If all goes according to plan, Montana Snowbowl will add up to 1,088 acres of ski terrain next winter in a homecoming of sorts. Expanding onto neighboring TV Mountain, Snowbowl will nearly double in size, going from a modest two Riblet doubles and a Doppelmayr T-Bar to a major Montana player with seven lifts and 2,243 acres. Construction is underway and legendary artist James Niehues is currently painting the trail map for North America’s biggest expansion of the year.
The Forest Service finally approved Snowbowl’s TV Mountain expansion in May 2014 after ten years studying a connection to the long-lost Snow Park Ski Area. Owner Brad Morris acquired the Burlingame and High Alpine doubles from Snowmass (for free) in 2015 and the first of four new lifts will open this season. Work started last fall, but early storms forced crews to pause over the winter.
Montana Snowbowl does not have a true beginner or low-intermediate lift, in part because most Missoulians learned to ski at Marshall Mountain until 2003. Facing a need to broaden its appeal beyond advanced skiers, Morris worked with the Forest Service on the expansion plan which he submitted for approval in 2004. Thirteen years later, the beginnings of a new lift dubbed ‘B’ stretch 4,900 feet from the original Snow Park base area to the summit of TV Mountain with 23 towers under construction. In contrast with the Grizzly chair that rises steeply from the current base area, the new lift will ascend a modest 1,440′ vertical west of TV Mountain’s namesake towers. Ride time will be 11 minutes with a capacity of 1,200 skiers per hour. Burlingame’s tension-return station is already standing while the drive station up top will likely be High Alpine’s.
The three ski areas I am visiting this weekend operate a total of nine Riblet doubles and no other chairlifts. Montana’s dozen mountains outside the Bozeman area and Whitefish haven’t built a single truly-new lift since 1996, when Red Lodge added two Garaventa CTEC Stealths. Before that, you have to go back to 1984 to find a new chairlift that was actually new here. In that time, 21 used Riblets, Halls, Miner-Denvers, SLIs, Yans and Muellers were pieced together away from the booms at Big Sky and Whitefish (although in true Montana fashion, even those mountains have a bunch of used lifts.)
What’s happening in the Inland Northwest demonstrates the larger divide in the ski industry between large resorts and smaller community areas – the “haves” and the “have-nots.” With Aspen Skiing Co.’s removal of the last of 27 Riblet fixed-grips, Montana Snowbowl gained equipment it could not afford to buy new, or even buy at all. The cycle continues with Bridger Bowl’s last Riblet removed this spring headed to Teton Pass. Whitewater’s Summit double is off to Turner Mountain for spare parts and both Mt. Spokane and Lookout Pass plan to re-install used Riblets if they can find them. Mr. Morris made it clear his master plan for Snowbowl relies on the availability of suitable used lifts.
Further plans here call for another double chair on the front side of TV Mountain, necessary to truly connect the old area to the new. A mid-offload point will replace the existing Sunrise T-Bar and the lift will continue to near the top of the B-lift. A third new double chair called Spartan Saddle is approved to serve three new runs between TV Mountain and Grizzly while a T-Bar could open new terrain near the summit of LaVelle. In the meantime, Brad Morris and his crew have more digging to do before the snow flies again. Many more tower footings are yet to come along with the top terminal. And two states away, James Niehues still has a bunch more trees to paint before TV Mountain can open.