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Dan Grider, General Manager of Great Bear, South Dakota
September 25, 2023
About Great Bear Ski Valley
Owned by: The City of Sioux Falls
Located in: Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Year founded: 1966
Pass affiliations: None
3 days at Seven Oaks
2 days at Mont du Lac
1 day each at Buck Hill, Powder Ridge MN, Snowstar
Discounts at several other local ski areas
Closest neighboring ski areas: Mt. Crescent (2:37), Mount Kato (2:16)
Base elevation: 1,352 feet
Summit elevation: 1,534 feet
Vertical drop: 182 feet
Skiable Acres: 20
Average annual snowfall: 49 inches
Trail count: 15 (7 most difficult, 5 more difficult, 3 easiest)
Lift count: 3 (1 fixed-grip quad, 1 ropetow, 1 carpet – view Lift Blog’s inventory of Great Bear’s lift fleet)
Why I interviewed him
Frequent Storm readers have probably started to notice the pattern: every fourth or fifth podcast swerves off Megapass Boulevard and takes four state highways, a gravel path, a Little Caesars pit-stop, and ends in the Wal-Mart-sized parking lot of a Midwest ski area. Which often sits next to a Wal-Mart. Or a car dealership. Or, in the case of Great Bear, between a construction supply depot and the Sioux Falls chapter of the Izaak Walton League, a conservation society.
Why do I do this? My last three podcasts featured the leaders of Killington, Keystone, and Snowbird. The next one to drop into your inbox will be Northstar, a Vail Resorts staple that is the ninth-largest ski area in America. If you’re reading this newsletter, there is a high probability that you either already have skied all four of those, or plan to at some future point. Most of you will probably never ski Great Bear or anywhere else in South Dakota. Many of you will never ski the Midwest at all.
Which I understand. But there are several reasons I’ve worked Midwest ski areas into the podcast rotation, and why I will continue to do so for as long as The Storm exists:
The episodes with the leaders of Caberfae, Boyne Mountain, The Highlands, and Nub’s Nob are for 18-year-old me. Or whatever version of 18-year-old me currently sits restlessly in the ski-mad but ignored flatlands between Ohio and the Dakotas. I devoured every ski magazine on the drugstore shelves of the 1990s, but if I could scrub 500 words of Midwest content from their combined catalogue each winter, I was lucky. I was dying – dying – for someone, anyone, to say something, anything, about the Midwest or Midwest skiing. Even a list of the top 10 ski areas in Michigan, with 50 words on each, would have made my year. But the ski mags, great as they were in those days, barely covered the rich and varied ski culture of New England, let alone the Midwest. I would have lost my goddamn mind had someone published a 90-minute conversation with the owner of the mysterious (to me at the time) Caberfae, with its hills upon hills of abandoned lifts and ever-changing footprint.
The Midwest is home to one of the world’s great ski cultures. If you don’t believe me, go ski there. The region hosts 122 ski areas across 10 states, most of them in Michigan (43), Wisconsin (33), and Minnesota (21). But the volume matters less than the attitude: Midwest skiers are absolutely unpretentious. They’ll ski in hunting gear and Carhartts. They’ll ski on 25-year-old sticks they found at a yard sale for five dollars. They’ll ski when it’s 25 below zero. They’ll ski at night, in the rain, on a 200-vertical-foot bump running 60-year-old chairlifts. These are skiers, Man. They do it because it’s fun, because it’s right there, and because this is one of the few regions where skiing is still accessible to the masses. If you want to understand why every third Colorado liftie you meet is from Grand Rapids or Madison or Duluth, go ski Canonsburg or Cascade or Spirit Mountain. It will make sense in about five seconds.
Because the Midwest has so many owner-operators, and because it takes a certain sort of swaggering competence to run something as temperamental and wild as a 300-vertical-foot, city-adjacent ski area with 17 chairlifts all built before the Reagan Administration, these tend to be very good interviews. The top five most-downloaded Storm Skiing Podcasts of 2023 are Alterra CEO Jared Smith, Holiday Valley President Dennis Eshbaugh, Pacific Group Resorts CMO Christian Knapp, Indy Pass President Doug Fish, and Whitecap Mountains owner David Dziuban. Those first four are fairly predictable (Holiday Valley is a bit of an outlier, as the resort heavily shared the conversation), but the last one is remarkable. Both because only five people have actually skied at Whitecap, and because the 33 podcasts that I’ve pushed out this year include many prominent and popular megapass headliners with well-known and highly respected leaders. Why did the Whitecap podcast land so hard? I can’t say for certain, but I suspect because it is completely raw, completely authentic, and absolutely unconcerned with what anyone will think or how they will react to it. Dziuban, an industry veteran on a mission to salvage a dying business from the scrapyard, has no boss, nothing to lose, and no one to impress. It’s an incredible conversation (listen for yourself). And while Dziuban is a special character, bolstered by a fearless Chicago moxie and the accent to match, every single guest I have on from the Midwest brings some version of that no-bullshit attitude. It’s fun.
