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Charles Hlavac, Owner of Teton Pass, Montana
January 29, 2024
About Teton Pass
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: Charles Hlavac
Located in: Choteau, Montana
Year founded: 1967
Pass affiliations: None
Closest neighboring ski areas: Great Divide (2:44), Showdown (3:03)
Base elevation: 6,200 feet
Summit elevation: 7,200 feet (at the top of the double chair)
Vertical drop: 1,000 feet
Skiable Acres: 400 acres
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches
Lift count: 3 (1 double, 1 platter, 1 carpet – view Lift Blog’s inventory of Teton Pass’ lift fleet)
View historic Teton Pass trailmaps on skimap.org.
Why I interviewed him
There was a time, before the Bubble-Wrap Era, when American bureaucracy believed that the nation’s most beautiful places ought to be made available to citizens. Not just to gawk at from a distance, but to interact with in a way that strikes awe in the soul and roots the place in their psyche.
That’s why so many of our great western ski areas sit on public land. Taos and Heavenly and Mt. Baldy and Alta and Crystal Mountain and Lookout Pass. These places, many of them inaccessible before the advent of the modern highway system, were selected not only because they were snow magnets optimally pitched for skiing, but because they were beautiful.
And that’s how we got Teton Pass, Montana, up a Forest Service road at the end of nowhere, hovering over the Rocky Mountain front. Because just look at the place:
Who knew it was there then? Who knows it now? A bald peak screaming “ski me” to a howling wilderness for 50 million years until the Forest Service printed some words on a piece of paper that said someone was allowed to put a chairlift there.
As bold and prescient as the Forest Service was in gifting us ski areas, they didn’t nail them all. Yes, Aspen and Vail and Snowbird and Palisades Tahoe and Stevens Pass, fortuitously positioned along modern highways or growing cities, evolved into icons. But some of these spectacular natural ski sites languished. Mt. Waterman has faltered without snowmaking or competent ownership. Antelope Butte and Sleeping Giant were built in the middle of nowhere and stayed there. Spout Springs is too small to draw skiers across the PNW vastness. Of the four, only Antelope Butte has spun lifts this winter.
Remoteness has been the curse of Teton Pass, a fact compounded by a nasty 11-mile gravel access road. The closest town is Choteau, population 1,719, an hour down the mountain. Great Falls, population 60,000, is only around two hours away, but that city is closer to Showdown, a larger ski area with more vertical drop, three chairlifts, and a parking lot seated directly off a paved federal highway. Teton Pass, gorgeously positioned as a natural wonder, got a crummy draw as a sustainable business.
Which doesn’t mean it can’t work. Unlike the Forest Service ski areas at Cedar Pass or Kratka Ridge in California, Teton Pass hasn’t gone fallow. The lifts still spin. Skiers still ski there. Not many – approximately 7,000 last season, which would be a light day for any Summit County ski facility. This year, it will surely be even fewer, as Hlavic announced 10 days after we recorded this podcast that a lack of snow, among other factors, would force him to call it a season after just four operating days. But Hlavic is young and optimistic and stubborn and aware that he is trying to walk straight up a wall. In our conversation, you can hear his belief in this wild and improbable place, his conviction that there is a business model for Teton Pass that can succeed in spite of the rough access road and the lack of an electrical grid connection and the small and scattered local population.
The notion of intensive recreational land use is out of favor. When we lose a Teton Pass, the Forest Service doesn’t replace it with another ski area in a better location. We just get more wilderness. I am not against wild places and sanctuaries from human scything. But if Teton Pass were not a ski area, almost no one would ever see it, would ever experience this singular peak pasted against the sky. It’s a place worth preserving, and I’m glad there’s someone crazy enough to try.
