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Northern Rockies

America's Alp

Montana's adventure playground comes of age, and the next decade only promises to transform Big Sky into a bigger, radder, gnarlier version of its already badass self. We can't wait.

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People tend to remember the first time they see Lone Mountain.

Turning off a two-lane Montana highway, tightly hemmed by timbered mountainsides and river rapids, the sky suddenly opens into a vast, high meadow. The peak sweeps into view like something alive against that famously big sky, a great pyramid of rock and ice and snow that commands the horizon. Still 10 miles distant and nearly a vertical mile above the river, the 11,166-foot peak is iconic—a mountain in the likeness of what a child would draw; a near caricature of sharp lines and airy pitches, complete with piked summit.

The feeling it produces can only be described as je ne sais quoi—I know not what. There’s a lightness and excitement, an intimidation and anticipation. It is a guttural, emotional response: There it is—there’s the mountain. And as the peak grows nearer with every bend in the road, it looms larger overhead, literally shading the tiny tram cars that scale its sheer northeast face and casting a wedge-shaped shadow miles across the earth.

It’s a feeling few peaks can elicit, a unique and powerful Montana connection that is instant and lasting even before skis hit snow. And it is this feeling—an ethereal reverence demanded by geologic singularity—that defines Big Sky Resort, justifies an ongoing $150 million investment in lifts and infrastructure, and belies the resort’s bold proclamation that Lone Mountain is, unequivocally, America’s Alp.

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Erik Lovlold in Lone Mountain’s Dictator Chutes.Photo credit: Ryan Turner

Geologic advantages aside, Big Sky has been a work-in-progress for nearly 40 years. Dreamt up by TV anchorman Chet Huntley in 1968, Big Sky began as a swath of private land surrounded by wilderness—the only gap in the continuous mountain corridor of the Madison Range extending from Yellowstone National Park to Gallatin Valley. Ostensibly sold for timber harvest, Huntley saw something else in this land: He saw worldclass skiing. So, with the backing of a who’s-who of outside corporate interests (Chrysler, Northern Pacific Railroad, Conoco, Northwest Airlines, and others), he broke ground on the undeveloped mountain meadow in 1970. The first lift spun in 1973, and Huntley died of cancer in 1974 as the nation fell into a recession. Chrysler went bankrupt in 1976 and sold the immature resort to Boyne Resort’s founder, Everett Kircher, for pennies on the dollar.

Fast forward to 2017, and Boyne still owns Big Sky (along with 10 other resorts across the U.S.). Everett’s son, Stephen, is company president and the architect of Big Sky’s ambitious development plan. With a sustainable business model made possible by the 2013 merger with neighboring Moonlight Basin Resort and Club at Spanish Peaks, Boyne is in the opening phases of investing $150-$200 million by 2025. The aim? To make the resort the largest in North America, and mirror the European ski experience with high tech lifts, options in on-mountain restaurants, and year-round activities. Kircher calls the American Alp initiative a “coming of age.”

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Dave Stergar airs it out in Dictator Chutes, accessible off the tram.Photo credit: Ryan Turner

“We’re not saying we’re going to make it kitschy Swiss-American architecture,” Kircher says. “The focus is on the mountain, the lift system, the on-mountain experience in four seasons, the mountain village, and certainly interfacing with the Big Sky greater community.”

Much has changed since 1973, but Lone Mountain remains an impressive skier’s mountain, with wide-open alpine turns, puckering couloirs, and 300 degrees of in-bounds skiing off of the summit. But even more than its incredible catalog of terrain, Big Sky is known for its lack of crowds—the resort boasts a typical skier density of two acres per skier. On a blustery midweek day in March, there are fewer people yet, and it’s almost lonely. On a warmup lap in The Bowl, just below a series of toothy chutes called the Gullies, there’s not another soul visible as my ski partner and I traverse into a shady, steep pitch of wind-buffed recycled powder. Fine spindrift chases us down with each fast, smooth turn.

On the next lap, we head to the tram and are pleasantly surprised to find just a few regulars in line—a far cry from the hour-plus queues that form on a weekend powder day. We sign out with patrol and head to the North Summit Snowfield, an area with several steep lines that ultimately spill 4,100 vertical feet from the summit to the bottom of Six Shooter, on the former Moonlight Basin side of the mountain. This summit experience is what sets Big Sky apart in American skiing, and Kircher regards it as the linchpin to Big Sky’s success.

“Skiing off of Lone Mountain is a different feeling than Vail or Park City,” he explains. “Those are foothills experiences—you’re really skiing around in the foothills.” And if anything, Big Sky is only getting bigger. By 2025, Kircher says, the resort will have grown from its current size of 5,800 acres (roughly the size of Jackson, Wyoming; Snowbird, Utah; and Stowe, Vermont, combined), to nearly 9,000 acres, making it the largest single ski area in North America. As Kircher puts it, “It is absolutely European in scale.”

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The out-of-bounds offerings are immense at Big Sky. Experience and proper gear required. This skier is just outside the resort.Photo credit: Ryan Turner

Standing at the top of the North Summit, looking 4,000 feet down between our ski tips, the scale is clearly evident. It’s an impressive run, with a bit of everything: steep, chalky turns off the top, funneling between jagged piles of shale into the treeline, where swooping gullies and mini ridges provide hidden powder stashes and banked turns. Once on Moonlight’s wide, rolling groomers, we crack the throttle and carve high-speed arcs down empty runs, arriving at the chair with burning quad and heaving chests. The liftie pans, “Looks like you guys had a good one.”