I’m from there. I grew up in Michigan. Many of my best friends still live there. I return frequently, hold Michigan football season tickets, camp in the UP every April, still rock the Old English “D” ballcap. I moved to the East Coast in 2002, but the longer I’m gone, the more I admire the region’s matter-of-fact work ethic, the down-to-earth worldview, the way Midwesterners simplify the complicated (next time you ride a chairlift with a Michigander at Keystone or Breckenridge, ask them how they got to Colorado – there’s a better than 50 percent chance that they drove). Midwest skiing is the reason I love skiing, and I will always be grateful for these hills, no matter how small they are. Plus, I gotta represent.
So, there you go. Skip this ep if you want. But you shouldn’t, because it’s very good.
What we talked about
Great Bear’s record-shattering 2022-23 ski season for skier visits; how the ski area has been able to recruit and retain staff in a difficult labor market; staying open into April; the importance of Christmas Week; memorializing Roxie Johnson; Great Bear in the 1970s; the quirks of running a city-owned ski area; the appeal of working at a small ski area for decades; what it means to a flatland city to have a ski area; the best age to make skiers; “if you can sit, you can tube”; “The nice thing about our profitability is that there’s no owner here, so our money just stays in the bank”; contemplating a new chalet; the location, size, and timeline for Great Bear’s potential expansion; the glacial phenomenon that left Great Bear in its wake; reflecting on the Covid season; what it means for a small municipal Midwestern ski area to put in a brand-new chairlift; why the outgoing Borvig quad had to go, even though it was “a tank”; the brilliance and cost-effectiveness of high-speed ropetows; scarves and ropetows don’t mix; the story behind the “Children’s Dental Center Beginner Area”; the power of tubing; Keeping season pass and lift ticket prices low; the story behind the season passholders-only timeslot on Sunday; holding strong on wicket tickets; free buddy tickets for passholders; Flurry the mascot; and the Indy Pass.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Like many small ski areas, Great Bear publishes a periodic newsletter to complement its social media presence. I subscribe to as many of these email digests as I am aware of, as they often contain nuggets that larger resorts would celebrate with a big campaign and press release. Great Bear’s April newsletter hooked me with this:
We are excited to finally start sharing with you our plans for future expansion! Efforts to expand have been in the works since 2013. Our top priority is adding another 7-acres of skiable downhill terrain with a second chairlift. Additionally, we are working on plans to significantly expand the lodge.
As a city park, our next step is presenting a detailed plan to the Parks Board next month. We appreciate all your enthusiasm for a bigger and better Great Bear. Projects of this size take an enormous amount of work and collaboration. We are so grateful for our partnership with the City of Sioux Falls and all the community support!
An expansion project at a municipal ski area marooned in a state with a population of fewer than 900,000 people is a big deal. It means the place is well-run and well-cared-for, and most likely a community staple worthy of some national attention. The fact that Great Bear was served not by a collection of ropetows and a 60-year-old Hall double, but by a carpet and a brand-new Skytrac quad, complemented with a high-speed Park Brah ropetow, were further evidence of a highly capable management team.
Intrigued, I reached out. It took a minute, but we set up the podcast with Grider, who’s been running the bump since 1992. He’s a great storyteller with an upbeat disposition and a good mind for business, and he convincingly lays out a long-term future for Great Bear that will ensure the mountain’s status as a skier assembly line for many generations to come. If you love skiing, you’ll enjoy this one.
Questions I wish I’d asked
I’d meant to ask about this “I Ski 182 Vert Campaign,” which profiles locals who have put Great Bear at the center of their recreational lives:
Why you should ski Great Bear
There are different ways to think about yourself as a skier. One is as a sort of progressionist. Like a student working their way through school, you graduate from one grade to the next. Always forward, never back. So a Jersey kid may learn at Campgaw as a 6-year-old, join after-school ski bus trips to Mountain Creek in junior high, take weekend trips to Mount Snow in high school, and spend college spring breaks at Palisades Tahoe. But by the time he moves to the Upper East Side and has two kids of his own, he only skis on his annual trips to Deer Valley. He sits on his laptop in the lodge as the kids run beginner-chair laps at Thunder Ridge. He’s not going to bother with this little stuff – he’s graduated.