What we talked about
When your ski area can’t open until Jan. 19; the tight-knit Montana Ski Areas Association; staffing up in the middle of nowhere; a brief history of a troubled remote ski area; the sneaky math of purchasing a ski area; the “incredibly painful” process of obtaining a new Forest Service operating permit after the ownership transfer; restarting the machine after several years idle; how Montana regulates chairlifts without a state tramway board; challenges of operating off the grid; getting by on 7,000 skier visits; potential for Teton Pass’ dramatic upper-mountain terrain; re-imagining the lift fleet; the beautiful logic of surface lifts; collecting lifts in the parking lot and dreaming about where they could go; why Teton Pass’ last expansion doesn’t quite work; where Teton Pass’ next chairlifts could sit; the trouble with mid-stations; the potential to install snowmaking; the most confusing ski area name in America, and why it’s unlikely to change anytime soon; a problematic monster access road; why Teton Pass hasn’t joined the Indy Pass; and mid-week mountain rentals.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
This may have actually been the worst possible time in the past several years to conduct this interview, as the ski area is already closed for the winter, leaving inspired listeners with no realistic method of converting their interest into immediate support. And that’s too bad. Unfortunately, I tend to schedule these interviews months in advance (we locked this date in on July 24). Yes, I could’ve rescheduled, but I try to avoid doing that. So we went ahead.
I’m still glad we did, though I wish I’d been able to turn this around faster (it wouldn’t have mattered, Teton Pass’ four operating days all occurred pre-recording). But there’s a gritty honesty to this conversation, taking place, as it does, in the embers of a dying season. Running a ski area is hard. People write to me all the time, fired up with dreams of running their own mountain, maybe even re-assembling one from the scrap heap. I would advise them to listen to this episode for a reality-check.
I would also ask anyone convinced of the idea that Vail and Alterra are killing skiing to reconsider that narrative in the context of Teton Pass. Skiing needs massive, sustained investment to prepare for and to weather climate change. It also needs capable marketing entities to convince people living in Texas and Florida that, yes, skiing is still happening in spite of a non-ski media obsessed with twisting every rain shower into a winter-is-disappearing doomsday epic.
That doesn’t mean that I think Vail should (or would), buy Teton Pass, or that there’s no room for independent ski area operators in our 505-resort ecosystem. What I am saying is that unless you bring a messianic sense of purpose, a handyman’s grab-bag of odd and eclectic skills, the patience of a rock, and, hopefully, one or more independent income streams, the notion of running an independent ski area is a lot more romantic than the reality.
What I got wrong
I said that “Teton Pass’ previous owner” had commissioned SE Group for a feasibility study. A local community volunteer group actually commissioned that project, as Hlavac clarifies.
Also, in discussing Hlavic’s purchase of the ski area, I cited some sales figures that I’d sourced from contemporary news reports. From a Sept. 11, 2019 report in the Choteau Acantha:
Wood listed the ski area for sale, originally asking $3 million for the resort, operated on a 402-acre forest special-use permit. The resort includes three lifts, a lodge with a restaurant and liquor license, a ski gear rental shop and several outbuildings. Wood later dropped his asking price to $375,000.
Then, from SAM on Sept. 17, 2019:
Former Teton Pass Ski Resort general manager Charles Hlavac has purchased the resort from Nick Wood for $375,000 after it had been on the market for two years.
Wood, a New Zealand native, bought the ski area back in 2010. He and his partners invested in substantial upgrades, including three new lifts, a lodge renovation, and improvements to maintenance facilities. The resort’s electrical generator failed in 2016-17, though, and Wood closed the hill in December 2017, citing financial setbacks.
While the original asking price for Teton Pass was $3 million, Wood dropped the price down to $375,000. Hlavac, who served as the GM for the resort under Wood’s ownership, confirmed on Sept. 6 that he had purchased the 402-acre ski area, located on Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest land, through a contract-for-deed with Wood’s company.
Hlavic disputes the accuracy of these figures in our conversation.
Why you should ski Teton Pass
There’s liberty in distance, freedom in imagining a different version of a thing. For so many of us, skiing is Saturdays, skiing is holidays, skiing is Breckenridge, skiing is a powder day in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Traffic is just part of it. Liftlines are just part of it. Eating on the cafeteria floor is just part of it. Groomers scraped off by 9:45 is just part of it. It’s all just part of it, but skiing is skiing because skiing is dynamic and fun and thrilling and there’s a cost to everything, Man, and the cost to skiing is dealing with all that other bullshit.
