Vans covered in outdoorsy decals, Subarus outfitted with ski racks and SUVs with out-of-state license plates overflow the Beartooth Basin’s small parking lot. On busy days the parked cars line the Beartooth Highway near its summit at about 11,000 feet, a clear indication of a good snow year.
Sunburned 20-somethings and families hang out on tailgates and lawn chairs between sessions on the slope. Many commuted from nearby towns in Wyoming or Montana, but others traveled thousands of miles to ski the nine trails and terrain park of the Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area.
It’s been three years since the two Poma lifts of the ski hill returned riders to the top of the basin after 1,000-foot drops to the valley below. This winter blessed the ski hill with enough snow for a six-week season, and the lifts are expected to run seven days a week until July 2.
“I need this operation running for at least two weeks to even break even or really make it worth it,” said Austin Hart, Beartooth Basin’s co-owner and operations manager. "Breaking even really is a novelty in the ski business."
Hart said he expects 3,500 to 4,000 skier visits in just under 50 days this year. The ski area holds camps for ski teams across the region during the week, and for the first time on June 16 to 18 will also host the Mountain Riders Alliance Summer Shredfest, a qualifying event for the Freeride World Tour.
The ski hill began operation more than 50 years ago as a private summer training camp for ski racers. The clientele was mostly from the East Coast and affluent.
Hart’s uncle, Rob Hart, purchased the ski area in 2003 and opened the slopes to the public for the first time. Austin took over operations in 2011, following his uncle’s death, and changed the name from Red Lodge International Summer Ski and Snowboard Camp to Beartooth Basin.
Casey Hill started working at the ski area in 1995. As the longest-tenured staff member he remembers the hill when it was skied by a clientele of mostly well-to-do skiers from the East Coast. So he sees the opening of the hill to the public as a positive impact on the ski community.
Hill said the parking lot used to be occupied by one bus and a couple employee vehicles. The private camp owners brought in 60 ski racers in the morning and another 60 freestyle riders trained in the afternoon when the snow softened up. Now they arrive in unshaven hordes. Grassroots riders camp out in tents and vans for weeks to keep costs down while prolonging their riding season.
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That enthusiasm for the sport is something Hill can relate to. Beartooth Basin is staffed by skiers. They start working on the pass weeks before it’s accessible by car. The crews dug out the lift towers by hand, blew up a section of the cornice with dynamite and had the picturesque mountain to themselves to ski for weeks ahead of the season opener.
“People will come up here, ski for a day or a week, and it’s the highlight of their year,” Hill said. "The employees are up here for eight or nine weeks.
“Preseason is the best. Before the gates open we have to snowmobile up here. It’s pretty western.”
The ski area opened with the Beartooth Pass on May 27 and hosted scores of skiers in the first two weeks of operation.
Over the weekend top professional and amateur riders attended Beartooth Summer Session, the ski area’s first big event of the year. Skiers could be seen flipping off the 50-foot cornice to the slope below during the slopestyle competition.
Magnus Granér and his crew of fellow Swedish ski bums, known as “The Bunch,” purchased a 1996 Chevrolet Suburban in May and have driven across the United States and Canada in search of skiable snow. They made Summer Session part of their two-month tour of American summer ski hills.
Granér has skied some of the most famous mountains across the globe and last year won an X-Games gold medal in the Real Ski competition for a video he made with The Bunch. But he said he’s never skied anywhere like Beartooth Basin.
“I just like the layout of the place, how the ticket office is a trailer and everybody who works here are just homies,” Granér said. “I way rather support this type of place than like Vail Resort. This is just skiing for skiing, not to make money or something.”