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Troy Nedved, General Manager of Big Sky, Montana
January 11, 2024
About Big Sky
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: Boyne Resorts
Located in: Big Sky, Montana
Year founded: 1973
7 days, no blackouts on Ikon Pass (reservations required)
5 days, holiday blackouts on Ikon Base and Ikon Base Plus Pass (reservations required)
2 days, no blackouts on Mountain Collective (reservations required)
Reciprocal partners: Top-tier Big Sky season passes include three days each at Boyne’s other nine ski areas: Brighton, Summit at Snoqualmie, Cypress, Boyne Mountain, The Highlands, Loon Mountain, Sunday River, Pleasant Mountain, and Sugarloaf.
Closest neighboring ski areas: Yellowstone Club (ski-to connection); Bear Canyon (private ski area for Mount Ellis Academy – 1:20); Bridger Bowl (1:30)
Base elevation: 6,800 feet at Madison Base
Summit elevation: 11,166 feet
Vertical drop: 4,350 feet
Skiable Acres: 5,850
Average annual snowfall: 400-plus inches
Trail count: 300 (18% expert, 35% advanced, 25% intermediate, 22% beginner)
Terrain parks: 6
Lift count: 38 (1 75-passenger tram, 1 high-speed eight-pack, 3 high-speed six-packs, 4 high-speed quads, 3 fixed-grip quads, 9 triples, 5 doubles, 3 platters, 1 ropetow, 8 carpet lifts – Big Sky also recently announced a second eight-pack, to replace the Six Shooter six-pack, next year; and a new, two-stage gondola, which will replace the Explorer double chair for the 2025-26 ski season – View Lift Blog’s inventory of Big Sky’s lift fleet.)
View vintage Big Sky trailmaps on skimap.org.
Why I interviewed him
Big Sky is the closest thing American skiing has to the ever-stacking ski circuses of British Columbia. While most of our western giants labor through Forest Service approvals for every new snowgun and trail sign, BC transforms Revelstoke and Kicking Horse and Sun Peaks into three of the largest ski resorts on the continent in under two decades. These are policy decisions, differences in government and public philosophies of how to use our shared land. And that’s fine. U.S. America does everything in the most difficult way possible, and there’s no reason to believe that ski resort development would be any different.
Except in a few places in the West, it is different. Deer Valley and Park City and Schweitzer sit entirely (or mostly), on private land. New project approvals lie with local entities. Sometimes, locals frustrate ski areas’ ambitions, as is the case in Park City, which cannot, at the moment, even execute simple lift replacements. But the absence of a federal overlord is working just fine at Big Sky, where the mountain has evolved from Really Good to Damn Is This Real in less time than it took Aspen to secure approvals for its 153-acre Hero’s expansion.
Boyne has pulled similar stunts at its similarly situated resorts across the country: Boyne Mountain and The Highlands in Michigan and Sunday River in Maine, each of them transforming in Hollywood montage-scene fashion. Progress has lagged more at Brighton and Alpental, both of which sit at least partly on Forest Service land (though change has been rapid at Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, whose land is a public-private hybrid). But the evolution at Big Sky has been particularly comprehensive. And, because of the ski area’s inherent drama and prominence, compelling. It’s America’s look-what-we-can-do-if-we-can-just-do mountain. The on-mountain product is better for skiers and better for skiing, a modern mountain that eases chokepoints and upgrades facilities and spreads everyone around.
Winter Park, seated on Forest Service land, owned by the City of Denver, and operated by Alterra Mountain Company, outlined an ambitious master development plan in 2005 (when Intrawest ran the ski area). Proposed projects included a three-stage gondola connecting the town of Winter Park with the ski area’s base village, a massive intermediate-focused expansion onto Vasquez Ridge, and a new mid-mountain beginner area. Nearly 20 years later, none of it exists. Winter Park did execute some upgrades in the meantime, building a bunch of six-packs and adding lift redundancy and access to the high alpine. But the mountain’s seven lift upgrades in 19 years are underwhelming compared to the 17 such projects that have remade Big Sky over that same time period. Winter Park has no lack of resources, skier attention, or administrative will, but its plans stall anyway, and it’s no mystery why.
