Despite Slow Start, Winter Picking Up for Flathead Valley Skiers, Businesses

A record-low snowpack has sent ripples through the local winter-recreation economy, but current conditions and forecasts leave business community optimistic

By Micah Drew
Sunshine on a freshly groomed trail at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Feb. 16, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On Christmas Eve, which touches off what is traditionally the busiest week of winter on Whitefish Mountain Resort (WMR), officials made the unprecedented decision to temporarily suspend the resort’s generous uphill access policy. The reasoning was simple: there just wasn’t enough snow or open terrain to mix uphill skiers and downhill skiers.

The mountain was only operating half of the resort’s 14 lifts due to the limited snow that fell in northwest Montana during December — the summit registered barely 3 feet of settled base — and much of the frontside remained closed. The resort recommended skiers download Chair 1, rather than risk a hazardous descent.

For a weather-dependent business, the wimpy start to the winter had an immediate effect on the resort, which recorded more than a half-million skier visits last season. A stretch of sub-zero temperatures over the usually busy Martin Luther King Jr., holiday weekend further dampened visitation.          

“Certainly, we’re off from last year, but we don’t ever expect one year to be like the next. We don’t budget or plan based off of a record year,” WMR president Nick Polumbus said. “That being said, we are down from our plans for this year. We came through the holiday period with visitation down roughly 30% from what we expected.”

Paltry snow beneath Chair 10 at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Dec. 29, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As the anchor of the Flathead Valley’s winter tourism industry, a lot rides on WMR drawing in crowds of visitors. However, skier numbers alone don’t tell the entire story, according to Polumbus, who attributed at least some of the downturn in holiday-week skiers to local season passholders, who opted against skiing in poor conditions, a concession that single-day pass purchasers are less inclined to make.

“What was interesting is, throughout the entire first half of the season, the people who did come are the people who spent money on rentals, ski school, food and beverage and everything else we offer,” he said. “So, all of those lines of business actually performed pretty well.”

Through the first half of the year, the overall financial dip was closer to 15%, Polumbus said, well within the resort’s operating margin.

“It’s been a strange and volatile year, but we’ve been able to respond to the conditions and keep spirits high, especially among our staff,” he said. “It also seems like people who have been visiting but skiing less just end up spending more time in town, which ends up helping everyone down the mountain.”

Tim Hinderman, the director of the Whitefish Ski Heritage Museum who grew up skiing on Big Mountain, has seen more people wandering into the small log cabin near Stumptown Ice Rink due to the weather conditions this year.

“You don’t need to have snow for the museum to be intact,” he said. “There’s been a whole bunch of people dressed up with nowhere to go, and they end up here.”

Although Hinderman sympathizes with the tourists who might have put off trips or turned to roaming Second Street instead of Russ’ Street, he said he’s been more concerned with members of the Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation Race Team, which he coached until last year.

“The race team and the kids programs just aren’t able to get training in during a year like this,” he said. “There wasn’t enough snow early on to set up practice courses, so especially for the competitive skiers, that’s been hard to see. Frankly, I wouldn’t wish this winter on anyone, though. It’s been a bit of a reality check. I’ve skied less this year than any year since I learned to ski at age 3.”

Hinderman can vividly recall a winter in the late 1960s with a similar trajectory — barely enough snow to ski through the Christmas holidays, but then January rolled around and dumped a full 8 inches in one day. However, he adds that a bad snow year several decades ago didn’t have the same impact on local businesses because the ski resort cast a smaller net to bring in tourists.

“The other side of the coin to look at right now, though, is that winter has always been the secondary season around here. It’s difficult, for sure, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Overall, the lower visitation to the Flathead Valley this winter tracks with other resort communities in the West. According to data provided by Explore Whitefish, short-term rental occupancy in Whitefish was down around 13% in December and January, similar to an 11% and 23% drop in Sun Valley, Idaho, and a 9.5% and 12% drop in Jackson Hole over the same respective months.

Julie Mullins, executive director of Explore Whitefish, echoed Polumbus by pointing out that the last several years following the height of the COVID pandemic led to a surge in tourism numbers, so any year-over-year comparisons should be considered with respect to recent records.

At the Garden Wall Inn, owner Rhonda Fitzgerald said the year is one of the slowest she’s seen, with bookings down well below average. And those visitors who did come, spent a lot more time in town than on the slopes.

“The great thing is that we have other things to do in the Flathead Valley, and repeat visitors, especially, know that. So, it’s not a bust for them to not have a big ski vacation,” Fitzgerald said.

Spending data compiled by Explore Whitefish shows that while 2023 visitor spending in the Whitefish area was down roughly 8% for the entirety of the year, there was almost no year-over-year decrease for the month of December.

“Even if winter is down, that’s really not that many visitors, compared to the summer season,” Fitzgerald said. “Glacier Park is such a big international draw, so that’s where you can hang your hat on. If you have a down summer, that’s a whole other story.”

Fitzgerald expressed a lot of optimism for the rest of the winter and spring, citing the historically good spring skiing Big Mountain offers compared to many areas in Montana, a sentiment shared by Polumbus.

For the president of a ski resort, Polumbus said he usually doesn’t spend too much time thinking about weather forecasts and snowfall, but this winter his habits have shifted to checking daily temperatures more closely. He’s been pleased to see more normal weather patterns rolling through northwest Montana in recent weeks.

“If you’d asked me in November, I’d have said no or low snow at Christmas is catastrophic. But while it hasn’t been great, it hasn’t been catastrophic by any means,” he added. “Between a robust President’s Day holiday weekend, lots of March spring breaks, and the pent-up demand in the marketplace, we’re looking pretty good for the rest of the year.”

At the halfway point of the winter, Whitefish was the only ski resort to surpass 150 cumulative inches of snow in Montana. As of Tuesday afternoon, the summit had recorded 174 inches to date, with a settled base of 71 inches. Outside of Bozeman, Bridger Bowl has seen just 86 inches to date, while Big Sky Resort has a settled base of just 41 inches.

“We’re sitting as one of the top resorts for snowfall — not just in Montana but in the whole west — and word is starting to creep out,” Polumbus said. “If you want to get a full ski experience this season, we’re the place to do it.”

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