But this is a strange way to think about skiing. We don’t apply such logic to other facets of our lives. Consider food – sometimes you have the inch-thick porterhouse on a special-occasion outing, sometimes you have Taco Bell, and sometimes you eat Pop-Tarts on your drive to work. But I don’t know anyone who, once they’ve dined at Peter Luger, never deigns to eat a hotdog again. Sometimes you just need to fuel up.
I approach skiing in the same way. A dozen or so days per season, I’m eating steak: Snowbird or Big Sky or Vail or Heavenly. But since I’m not content to ski 12 days per winter, I also eat a lot of pasta. Let’s call that New England and the Catskills on their best days, or just about anyplace with fresh snow. And I snack a lot, skiing’s equivalent of a bag of Doritos: a half-open Poconos bump, a couple hours on a Sunday morning at Mountain Creek, a Michigan T-bar when I’m visiting family for Christmas. My 6-year-old son is in a seasonal program at 250-vertical-foot Mt. Peter in New York. The vast majority of the parents sit in the lodge on their phones while the kids ski. But I ski, lapping the Ol’ Pete double chair, which accesses the whole mountain and rarely has a line. When his lesson is over, we often ski together. It’s fun.
Everyone funnels the joys of skiing through different lenses. The lift or the freefall, the high-altitude drama, the après electricity of crowded places and alcohol. For me, the draw is a combination of dynamic movement and novelty, an exploration of new places, or familiar places under the changing conditions wrought by weather and crowds. Even though Mt. Peter is familiar, it’s a little different place every week.
Which takes us to Great Bear, a 182-foot bump that is, most likely, nowhere near you. I’m not suggesting you cancel your Tahoe reservations and book yourself into the Sioux Falls Best Western. But there are two groups of skiers who ought to consider this place: locals, and cross-country road-trippers.
If you live in Sioux Falls and are over the age of 16, you probably consider yourself a progressionist. Maybe you learned to ski at Great Bear, but now it’s too small for you to bother with. You’ll ski your five days per year at Copper Mountain and be content with it. But why? You have a ski area right there. The season pass is $265. Why ski five days per year when you can ski 25? With that Great Bear season pass, you can ski every Saturday morning and two nights a week after work. Consider it your gym. The runs are short, but the sensation of dynamic movement is still there. It’s skiing. And while it’s (typically) a materially a worse form of skiing than your high-altitude Colorado version of the sport, it’s also in many ways better, with less attitude, less pretense, less entitlement, less ego. Just kids having fun. It’s fulfilling in a different way.
The second group is those of us who live east of America’s best versions of skiing. Most East Coast skiers will fly west, but the most adventurous will drive. You see them on Facebook, posting elaborate three- or six-week Google maps dotted all over the west. But why wait until you arrive in Colorado or Wyoming or Montana to start skiing? There are ski areas all along your route. Great Bear sits two miles from Interstate 90, the 3,021-mile-long route that runs from Boston to Seattle. So why not scoot through Kissing Bridge, Buffalo Ski Center, and Peek’N Peak, New York; Alpine Valley, Boston Mills, and Brandywine in Ohio; Swiss Valley, Michigan; Four Lakes and Villa Olivia, Illinois; and Cascade, Devil’s Head, and LaCrosse, Wisconsin en route? Yes, you want to hurry west. But the drive will take several days no matter what. Why not mix in a little novelty along the way?
My first trip west was over Christmas break in the mid-90s, a 22-hour bender from Michigan to Summit County, Colorado with my buddy Andy. We’d booked a Super 8 or some similar thing in Lincoln, Nebraska, at our approximate halfway point. We rode into Nebraska sometime after dark, but early enough for a night session at Nebraski, a run-down hundred-footer between Omaha and Lincoln. The chairlift coughed up the bump like a cartoon contraption and skiers yard-saled all over the hill and it was just about the most amazing scene you could imagine. Four days later a two-footer hammered Copper, dropping an exclamation-point powder day onto our first Rocky Mountain adventure. Nearly three decades later, when we reminisce on that trip, we talk about that Copper pow day, but long-gone Nebraski (I don’t think the place made it out of the ‘90s alive), is an equal part of the legend.
A Great Bear stop would be a little different, of course. This is a modern ski area, with a 2021 Skytrac quad and modern snowmaking and solid financial backing. It will make you feel good about skiing and about its future. It may even be a highlight of your trip.
On the remoteness of Great Bear
It is impossible to overstate how important Great Bear is to curating skiers among the 300,000-ish residents of greater Sioux Falls. There are two other ski areas in South Dakota – Terry Peak and resurgent, probably semi-private Deer Mountain – but they sit nearly six hours west, in the Black Hills. Mt. Crescent, Iowa, sits two-and-a-half hours down I-29. Mt. Kato, Minnesota is two hours east. And that’s about it. If you’re a teenager in Sioux Falls without Great Bear, you may as well be a teenager in Fort Lauderdale. You’re probably never going to ski.
