BILLINGS – In 1973, an adult season pass at Red Lodge Mountain cost $125. A junior ski racing package, with Firebird wooden skis, was $60. Nine feet of snow fell in the last month of the 1973-74 season.
That summer, the ski area invested $350,000 into reconstructing one lift and installing the Miami Beach chair, part of a $1.5 million investment over 10 years. With the improvements, the ski area’s capacity grew from 1,500 to 3,500 skiers a day.
Fifty years later, the Miami Beach lift has been disassembled and sorted into its various metallic parts. Some were sold for scrap, the old towers are being used as culverts and for art projects, and the double chairs were auctioned off as a fundraiser.
In its place, the Red Lodge Mountain crew, with help from contractors, has installed a three-passenger, high-speed lift that will open to users on Friday. Miami Beach Express, which climbs just under 3,000 feet up the mountain, will be the third high-speed lift on the mountain. The other two, Palisades and Cole Creek, are four-passenger chairs.
“It’s a big deal for us,” said Jeff Schmidt, mountain manager.
To that end, a ribbon-cutting ceremony with local officials was held on Nov. 13.
The ride up the newly installed lift, purchased from Alta Ski Area in Utah, will be about 3 to 4 minutes compared to the old travel time of 10 to 11 minutes. Capacity will almost quadruple, Schmidt said.
“There should be zero lift lines and mechanically it will be easier to load and unload,” Schmidt said.
The Express takes a slightly different approach to the mountain.
Passengers will now depart near the top of Paradise, an intermediate run that cruises down into the Palisades chairlift’s base area. In the opposite direction, a small connector trail, called Misfit Toys, will funnel riders onto the upper end of Otto-Bahn, a beginner route.
The name for the short connecting run is an inside joke, Schmidt said. The Island of Misfit Toys was a location in the 1964 “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” animated movie. Schmidt refers to his crew as the misfits, and he’s the ruler, a winged lion called King Moonracer.
“We make it work,” he said.
Near the top of where the old Miami Beach chairlift ended, a new magic carpet, called Sunkid, has been installed for ski school students.
Work on the project began last summer when Red Lodge crews traveled to Alta to help with the disassembly and packaging of the lift for transport. In between then and their installation, the parts hauled on 21 semi-tractor trailer rigs were stored variously on a ranch, at the base and in a crane yard.
This summer, it took about three days to pull out the old towers. An Idaho helicopter crew was hired to place the new ones at the dizzying speed of nine towers in 11 minutes, Schmidt said.
In addition to installing the lift, new snowmaking equipment was added to the slope, with more to come next year on the Misfit Toys run.
Although a storm at the end of October whitened the Beartooth Mountains, warm weather followed, making it hard to retain and make snow, although Schmidt said his crews have made a good start.
“I’m hoping the weather changes, but it was good for getting work done” this fall, he said.
OpenSnow forecaster Bob Ambrose reported in October that six out of the seven past El Niño years have resulted in above-normal snow years for Red Lodge Mountain, “possibly due to Red Lodge Mountain being the most southerly of all Montana’s ski areas and resorts. El Niño winters historically tend to be stronger to the south of Montana.”
El Niño is when the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean’s surface waters are warmer than normal. This warming has an effect on low-level winds along the equator, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which can disrupt normal weather patterns. Complicating this pattern is that this year is already on track for the warmest in recorded history.
In the most recent El Niño year, 2015-16, Red Lodge received only about half of its normal precipitation.
Ambrose speculated maybe that year was an outlier, but time will tell.
Last season was record-setting for Montana ski areas, Schmidt said. Red Lodge Mountain’s snowfall didn’t start out great, but the season concluded with a storm at the end of March that dropped 18 inches, burying roads and knocking out power. By mid-April, 60 inches had fallen and Red Lodge Mountain extended its season for an extra weekend.
The National Ski Areas Association reported visitation across the United States last season at 64.7 million, up 6.6% over the previous year and a record.
All told, the upgrades to Red Lodge Mountain amount to an investment of about $3 million by the ski area’s owners, San Francisco-based JMA Ventures, LLC. The company bought the ski area and its 160-acre golf course in 2007.
Land at the base of the mountain, where the lodge is located, is private, whereas the upper mountain and many of the runs are on Custer Gallatin National Forest property.
Season passes are $1,000, although price reductions apply when passes are purchased earlier.
Yet according to the Consumer Price Index inflation calculator, that’s not much of an increase from 50 years ago.
In 1973 dollars, $125 is equal to about $900 today. If you figure in the expansion of the mountain in that time, skiers and snowboarders are getting more for their money. Plus, partnering with five other resorts allows pass owners to use free ski days, including five free days at northwestern Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort and two at Grand Targhee Resort in Idaho.