Recreation

A Banner Year on Big Mountain

With a 20% increase in skiers and snowboarders over its previous busiest winter, Whitefish Mountain Resort continues to chart record growth and invest in improvements, including plans for its first six-pack chair lift

By Tristan Scott
Opening day at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Dec. 10, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As Whitefish Mountain Resort prepares to close the books on its first full winter season since 2019, it has already shattered seasonal visitation records by at least 20%, reporting a banner year despite operating within the constraints of a global pandemic and with considerably less snowfall than in winters past.

The ski area on Big Mountain recorded its previous busiest ski season during the winter of 2018/19 with approximately 384,800 total skier and snowboarder visits, surpassing its prior best set in 2017/18 by nearly 3,000 and marking the third consecutive season of record-setting growth. The 2019/20 season, of course, was cut short by a full month due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the resort was on track at the time to chart yet another banner year.

In the final days leading up to this ski season’s closing day on April 11, Whitefish Mountain Resort management says the ski area has again smashed previous records, tallying more than 450,000 skiers and riders since opening day last Dec. 10. Winter sports enthusiasts arrived in droves as total snow accumulations topped 227 inches at the summit, considerably less than the resort’s second-best snow year recorded in 2017/18, when 410 inches fell at the summit stake, and well below the all-time record 2007/08 ski season, which heaped 426 inches on the Big Mountain.

The resort also operated this year without a singles line, causing longer wait times, and management required everyone in line for the chairlift to wear a mask or face covering. Bars and restaurants, meanwhile, ran at reduced capacities.

Skiers retrieve their gear from racks outside the Summit House on opening day at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Dec. 10, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Still, if it wasn’t clear from previous winters that demand for Whitefish Mountain Resort is intensifying at a rapid pace, it certainly is now.

To accommodate the growth, resort management has continued to make perennial investments in infrastructure and other improvements at the ski area, resisting the industry-wide trend of corporate consolidation in favor of expanding its offerings locally, both in winter and summer months. In recent years, those improvements include multi-million dollar remodels of the Summit House, Bierstube and Ed and Mully’s; expansions of the Base Lodge and Bike Park; and the addition of the Flower Point Chair and subsequent relocation of Chair 5, now called East Rim Chair.

Meanwhile, progress continues on the multi-year project to reconfigure the Hellroaring Basin chairlift, with management personnel recently selecting the Salt Lake City-based company SkyTrac to relocate the existing chairlift this summer. The plans call for the lower terminal to begin higher up the basin at Grand Junction, while the top terminal will unload skiers onto the Toni Matt ridge, at the split with Big Ravine. The new configuration of Chair 8 is set to be completed by the 2021/22 ski season.

Map showing the relocation of Chair 8, also known as the Hellroaring Chair at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Courtesy image

Along similar lines, Whitefish Mountain Resort CEO Dan Graves dropped a major piece of news on April 5 when he announced the ski area’s largest lift investment to date, saying the resort is laying plans for its first high-speed six-pack out of the Base Lodge area.

“The lift will transport guests in under 7 minutes to the top of the Inspiration Ridge near the old top terminal of Chair 5,” Graves stated in the announcement. “These are truly exciting times at Whitefish Mountain Resort.” 

The company Leitner Poma has been chosen to install the resort’s new six-pack, Chair 4, which is slated to be ready for opening day of the 2022/23 ski season. On April 13, the resort will begin the process of glading and prepping for Chair 4, and will begin full construction of the lift next summer, with plans to conduct a load test in the fall of 2022. Preparations include moving the Magic Carpet to looker’s right, while the current Chair 4 configuration, a fixed-grip triple installed in 1978, will be replaced entirely.

According to Maren McKay, public relations manager at WMR, there was some debate over whether to build another high-speed quad out of the Base Lodge area or commit to a more capacious six-pack, with the price difference negligible enough to warrant the latter, particularly in light of the resort’s exponential growth.

“When management was trying to decide between a four-pack versus a six-pack, we really felt that, as we’re seeing growth and knowing so many guests are going in and out of the Base Lodge area and using that area as an access point, we wanted to account for current and future growth,” McKay wrote in an email. “The difference in price between the two is a six-pack is about 10% more than a four-pack.”

Whitefish Mountain Resort also recently announced its 2021/22 winter season pass prices, with the lowest prices available through Sept. 30. The winter 2021/22 season is slated to begin on Dec. 9, 2021 and run through April 10, 2022. For more information and a full list of prices, visit the resort’s website here.

“We’re so happy to have been able to provide a complete ski season this year and what a season it was,” Nick Polumbus, director of marketing and sales at WMR, stated in a press release announcing the new changes. “With more passholders than ever before and plenty of concern surrounding COVID-19 we really were not quite sure what to expect when the season began. In true Whitefish fashion, at the end of the day we proved once again that life is mostly about skiing. We’re proud to be the home mountain to so many people who value the outdoors and specifically the sport of skiing.”

Whitefish Mountain Resort has a “3 ways to pay” policy for season passes, which is crafted to accommodate the local market and make season passes more accessible. Guests can either pay in full, pay through the two-payment plan, or take advantage of a six-payment plan. The two-payment plan requires guests to pay half of the total when they initially sign up to purchase a season pass and the other half later, agreeing to an automatic charge. The six-payment plan lays out six monthly payments, with guests required to make their first payment online by June 30. Subsequent payments will be charged to their credit or debit card monthly beginning July 1.

“I think it is important for pass holders to know that the resort continues to reinvest into its infrastructure each year providing more value to the season pass,” according to Graves.

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