I write more about Big Sky than I do about other large North American ski resorts because there is more happening at Big Sky than at any other large North American ski resort. That is partly luck and partly institutional momentum and partly a unique historical collision of macroeconomic, cultural, and technological factors that favor construction and evolution of what a ski resort is and can be. And, certainly, U.S. ski resorts build big projects on Forest Service land every single year. But Boyne and Big Sky, operating outside of the rulebooks hemming in their competitors, are getting to the future a hell of a lot faster than anyone else.
What we talked about
Yes a second eight-pack is coming to Big Sky; why the resort is replacing the 20-year-old Six Shooter lift; potential future Headwaters lift upgrades; why the resort will replace Six Shooter before adding a second lift out of the Madison base; what will happen to Six Shooter and why it likely won’t land elsewhere in Boyne’s portfolio; the logic of selling, rather than scrapping, lifts to competitors; adjusting eight-packs for U.S. Americans; automated chairlift safety bars; what happened when the old Ramcharger quad moved to Shedhorn; what’s up with the patrol sled marooned in a tree off Shedhorn?; the philosophy of naming lifts; why we won’t see the Taco Bell tram anytime soon (or ever); the One & Only gondola; Big Sky’s huge fleet of real estate lifts; how the new tram changed Big Sky; metering traffic up the Lone Peak tram; the tram’s shift from pay-per-day to pay-per-ride; a double carpet; that new double-blue-square rating on the trailmap; Black Hills skiing at Terry Peak and Deer Mountain; working in Yellowstone; river kayaking culture; revisiting the coming out-of-base gondola; should Swifty have been an eight-pack?; on-mountain employee housing; Big Sky 2025; what does the resort that’s already upgraded everything upgrade next?; potential future lift upgrades; and the Ikon Pass.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
I didn’t plan to record two Big Sky podcasts in two months. I prefer to spread my attention across mountains and across regions and across companies, as most of you know. This podcast was scheduled for early December, after an anticipated Thanksgiving-week tram opening. But then the tram was delayed, and as it happened I was able to attend the grand opening on Dec. 19. I recorded a podcast there, with Nedved and past Storm Skiing Podcast guests Taylor Middleton (Big Sky president) and Stephen Kircher (Boyne Resorts CEO).
But Nedved and I kept this conversation on the calendar, pushing it into January. It’s a good thing. Because no sooner had Big Sky opened its spectacular new tram than it announced yet another spectacular new lift: a second eight-pack chair, to replace a six-pack that is exactly 21 years old.
There’s a sort of willful showiness to such projects. Who, in America, can even afford a six-person chairlift, let alone have the resources to tag such a machine for the rubbish bin? And then replace it with a lift so spectacular that its ornamentation exceeds that of your six-year-old Ramcharger eight-seater, still dazzling on the other side of the mountain?
When Vail built 18 new lifts in 2022, the projects ended up as all function, no form. They were effective, and well-placed, but the lifts are just lifts. Boyne Resorts, which, while a quarter the size of Vail, has built dozens of new lifts over the past decade, is building more than just people-movers. Its lifts are experiences, housed in ski shrines, buildings festooned in speakers and screens, the carriers descending like coaster trains at Six Flags, bubbles and heaters and sportscar seats and conveyors, a spectacle you might ride even if skiing were not attached at the end.
American skiing will always have room for throwbacks and minimalism, just as American cuisine will always have room for Taco Bell and small-town diners. Most Montana ski areas are fixed-grip and funky – Snowbowl and Bridger and Great Divide and Discovery and Lost Trail and Maverick and Turner. Big Sky’s opportunity was, at one time, to be a bigger, funkier version of these big, funky ski areas. But its opportunity today is to be the not-Colorado, not-Utah alt destination for skiers seeking comfort sans megacrowds. The mountain is fulfilling that mission, at a speed that is almost impossible to believe. Which is why we keep going back there, over and over again.
What I got wrong
I said several times that the Six Shooter lift was “only 20 years old.” In fact, Moonlight installed the lift in 2003, making the machine legal drinking age.
Why you should ski Big Sky
The approach is part of the experience, always. Some ski areas smash the viewshed with bandoliers of steepshots slicing across the ridge. From miles down the highway you say whoa. Killington or Hunter or Red Lodge. Others hide. Even from the parking lot you see only suggestions of skiing. Caberfae in Michigan is like this, enormous trees mask its runs and its peaks. Mad River Glen erupts skyward but its ragged clandestine trail network resembles nothing else in the East and you wonder where it is. Unfolding, then, as you explore. Even vast Heavenly, from the gondola base, is invisible.
