Big Sky Resort celebrates half a century of the Biggest Skiing in America.


In March of 1974, The New York Times published an article by a cantankerous writer who was displeased with his stay at the brand-new Big Sky Resort. He’d arrived just before the new ski area’s official opening, which he wrote was hastily scheduled so that Big Sky’s ailing founder, Chet Huntley, could attend before his death—which he did not. This writer, James P. Sterba, questioned his own critique, given that it was the resort’s debut year. “It may be too early to judge Big Sky because not all of it is really completed,” Sterba penned. Sterba might have eaten his own words today when, just weeks before Big Sky Resort’s opening for its celebratory 50th season, Vogue published a piece titled “Why Big Sky, Montana Is the Hottest Coldest Ski Resort to Visit This Winter.”

“So now, at 50 years young, Big Sky Resort is fully equipped to not only outlast, but outshine its competitors as one of America’s hottest ski spots,” the article concludes. It’s safe to say Sterba was right—it was too early to judge. Fifty years after a meager handful of articles chronicled Big Sky Resort’s launch, a Google search yields multiple pages of headlines commenting on this anniversary, recognizing it as the industry giant it has become. At our Big Sky-based magazine, we’re excited to celebrate half a century of Big Sky Resort with our own collection of stories told through the voices of a few of the many people who love it, the people who’ve seen it grow, and the people who have worked to make it what it is today.

Enjoy this work, composed by Outlaw Partners Associate Editor Jack Reaney, and join us in celebrating 50 years of Big Sky Resort.

– The Editors

Big Sky Resort’s grand opening includes four chairlifts: Rams Head, Explorer, Lone Peak Triple and Gondola 1.
Big Sky Resort visionary and founder Chet Huntley dies from lung cancer on the spring equinox of the resort’s opening year.
Everett Kircher of Boyne Resorts purchases Big Sky Resort.
Mad Wolf double chair opens, expands northeast-facing terrain on Andesite Mountain.
The first Dirtbag Ball takes place at Buck’s T-4, raising funds for the Big Sky Ski Patrol and birthing a long-lived community.
Taylor Middleton, current president and COO, begins his Big Sky Resort career.
Challenger double chair adds high-alpine, expert terrain.
Lone Peak Tram opens in tandem with the Shedhorn double chair to expand south-facing terrain off the summit of Lone Mountain.
Swift Current replaces Gondola II, bringing a third high-speed quad to Big Sky.
Patrol triggers a large avalanche, destroying the Shedhorn chairlift and leaving scars still visible in that area.
Big Sky Resort opens for lift-accessed mountain biking.
Yellowstone Club opens a private ski area adjacent to Big Sky Resort.
Moonlight Basin opens a public ski area on the north side of Lone Mountain.
Dakota triple chair extends Lone Mountain’s south-facing terrain.
Big Sky Resort acquires the Moonlight Basin ski area, following Moonlight’s chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009 and lingering financial troubles.
The new Mountain to Meadow bike trail connects Big Sky Base Area to Town Center.
Powder Seeker 6 replaces the old triple chair in The Bowl, complete with the first “weatherproof Big Sky Blue Bubbles” now featured on three chairlifts.
Ramcharger 8, the first eight-seat lift in North America and the world’s first energy efficient D-line Direct Drive, becomes the continent’s most technologically advanced lift, according Big Sky Resort.
Big Sky Resort joins Ikon Pass, spurring local controversy due to an influx of crowds.
Big Sky Ski Education Foundation hosts Masters FIS World Criterium, a 21-plus world championship held in the U.S. only once every five years.
Pond skim wraps up ski season, but disappears from season-end tradition in subsequent years.
On March 15, Big Sky Resort suspends operations due to COVID-19.
Big Sky Resort begins charging a daily add-on fee to ride Lone Peak Tram, helping mitigate crowds. Certain passholders have unlimited access.
Swift Current 6 replaces the Swift Current high-speed quad from 1996.
John Kircher, the man behind the Lone Peak Tram and beloved former resort GM, dies from cancer.
Lone Peak Tram replaces the original tram from 1995, increasing maximum capacity five-fold.

Areporting job landed me in Big Sky last year, and with it, my first address west of the Mississippi. I’ve been intrigued by opportunities to learn the history of this unique mountain town—not only from news archives and file cabinets, but by hearing memories from the people living here.

To visitors, there can be an illusion of paradise in a resort community; the reasons are obvious, and in many ways, probably true. But from the inside, there’s a day-to-day realness with true challenges. To spend a chunk of one’s lifetime in a place like Big Sky is not easy. I think it requires something deep.

In my quest to capture the meaning of Big Sky Resort’s 50 years, I spoke with a swath of established community members—some young, and others raising eyebrows with their ageless living.

I asked six questions: What’s your name (this quickly evolved to include nicknames and any relevant title within the legendary Big Sky Dirtbag monarchy); What are you known for in the community; When did you first ski Lone Mountain; What’s your favorite trail or zone; What’s a favorite memory from time spent on the mountain; Tell me why you’re grateful for Big Sky Resort.

Most of these interviews would end with, ‘Well, have you talked to so-and-so? You should really talk to so-and-so.’’ Unfortunately, Mountain Outlaw could only fit so many so-and-sos from five decades, and we recognize these tales offer just a taste of how much Big Sky Resort means to its deep-rooted and widespread community.

Community role: “I am a mother, I am a skier, I am a Lone Peak Big Horn superfan, I am a server, and I am a soon-to-be nursing student.”

Skiing Lone Mountain since: “I moved here in 1999.”

