BOZEMAN - Even though Brett Potter has been skiing Bridger Bowl ski area since he was 4, it's like a whole new ski hill this winter.
"It's a lot different now," said Potter, 32, as he paused atop Bridger's newest chair, Schlasman's Lift. "Basically, there's a lot more access for us. It's turned this mountain into a world-class ski resort."
Bridger's newest addition in 30 years, Schlasman's Lift accesses expert-only terrain to the south of Pierre's Knob. The 311 acres of bowls, gullies and chutes gouged by limestone cliffs is open only to skiers and snowboarders with an avalanche transceiver. A partner and shovel are also strongly recommended.
"The requirement is more of a filter of skiers so we have experts only in that terrain," said Doug Wales, Bridger's marketing director.
Transceivers and shovels can be rented at the base area for $20 a day. Adult lift tickets are $45.
Despite such restrictions, or maybe because of them, the lift has heartened the Bozeman-area's hard-core skiers and boarders.
"It adds an exceptional amount of advance-skier terrain," said Rich Stoltzfus, 52, a 30-year veteran at Bridger as well as a board member for the nonprofit ski area. "It's like another mountain now."
Although adding expert-only terrain may not seem like a good marketing ploy, Stoltzfus defended the idea.
"Our bylaws stipulate that we will support the local community and state of Montana first," he said. "This is giving the local community something very new."
The Bozeman area has long been known for its backcountry ski and snowboard terrain. For years, skiers accessed the more difficult lines by hiking to Bridger Bowl's ridge from the uppermost chair, the Bridger Lift. That required taking off skis or snowboards and hiking the last 300-plus vertical feet and then hiking across the ridgeline.
Schlasman's allows skiers lift-served access to a portion of the ridge above Mundy's Bowl, as well as a shorter hike to the ridgeline above Pierre's Knob and the South Bowl. It also allows skiers and boarders to hike out of bounds toward 9,169-foot Saddle Peak and the terrain below.
A new boundary policy negotiated with the Gallatin National Forest allows out-of-bounds access from the top of the mountain, whereas before skiers and boarders had to hike out of bounds from the bottom of the ski area.
The decision to manage the new lift the same as the ski area's ridge - requiring avalanche transceivers - was made to drive home the point the possible dangers of the terrain.
"It's more of a backcountry experience and we want people to be adequately prepared," Wales said.
Stoltzfus said even good skiers need route-finding skills or a partner to give them a tour of the slope.
When it first opened, ski patrol director Fay Johnson said a couple of skiers picked the wrong route and got hung up in cliffs.
"A lot of the runs that look good from the top end up in cliffs," Johnson said. "We've had a few injuries, but fortunately nothing life-threatening."
Johnson said that despite Bridger Bowl's rigorous avalanche control and attempts to place signs warning of danger, there's a false sense of security people often have when they see other ski or snowboard tracks in the snow.
"Just because there are tracks doesn't mean it's a good place to go," she said.
"We've observed some frightening backcountry etiquette, too," with eight to 10 skiers on one slope, rather than the backcountry-recommended one at a time, she added.
Despite any possible risks, snowboarders and skiers are happy to have more terrain to investigate.
"Even people who have skied the area a long time are excited because chair access allows them to explore it more than when they were hiking over," Wales said.
"It's taken the mystery out of a lot of the lines," he said.
Contact Brett French at French@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.