But none of this is true. Skiing does not have to include compromises of the soul. You can trade these for compromises of convenience. And by this I mean that you can find a way to ski and a place to ski when and where others can’t and won’t ski. If you drive to the ass-end of Montana to ski, you are going to find a singular ski experience, because most people are not willing to do this. Not to ski a thousand-footer served by a double chair that’s older than Crocodile Rock. Not to spend $55 rather than drive down the per-visit cost of their precious Ikon Pass by racking up that 16th day at Schweitzer.
Among my best ski days in the past five winters have been a midweek powder day at 600-vertical-foot McCauley, New York; an empty bluebird weekday at Mt. Baldy, hanging out above Los Angeles; and a day spent ambling the unassumingly labyrinthian terrain of Whitecap Mountains, Wisconsin. Teton Pass is a place of this same roguish nature, out there past everything, but like absolutely nothing else in skiing.
On closing early for the season
Here is Hlavac’s Feb. 8 letter, addressed to “friends and patrons,” announcing his decision to close for the season (click through to read):
On Sleeping Giant
And here’s a similar letter that Sleeping Giant, Wyoming owner Nick Piazza sent to his passholders on Jan. 12:
We are disappointed to announce that this latest winter storm mostly missed us. Unfortunately, we are no closer to being able to open the mountain than we were 2-3 weeks ago. We have reached a point where the loss of seasonal staff would make it difficult to open the mountain, even if we got snow tomorrow. For these reasons, we feel that the responsible thing to do is to pull the plug on this season.
With a heavy heart we are announcing that Sleeping Giant will not be opening for the 23/24 winter season.
We would like to thank everyone for their support and patience as we battled this terrible weather year.
We will be refunding all season pass holders their money at the end of January. This will happen automatically, and the funds will be returned to the payment method used when purchasing your season pass.
***For those that would like to roll over their season pass to the 24/25 Winter Season, we will announce instructions early next week.***
We have heard from some of our Season Pass Partner Mountains who have shared that they will be honoring our season pass perks, for those of you choosing to rollover your pass to 24/25. Snow King, 3 Free Day Lift Tickets with either a season pass or their receipt; Ski Cooper, 3 Free Day lift tickets; Bogus Basin, 3 Free Day lift tickets; and Soldier Mountain, 3 Free Day lift tickets.
Additionally, please note that if you received any complimentary passes for the 23/24 season, they automatically carry over to next season. The same applies for passes that were part of any promotion, charity give away, or raffle.
Should you have any questions about season passes please email GM@skisg.com.
While we are extremely disappointed to have to make this announcement, we will go lick our wounds, and - I am confident - come back stronger.
Our team will still be working at Sleeping Giant and I think everyone is ready to use this down time to get to work on several long-standing projects that we could not get to when operating. Moreover, we are in discussions with our friends at the USFS and Techno Alpine to get paperwork done so we can jump on improvements to our snow making system in the spring.
I would like to thank the whole Sleeping Giant team for the hard work they have put in over the last three months. You had some really unlucky breaks, but you stuck together and found ways to hold things together to the very end. To our outdoor team, you did more in the last 9 months than has been done at SG in a generation. Powered mainly with red bull and grit. Thank you!
It’s never pleasant to have to admit a big public defeat, but as we say in Ukrainian only people that do nothing enjoy infallibility. We did a lot of great things this year and fought like hell to get open.
After we get season pass refunds processed, we plan to sit down and explore options to keep some of the mountain’s basic services open and groomed, so snowshoers and those that wish can still enjoy Sleeping Giant’s beauty and resources.
We hope this will include a spring ski day for season pass holders that rollover into next year, but there are several legal hurdles that we need to overcome to make that a possibility. Stay tuned.