But terrain and elbow room have never been failings of Big Sky—lifts, amenities, and infrastructure have been. Last season, Big Sky started what amounts to an almost comprehensive retooling of its lift system. The tired and failing old triple chair in The Bowl is now a high-speed six-person bubble chair (complete with heated seats), and the venerable Challenger double chair is now a much faster triple. “Before, we had an older, aging, lower technology set of lifts,” Kircher says. “Now we’re basically leapfrogging from that, past where everybody else is at, and going to the next generation of those technologies.”

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Lone Peak Tram as seen from the lift line. Note Big Couloir to looker’s right.Photo credit: Ryan Turner

Ultimately, the resort will add, replace, or upgrade 15 to 18 lifts by 2025, including a re-envisioning of the flagship tram, which currently delivers just 15 people at a time to the craggy summit of Lone Mountain. A second lift to the summit, from the south side, is also on the table—more on that later.

At least five new on-mountain restaurants are planned at various points around the mountain, to provide “ski-around” dining á la Europe. And to help alleviate Big Sky’s reputation as a BYOE (Bring Your Own Entertainment) destination, the mountain village is set to undergo an expansion and revamping with new hotels, shops, restaurants, and bars that will make it “several octaves more exciting than it is now,” Kircher says. And that’s just what Boyne is working on; outside developers are busy, as well.

“There are a half a billion dollars of hotels going up around us,” Kircher explains, along with an expanding town center in the meadow village seven miles below the resort, which has grown to include a grocery store, hospital, hardware store, and several new restaurants, breweries, and more. Some estimates put the total investment in Big Sky over the next 10 years at up to $2 billion. 

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Greetings from a mountain goat, common in the high alpine of southwest Montana.Photo credit: Ryan Turner

Building also continues at a fevered pace in the adjacent private fiefdoms of the Yellowstone and Spanish Peaks Clubs. (Locals distinguish them by income bracket: Yellowstone Club is for billionaires, while Spanish Peaks is for mere multi-millionaires.) Members of both frequent Big Sky, and both contribute to the booming industry of Big Sky’s rapid buildout.

But not everyone is excited by the promise of increasing traffic on and off the mountain. The current tram provides a unique and intimate mountain experience, and naturally limits the amount of skier traffic on classic lines like the Big Couloir, Marx, and the North Summit, which along with Big Sky’s ever-buffing wind effect preserves excellent ski conditions. “A south-side quad, or hundred-passenger tram like Jackson has, would wreck the skiing on Lone Mountain,” says Tim Brown, who’s skied Big Sky for more than 10 years. “It’d be huge bumps, and a total mob up there.” Among Big Sky locals I spoke with, including several visiting second-home owners, their concerns lay almost exclusively with the treatment of Lone Mountain. It’s clear that Lone is the soul of Big Sky, and people are worried.

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Up-and-coming freeskier Maria Lovely enjoys a day at her local hill.Photo credit: Ryan Turner

Besides more crowded slopes, growth also threatens the wild character that has long attracted people to Montana in the first place. As the mountain expands with roads, homes, golf courses, and ski lifts to the northwest, the last remaining open wildlife corridor between Yellowstone National Park’s southern Madison Range and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness to the north will be all but severed. Already, more than 5,000 people a day drive 40 slow, twisting miles of river-bound two-lane highway up Gallatin Canyon each day to work in Big Sky. And as with most resorts, employee housing is scarce and expensive, and skyrocketing home prices have made putting down roots difficult.

But perhaps the biggest issue with continued unfettered growth in Big Sky is water: At current growth rates, Big Sky will exhaust its available groundwater supplies, and exceed its wastewater disposal capacities before the 2025 initiative is complete. Clearly, the task of building America’s Alp has challenges beyond avoiding kitschy Euro architecture. 

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Big Sky Village under the stars with Lone Mountain rising in the background.Photo credit: Ryan Turner

Big Sky may well be destined to become America’s Alp—it has the terrain, it will soon have the lifts, lodging, entertainment, and transportation to back up such a title. “I was first [in Big Sky] when I was 12,” says Kircher. “I’m most excited about Big Sky coming of age and maturing into its full potential—what my father envisioned back in 1976 and my brother helped propel in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s coming of age, and the pieces are all in place.”

In the end, for Huntley, and the Kirchers, and all those who have landed in Big Sky, the changes and opportunities, the questions of growth and responsibility, and the overarching culture of skiing all come back to that simple, powerful feeling: the lightness and excitement, intimidation and anticipation—that wild Montana je ne sais quoi of Lone Mountain rising against the western horizon.

Big Sky’s appeal—the feeling it elicits, based not just on size and skiing, but on its proximity to wildness and “real” Montana—is as unique as it is fragile. By all accounts, keeping that feeling alive will determine whether Big Sky can grow successfully, or become just another resort. After all: There are already plenty of alps in Europe.

Freelance writer and frequent SKI contributor Drew Pogge lives in Bozeman and is the owner and lead guide at Bell Lake Yurt, offering guided adventures over 14,000 permitted acres.