Wild Big Sky

Snow machines groom Ambush on Dec. 21, 2016, at Big Sky Resort.

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Big Sky Resort is prepared to open on Thanksgiving Day with a brand new chairlift, more snowmaking capabilities and fewer pandemic-related restrictions.

Stacie Mesuda, a spokesperson for the resort, said 42 inches of natural snow has fallen on the mountain so far this season, which is 76% of the area’s historical average. The mountain holds 5,850 skiable acres and 39 lifts, and it’s likely that only a portion of those lifts will open on Thanksgiving.

On Tuesday, the resort didn’t have a specific terrain plan set for its start to the season, but staff typically open the mountain in phases, beginning with lower terrain, Mesuda said. Ramcharger 8 and Swift Current 6 are scheduled to be running on opening day, she said.

Complimentary breakfast and hot chocolate will be available in Big Sky’s base area from 8 a.m. to noon on Thanksgiving, and local DJs Take A Chance and Jen N Juice will play on the Vista Deck, according to Mesuda.

Snowmaking capabilities at Big Sky have expanded this year, and the resort says that will improve early season skiing. Improved snowmaking helps to create a more consistent snow surface in the early season. It also helps unlock the upper mountain earlier in the year, Mesuda said.

New this year are five miles of snowmaking along Mr. K, a green circle run that leads skiers and snowboarders to the Mountain Village base area. There are also new jump lines and features around the Swifty terrain park.

Slope maintenance crews cleared deadfall and widened pathways for skiers in gladed terrain this summer, which should improve tree runs, according to Mesuda. She noted that 36 more beds are set to open in a workforce housing complex within walking distance of the base area.

Expanding workforce housing on the mountain aligns with Big Sky Resort’s goals of achieving net-zero emissions by 2030. It will ease the burden on transportation infrastructure, Mesuda said. People can start moving into the new housing this winter.

Last season, the resort put extra restrictions in place to protect guests and staff from COVID-19. Those restrictions are being eased this winter.

“Like last year, our plans are adaptable, but we are taking steps toward a more normal operating plan for this coming winter, with reasonable health and safety protocols in place to ensure a safe and successful season,” Big Sky Resort General Manager Troy Nedved wrote in a letter.

All chairlifts and the Lone Peak Tram will load guests to full capacity, and visitors aren’t required to wear masks outdoors. The resort’s indoor spaces are planned to be open at full capacity, and masks aren’t required in those spots either.

However, resort staff are encouraging everyone to wear masks indoors unless they are seated and eating or drinking. Unvaccinated employees at Big Sky are required to wear masks.

“Our workforce will be required to obtain a full vaccination or submit a weekly negative Covid test to work at our facilities in order to keep our guests, team members, and the broader community safe,” Nedved wrote.

A new chairlift called Swift Current 6 is set to open on Thanksgiving Day. There will be an opening ceremony from 8:40 a.m. to 9 a.m. to celebrate it. Lifts start spinning at 9 a.m.

Nicknamed “Swifty,” the new chairlift replaces the Swift Current high-speed quad, which took skiers from Mountain Village up toward Powder Seeker 6. The new lift is more energy efficient, and it’s equipped with weatherproof bubbles, heated seats, headrests and footrests.

“Our chairlifts run on clean energy .... So do our buildings and infrastructure,” Mesuda said. “Getting these more energy-efficient chairlifts is our next step in reducing electrical consumption.”

The resort anticipates that uphill capacity out of the Mountain Village base area will increase by up to 50% once the new chairlift is operating. Swifty will be the fastest six-person chairlift in North America, they wrote.

Staff at the Bridger Bowl Ski Area north of Bozeman are expecting a later opening. They’re predicting that the ski area will open on Dec. 10, which is slightly earlier than the ski area’s late opening on Dec. 17 last year.

There are 2,000 skiable acres and eight chairlifts at Bridger Bowl.

Also, for the first time in decades, the 2021 Yellowstone Ski Festival in West Yellowstone has been canceled. The annual Nordic ski festival typically takes place during Thanksgiving week, but insufficient snow and a lack of significant snowfall in the forecast means there is no way to groom trails for skiing clinics and competitive races this year, organizers wrote.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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