Bridger Bowl is creating a first-rate learning center this fall, with four new lifts under construction to serve exclusively green terrain. Following years of attendance records and upper mountain expansion, the move is similar to what Beaver Creek, Jackson Hole, Taos and the Yellowstone Club did recently combining short gondolas, new chairlifts and/or covered carpets to create dedicated teaching hubs away from facilities for other guests. At Bridger, the Snowflake lift is being moved away from conflicting skier traffic to a completely new area, the Virginia City double replaced with a Skytrac triple chair with loading carpet and two new SunKid conveyors added. An addition to the Saddle Peak Lodge and new Snowflake Hut cap this major investment by the Bridger Bowl Association, the mountain’s nonprofit owner for the past 63 years. Impressively, the entire expansion is being paid for with cash reserves.
Bridger Bowl’s redevelopment over the last two decades is a model for nonprofit community ski areas everywhere. At the turn of the millennium, the mountain ran one modern quad chair and five Riblet doubles built between 1964 and 1978. Every lift was subsequently replaced with new fixed grip triples and quads with loading carpets from Garaventa CTEC, Doppelmayr CTEC and now Skytrac. With six Chairkit systems, Bridger Bowl is the largest operator of loading carpets in North America. “The conveyors are very effective in reducing mis-loads and allow the lifts to be operated closer to full speeds,” Four Mountain Advisors noted in the mountain’s master plan. “This helps maintain lift capacity without the added costs of a high-speed lift.” While at one point Bridger operated two mile-long doubles, the new strategy relies on a larger number of shorter, well-placed fixed-grip triples and quads. Virginia City and Snowflake are the fifth and sixth modern lift replacements in new alignments.
Recent upgrades focused on the upper mountain. The Schlasman’s lift and terrain opened in 2008, providing lift access to some of the most intense inbounds skiing in the country. One must wear an avalanche beacon to ride the lift no matter the conditions. The Bridger triple replaced two Riblet doubles two years later, adding a mid-station option. In 2013, Skytrac replaced the Alpine double with a pair of triples to better serve intermediate terrain on the North side of the ski area. With recent investments in expert and intermediate skiing, this year the association’s board turned its attention to beginners.
Following the acquisition of new private land surrounding the base area in 2012, Bridger Bowl added parking and undertook a master planning process to identify key objectives for 2015-2020. Gallatin County’s population is growing at 1.2 percent per year and Bridger Bowl’s skier visits even faster, up 18 percent in the last two years. Bridger Bowl estimates that its share of beginner skiers aged 5 to 15 will grow twice as fast as the in the past, partly due to the loss of Moonlight Basin as a low-cost option for the Gallatin Valley. A ticket to Moonlight cost $39 in 2008-09 while one to Big Sky now runs $139 (a Moonlight-only season pass is still available for $769 compared with Bridger Bowl’s $675.)
The new Snowflake triple still has only two towers and serves a new run called Hickey’s Hollow. Virginia City will feature 14 towers and load alongside the Jim Bridger Lodge to open up the base area. Unlike most new Skytracs, the new triple chair will have the drive up top and tension down below. Rather than utilizing a Peak return unit, the lower terminal will probably look like this.
Busy days at Bridger Bowl now crack 5,200 skiers. In the future, the mountain plans to add two more new lifts to the north of the existing boundary. Bradley Meadows will offer even more intermediate terrain above Alpine and a second staff-only platter will allow the ski patrol to perform avalanche hazard reduction above. When it approved Schlasman’s and Bradley Meadows in 2005, the Forest Service capped Bridger Bowl’s future skiers at one time capacity at 6,100 skiers. However, these improvements aim for 5,000 to maintain a quality experience and uncrowded slopes Montana is known for.