ski slopes in the 1970s — especially the blue jeans with large bell bottoms — I saw no one wearing them at Showdown. I was alone in my retro-fashion statement, but luckily Showdown seemed like the perfect place for a little nostalgia.