Big Sky, alone among American ski areas, inspires awe on the approach. Turn west up 64 from 191 and Lone Peak commands the horizon. This place is not like other places you realize. On the long road up you pass the spiderwebbing trails off the Lone Moose and Thunder Wolf lifts and still that summit towers in the distance. There is a way to get up there and a way to ski down but from below it’s all invisible. All you can see is snow and rocks and avy chutes flushed out over millennia.
That’s the marquee and that’s the post: I’m here. But Lone Peak, with its triple black diamonds and sign-in sheets and muscled exposure, is not for mortal hot laps. Go up, yes. Ski down, yes. But then explore. Because staple Keystone to Breck and you have roughly one Big Sky.
Humans cluster. Even in vast spaces. Or perhaps especially so. The cut trails below Ramcharger and Swifty swarm like train stations. But break away from the salmon run, into the trees or the bowl or the gnarled runs below the liftlines, and emerge into a different world. Everywhere, empty lifts, empty glades, endless crags and crannies. Greens and blues that roll for miles. Beyond every chairlift, another chairlift. Stacked like bonus levels are what feel like mini ski areas existing for you alone. An empty endless. A skiing fantasyland.
On Uncle Dan’s Cookies
Fear not: this little shack seated beside the Six Shooter lift is not going anywhere:
On Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks
Like the largest (Park City) and second-largest (Palisades Tahoe) ski areas in America, Big Sky is the stapled-together remains of several former operations. Unlike those two giants, which connected two distinct ski areas with gondolas (Park City and Canyons; Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows), seamless ski connections existed between the former Spanish Peaks terrain, on the ski area’s far southern end, and the former Moonlight Basin, on the northern end. The circa 2010 trailmaps called out access points between each of the bookend resorts and Big Sky, which you could ski with upgraded lift tickets:
Big Sky purchased the properties in 2013, a few years after this happened (per the Bozeman Daily Chronicle):
Moonlight Basin, meanwhile, got into trouble after borrowing $100 million from Lehman Brothers in September 2007, with the 7,800-acre resort, its ski lifts, condos, spa and a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course put up as collateral, according to foreclosure records filed in Madison County.
That loan came due in September 2008, according to the papers filed by Lehman, and Moonlight defaulted. Lehman itself went bankrupt in September 2008 and blamed its troubles on a collapse in the real estate market that left it upside down.
An outfit called Crossharbor Capital Partners, which purchased and still owns the neighboring Yellowstone Club, eventually joined forces with Big Sky to buy Moonlight and Spanish Peaks (Crossharbor is no longer a partner). Now, just imagine tacking the 2,900-acre Yellowstone Club onto Big Sky’s current footprint (which you can in fact do if you’re a Yellowstone Club member):
On the sled chilling in the tree off Shedhorn
Yes, there’s a patrol sled lodged in a tree off the Shedhorn high-speed quad. Here’s a pic I snagged from the lift last spring:
Explore Big Sky last year recounted the avalanche that deposited the sled there:
“In Big Sky and around Montana, [’96 and ’97] has never been topped in terms of snowfall,” [veteran Big Sky ski patroller Mike] Buotte said. Unfortunately, a “killer ice layer on the bottom of the snowpack” caused problems in the tram’s second season.
On Christmas Day, 1996, a patroller died in an explosive accident near the summit of Lone Mountain. Buotte says it was traumatic for the entire team.
The next morning, patrol triggered a “wall-to-wall” avalanche across Lenin and the Dictator Chutes. The slide infamously took out the Shedhorn chairlift, leaving scars still visible today.
Buotte and another patroller were caught in that avalanche. Miraculously, they both stopped. Had they “taken the ride,” Buotte is confident they would not have survived.
“That second year, the reality of what’s going on really hit us,” Buotte said. “And it was not fun and games. It was pretty dark, frankly. That’s when it got very real for the organization and for me. The industry changed; avalanche training changed. We had to up our game. It was a new paradigm.”
Buotte said patrol changed the Lenin route’s design—adding more separation in time and space—and applied the same learning to other routes. Mitigation work is inherently dangerous, but Buotte believes the close call helped emphasize the importance of route structure to reduce risk.