That wasn’t always true. A 175-vertical-foot (at most) bump with the amazing name of Hole In The Mountain once operated with up to three ropetows near Lake Benton, an hour north, according to the Midwest Lost Ski Areas Project. But that’s been gone for decades.
On Great Bear’s potential expansion
Great Bear is in the process of a sizeable expansion, which could add a second chairlift and several more trails. Great Bear provided this preliminary map, which shows a new lift sitting adjacent to the learning area and a new entrance road and chalet:
On the outcome of the Sept. 25 masterplan meeting
Grider referenced a meeting he had coming up “later this week,” which means last week, since we recorded this on Sept. 25. I followed up on Sunday to see if the meeting had thrown any landmines in the way of Great Bear’s potential expansion. It had not. The reception from local officials had been optimistic and enthusiastic, Grider said.
“What we've got to do here in the next six weeks is they're going to formalize the plans and we'll get some drawings, we'll get a rendering,” Grider told me. “Then we go in front of the park board and we just keep our foot on the gas pedal.”
On the stem in the middle of Great Bear’s old Borvig chair
Great Bear’s spanking-new Skytrac replaced a gorgeous but problematic Borvig centerpole quad. Luckily, Lift Blog documented the old lift before the ski area demolished it.
On high-speed ropetows and Hyland Hills
I remain obsessed with high-speed ropetows as the ultimate solution to terrain park-driven congestion. They’re fast, they’re cheap, and they tamp down liftlines by drawing Parkbrahs away from the workhorse chairlifts. Here’s one I documented at Spirit Mountain, Minnesota last season:
And here’s one at Hyland Hills, which Grider mentions:
On me not knowing who Mary Hart is
At one point in the podcast, Dan Grider asked me if I knew who Mary Hart was. I said I did not, which was true. It turns out that she is quite famous. She was Miss South Dakota 1970 and hosted a show called Entertainment Tonight for 29 years. I have never watched that show, nor was I aware of its existence until I looked up Ms. Hart on Wikipedia.
This probably sounds dubious to you. But there is something wrong with my brain. I simply do not process information having to do with pop culture or celebrities. I say this not out of proud ignorance, but as a matter of observable fact. I have always been this way. Hit me with a well-known movie quote, and I will stare at you as though you just spoke to me in Elvish.
An anecdote to illustrate the larger void in which I exist: my wife and I began watching a show called Suits the other day. She asked me if I recognized the young woman who plays a paralegal on this show. I said no. She asked if I knew who Meghan Markle was. I said no. She asked if I knew who Prince [can’t remember the name] was. I said no. Because apparently they’re married. And that matters somehow. Though I’m not exactly sure why. Though I am curious why we still have princes in this world, because I thought we got rid of them when we exiled the dragons back in like 1502 or whenever.
We all have gaps, right? Or shortcomings. One of mine, and there are many, is aggressive indifference to things that I find boring. It’s probably how some of you feel when I write about skiing in Ohio. Like, Man, get me to the next thing.
On charging the same for kids as adults
Most ski areas kick you a discount for a kids’ lift ticket. And why not? Expenses add up for a family, and when you start multiplying everything by three or four, you get to a scary price range pretty quickly. So some of you may have been surprised when Grider mentions, during our interview, that Great Bear doesn’t offer discounted lift tickets for kids.
There’s a simple reason for that. A discounted kids ticket doesn’t do much for you when most of your clientele is children. Great Bear is one of our skier factories, where busloads of kids prime themselves for roadtrips to Colorado 10 years from now. So the parents don’t need the incentive – they’re just signing the waiver to get the kid on the ski bus.
Plenty of ski areas follow a similar model. Mount Peter, where my 6-year-old participates in a seasonal program, is currently selling adult season passes for $499, and kids’ passes for $479. Nearby Campgaw posts similar rates: $389 for adults, $359 for kids. But it makes sense to minimize the discount: both are 300-ish-foot bumps that are dwarfed by nearby Mountain Creek, a thousand-footer with a killer terrain park and high-speed lifts (and, incidentally, a less-expensive season pass). They can’t compete from a terrain point of view, but they can offer something that Creek can’t: an unintimidating atmosphere to learn in. And the skiers who mostly need such a thing is kids. And if Mt. Peter and Campgaw discount kids too much, their whole model falls apart.
In the case of Great Bear, well, the season pass is currently $265. This winter’s lift ticket price will be $38. So, really, who cares?
On Flurry the Mascot
If your ski area doesn’t have a mascot, it should:
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