On Montana ski areas
We discuss Montana’s scattered collection of ski areas. Here’s a complete list:
On “some of the recent things that have happened in the state” with chairlifts in Montana
While most chairlift mishaps go unreported, everyone noticed when a moving Riblet double chair loaded with a father and son disintegrated at Montana Snowbowl in March. From the Missoulian:
Nathan McLeod keeps having flashbacks of watching helplessly as his 4-year-old son, Sawyer, slipped through his hands and fell off a mangled, malfunctioning chairlift after it smashed into a tower and broke last Sunday at Montana Snowbowl, the ski hill just north of Missoula.
“This is a parent’s worst nightmare,” McLeod recalled. “I’m just watching him fall and he’s looking at me. There’s nothing I can do and he’s screaming. I just have this mental image of his whole body slipping out of my arms and it's terrible.”
McLeod, a Missoula resident, was riding the Snow Park chairlift, which was purchased used from a Colorado ski resort and installed in 2019. The chairlift accesses beginner and intermediate terrain, and McLeod was riding on the outside seat of the lift so that his young son could be helped up on the inside by the lift attendant, who was the only person working at the bottom of the lift. McLeod’s other 6-year-old son, Cassidy, was riding a chair ahead with a snowboarder. McLeod recalled the lift operator had a little trouble loading his older son, so the chair was swinging. Then he and his younger son got loaded.
“We’re going and I’m watching Cassidy’s chair in front of me and it’s just, like, huge, violent swings and in my mind, I don’t know what to do about that, because I’m a chair behind him,” McLeod recalled. “I’m worried he’s gonna hit that next tower. And it’s like 40 feet off the ground at that point. As that’s going through my head, all of a sudden, our chair smashes into the tower, the first one, as it starts going up.”
He described the impact as “super strong.”
“And just like that, I reach for my son and he just slips from my arms,” McLeod said.
He estimates the boy fell 12-15 feet to the snow below, which at least one other witness agreed with.
“I’m yelling like ‘someone help us’ and the lift stops a few seconds later,” he said. “But at the same time, as Sawyer is falling, the lift chair just breaks apart and it just flips backwards. Like the backrest just falls off the back and so I’m like clinging on to the center bar while the chair is swinging. My son is screaming and I don’t know what to do. I’m like, ‘Do I jump right now?’'”
The full article is worth a read. It’s absurd. McLeod describes the Snowbowl staff as callous and dismissive. The Forest Service later ordered the ski area to repair that lift and others before opening for the season. The ski area complied.
On Marx and Lenin at Big Sky
Hlavic compares Teton Pass’ upper-mountain avalanche chutes to Marx and Lenin at Big Sky. These are two well-known runs off Lone Peak (pictured below). Lenin is where a 1996 Christmas Day avalanche that I recently discussed with Big Sky GM Troy Nedved took place.
On the evolution of Bridger Bowl
Hlavic compares Teton Pass to vintage Bridger Bowl, before that ski area had the know-how and resources to tame the upper-mountain steeps. Here’s Bridger in 1973:
And here it is today. It’s still pretty wild – skiers have to wear an avy beacon just to ski the Schlasman’s chair, but the upper mountain is accessible and well-managed:
On Holiday Mountain and Titus
I compared Hlavic’s situation to that of Mike Taylor at Holiday Mountain and Bruce Monette Jr. at Titus Mountain, both in New York. Like Hlavic, both have numerous other businesses that allowed them to run the ski area at a loss until they could modernize operations. I wrote about Taylor’s efforts last year, and hosted Monette on the podcast in 2021.
On Hyland Hills
Hlavic talks about growing up skiing at Hyland Hills, Minnesota. What a crazy little place this is, eight lifts, including some of the fastest ropetows in the world, lined up along a 175-vertical-foot ridge in a city park.
Man those ropetows:
On Teton Pass, Wyoming
The Teton Pass with which most people are familiar is a high-altitude twister of a highway that runs between Wyoming and Idaho. It’s a popular and congested backcountry skiing spot. When I drove over the pass en route from Jackson Hole to Big Sky in December, the hills were tracked out and bumped up like a ski resort.
On Rocky Mountain High
Hlavic notes that former Teton Pass owners had changed the ski area’s name to “Rocky Mountain High” for several years. Here’s a circa 1997 trailmap with that branding:
It’s unclear when the name reverted to “Teton Pass.”
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