Here’s Boutte recalling the incident:
On the Ski the Sky loop
Big Sky gamified a version of their trailmap to help skiers understand that there’s more to the mountain than Ramcharger and Swifty:
On the bigness of Big Sky
Nedved points out that several major U.S. destination ski areas total less than half Big Sky’s 5,850 acres. That would be 2,950 acres, which is, indeed, more than Breckenridge (2,908 acres), Schweitzer (2,900), Alta (2,614), Crystal (2,600), Snowbird (2,500), Jackson Hole (2,500), Copper Mountain (2,465), Beaver Creek (2,082), Sun Valley (2,054), Deer Valley (2,026), or Telluride (2,000).
On the One & Only resort and brand
We discuss the One & Only resort company, which is building a super-luxe facility that they will connect to the Madison base with a D-line gondola. Which is an insane investment for a transportation lift. As far as I can tell, this will be the company’s first facility in the United States. Here’s a list of their existing properties.
On the Big Sky Tram
I won’t break down the new Lone Peak tram here, because I just did that a month ago.
On the Black Hills
South Dakota’s Black Hills, where Nedved grew up, are likely not what most Americans envision when they think of South Dakota. It’s a gorgeous, mountainous region that is home to Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse monument, and 7,244-foot Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak), the highest point in the United States east of the Rockies. This is a tourist bureau video, but it will make you say wait Brah where are all the cornfields?
The Black Hills are home to two ski areas. The first it Terry Peak, an 1,100-footer with three high-speed quads that is an Indy Pass OG:
The second is Deer Mountain, which disappeared for around six years before an outfit called Keating Resources bought the joint last year and announced they would bring it back as a private ski area for on-mountain homeowners. They planned a large terrain reduction to accommodate more housing. I put this revised trailmap together last year based upon a conversation with the organization’s president, Alec Keating:
The intention, Keating told me in July, was to re-open the East Side (top of the map above), for this ski season, and the West side (bottom portion) in 2025. I’ve yet to see evidence of the ski area having opened, however.
On Troy the athlete
We talk a bit about Nedved’s kayaking adventures, but that barely touches on his action-sports resume. From a 2019 Explore Big Sky profile:
Nedved lived in a teepee in Gardiner for two years down on the banks of the Yellowstone River across from the Yellowstone Raft Company, where he developed world-class abilities as a kayaker.
“The culture around rafting and kayaking is pretty heavy and I connected with some of the folks around there that were pretty into it. That was the start of that,” Nedved said of his early days in the park. “My Yellowstone days, I spent all my time when I was not working on the water.” And even when he was working, and someone needed to brave a stretch of Class V rapids for a rescue mission or body recovery, he was the one for the job.
When Teton Gravity Research started making kayak movies, Nedved and his friends got the call as well. “We were pioneering lines that had never been done before: in Costa Rica and Nepal, but also stretches of river in Montana in the Crazy Mountains of Big Timber Creek and lots of runs in Beartooths that had never been floated,” Nedved recounted.
“We spent a lot of time looking at maps, hiking around the mountains, finding stuff that was runnable versus not. It was a stage of kayaking community in Montana that we got started. Now the next generation of these kids is blowing my mind—doing things that we didn’t even think was possible.”
Nedved is an athlete’s athlete. “I love competing in just about anything. When I was first in Montana, I found out about Powder 8s at Bridger Bowl. It was a cool event and we got into it,” he said in a typically modest way. “It was just another thing to hone your skills as a ski instructor and a skiing professional.”
Nedved has since won the national Powder 8 competition five times and competed on ESPN at the highest level of the niche sport in the Powder 8 World Championships held at Mike Wiegele’s heliskiing operation in Canada. Even some twenty years later, he is still finding podiums in the aesthetically appealing alpine events with longtime partner Nick Herrin, currently the CEO of the Professional Ski Instructors of America. Nedved credits his year-round athletic pursuits for what keeps him in the condition to still make perfect turns.
Sadly, I was unable to locate any videos of Nedved kayaking or Powder 8ing.
On employee housing at Big Sky and Winter Park
Big Sky has built an incredible volume of employee housing (more than 1,000 beds in the Mountain Village alone). The most impressive may be the Levinski complex: fully furnished, energy-efficient buildings situated within walking distance of the lifts.
Big mountain skiing, wracked and wrecked by traffic and mountain-town housing shortages, desperately needs more of this sort of investment, as I wrote last week after Winter Park opened a similarly situated project.
On Big Sky 2025
Big Sky 2025 will, in substance, wrap when the new two-stage, out-of-base gondola opens next year. Here’s the current iteration of the plan. You can see how much it differs from the version outlined in 2016 in this contemporary Lift Blog post.
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