We’ve heard little about the two lift projects surrounding Lone Peak this summer, even though they will bring North America’s largest contiguous ski complex to a record 43 lifts before counting carpets. As I covered before, the biggest development is at the Yellowstone Club, where a new Doppelmayr gondola, high-speed quad and triple chair will create one of the largest beginner skiing facilities in America, though few will be lucky enough to learn to ski there.
Over at Big Sky Resort, anyone with a ticket to the Biggest Skiing in America will be able to ride the new Stagecoach double chair this winter. Stagecoach extends the long tradition of so-called lodging access lifts here, begun with Pony Express in 1995 and followed by White Otter, Cascade, arguably all five of the Spanish Peaks lifts, and most recently Little Thunder. Amazingly, almost half of the 43 lifts on Lone Peak and the surrounding mountains exist to create ski-in, ski-out real estate. At Big Sky Resort, most of these machines are seconds from other Boyne mountains and they have their own color on the trail map: purple.
In the five years prior to the real estate bubble bursting nationwide in 2008, a crazy 18 lifts were built in Big Sky at four separate ski operations. One of those, Moonlight Basin, opened in December 2003 as Lone Peak’s second public ski resort. The development’s first two lifts had simply connected to neighboring Big Sky Resort in 1994 and 1995. Between 2003 and 2006, founder Lee Poole and his partners went it alone, adding four more lifts including Montana’s first six-pack. Three of these were among the last CTECs off the line following the Doppelmayr merger.
Begun with some of $124 million in funding from Lehman Brothers, the construction of Moonlight’s seventh lift came at a bad time. Work across Moonlight Basin slowed September 7th, 2008 when the resort needed to start making payments on the $100 million loan it had signed a year earlier. Then, shockingly, the bank itself filed for Chapter 11 protection eight days later. As lift towers flew the afternoon of of October 10th, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported Moonlight was laying off many of its workers. The last two towers didn’t make it onto the mountain that day and wouldn’t for a very long time.
With no means to pay its largest creditor and others, Moonlight Basin Ranch filed for bankruptcy in November 2009. Lehman Brothers foreclosed on the property in 2012 and for one year the famous New York bank operated a ski resort some 2,200 miles away. Over the following few seasons, CrossHarbor Capital Partners of Boston bought stakes in the Yellowstone Club, Spanish Peaks Mountain Club and Moonlight Basin, while the Stagecoach lift sat half finished with sheave trains literally lying in the mud.
Today, Big Sky is a much more stable place. Boyne Resorts operates the lifts at Big Sky, Spanish Peaks and Moonlight while Discovery Land Company runs The Yellowstone Club. A subsidiary of CrossHarbor called Lone Mountain Land Company develops and sells real estate at Spanish Peaks and Moonlight. Last year, the company selected Skytrac Lifts to finally complete the forgotten Stagecoach lift, which begins near the Ulerys Lakes and unloads along Peaks View Drive with a ski-out to Six Shooter and Derringer.
Back in 2007, Moonlight Basin purchased the Haymeadow lift, a 1980 Doppelmayr from the earliest days of Beaver Creek, to become Stagecoach. At one point, it was to be called Ulerys Lakes lift but Stagecoach fit better with Moonlight’s western theme. Foundations for the bottom terminal with counterweight tensioning were poured and two operator houses delivered before work abruptly stopped.
Fast forward nine years and Skytrac has changed course with a brand new Monarch drive-tension station up top and monopod Peak return terminal below. While it will no longer be a classic ’80s Doppelmayr, Skytrac’s first project in Big Sky is well-suited to a company adept at adapting to other manufacturers’ equipment. The lone run to Stagecoach won’t be compelling for most skiers, but seek this lift out if you ski at Big Sky by venturing behind Moonlight Lodge. As you ride back up Moonlight Basin, ponder just how crazy the last decade was here and appreciate how much better things are now. The new ski-in, ski-out cabins going up around Stagecoach are pretty sweet too.