Favorite trail or zone: “I like all of the Lone Peak Tram. Gullies, Marx, Lenin and the Dictators, or Liberty Bowl. Or the [Big] Couloir. Or the North Summit Snowfield.”

Favorite memory: “It’s just tram laps. Be it solo, or with friends, on powder days or on super gnarly, non-vis days when nobody is there except for your friends. And you’re just lapping and it’s totally insane, and you’ve got the mountain to yourself, just going skiing.”

Grateful for: “I’m definitely grateful for the Big Sky Ski Patrol. Just watching them‚ I’ve seen a lot of them grow up from their 20s into their 50s. They’ve always remained so true to the safety and skiing aspect of Big Sky. They’ve been so true to the locals, helping us, dropping ropes for us, telling us on the first lap whether to go to Marx or to Lenin. Helping us stay safe, and they’re just good people. And they’ve gotten better and better every year.”

Community role: “Probably [known for] my longevity in my restaurant. First, it was The First Place, down in the meadow, and now it’s The Cabin.”

Skiing Lone Mountain since: “Well, the very first time was in December of ’77. I actually hiked up ‘Mr. K’ and skied down the headwall for my very first run at Big Sky.”

Favorite trail or zone: “Used to be what’s called Little Tree. It’s on Challenger, but before there was a Challenger lift … We would hike around this edge on the Pinnacles, and if you got first run on Little Tree … It was just a super, super cool run to do if you were the first one to hit it.”

Favorite memory: “Skiing the North Summit Snowfield in the summertime. I went up there with a buddy of mine, Chris Nash, and his dog, Strider. We slept on the peak and skied the snowfield a couple times … We brought sleeping bags and firewood on the dog and had a campfire and cookout up there.”

Grateful for: “I feel kind of blessed to be able to live in Big Sky, raise a family, and I’ve had a viable business for years … It added to the community, and it added to the growth of Big Sky.”

Community role: “I was gonna say ambassador. But no, I’m gonna say Queen, because everyone knows my name.”

Skiing Lone Mountain since: “I skied Big Sky the first year it was open, in 1974. I took the train from St. Paul, Minnesota. It took me two years to get back—I first came to live here in 1976.”

Favorite trail or zone: “[It] was Killefer, which is also known as Mr. K. It was called Killefer when it was first there. [In 1974] I stopped mid-trail and turned uphill, and there was Lone Mountain in all its virgin glory. It was just the most beautiful thing I ever saw, and I still remember it to this day. It was unbelievable.”

Favorite memory: “My favorite memory is when The Dugout burned down and they put up a wall tent for the rest of the season … Where [Everett’s 8800] is right now, ski patrol had a shack and it was a place to get burgers and beers in the afternoon. … It burned to the ground. And it was still burgers and beers, and it was a hot place to go to.”

Grateful for: “I’m very grateful to the resort. It’s like a family. People think that it’s a corporation, but in the scheme of things, Big Sky Resort was taking care of all of us as a family should.”

Community role: Life-long community member, professional competitive freeride snowboarder

Skiing Lone Mountain since: “I think I learned to ski on Lone Mountain when I was 3 or 4 years old. So, 2003, 2004. I learned to snowboard on the mountain in 2008, so 20 years.”

Favorite trail or zone: “Definitely the Headwaters is my favorite zone … Hell’s Half-Acre and Third Fork.”

Favorite memory: “I have a lot of good memories. I think one of the most fun was when I was 13 or 14, I was on the Big Sky Freeride Team. It was closing weekend and we were lapping the tram all day—there was no line. We brought cookies for the lifties at the tram to bake for us, ’cause they have an oven in there. They had a new batch of cookies for us after every run.”

Grateful for: “The terrain they have there. It’s so unique; the lifts go all the way up to an actual peak. And I’m grateful for the ski patrollers who are able to get that terrain open all the time … I’m grateful for the ski patrol and all that they do.”

Community role: “I’ve been in the school district for 24 years. From there, I’ve taken on some community service roles … Facilitator of social events … In a town like this, it’s hard to hide under a rock.”

Skiing Lone Mountain since: “It would be the winter of 2000. I was a snowboarder … At the time, [teachers] were getting free ski passes from
the resort. I was in my late 20s, and on the weekends and holidays from school, that’s what I did. Four or five years into it, I transitioned into telemark skiing … I haven’t turned back since.”

Favorite trail or zone: “For a while there, I spent a lot of time on the Moonlight side. I think some of my favorite runs are the first couple of laps on Silver Knife, when it’s fresh groomed with [powder] … Bavarian Forest on a morning with fresh snow, everyone is lapping through the trees. You’re with people, but you’re not. You’re guided by the sound of whoops and hollers.”

Favorite memory: “Taking the kids up what we used to call Ski Fridays … We’d load the whole school, like 80-something students and under 10 staff. We’d get on a bus or two, go up and spend a Friday afternoon [skiing] … What a great way to spend a couple Fridays. I think we did it four Fridays of January … A lot of that is the way Big Sky [Resort] has developed this town to promote adventure.”

Grateful for: “Just their continued support of the school district … As the town grows, the school grows, the resort grows. Big Sky—keeping the youth of Big Sky in the mirror still. And I hope that doesn’t go away. I hope they still find ways to make it happen, where they ski for free … It’s nice to see [the resort] being the sustainable role model in town. Hopefully other places around the West and around the world can use them as a model.”

Community role: Commander of the American Legion Post 99

Skiing Lone Mountain since: “My first time up was back in ’89, when I worked for the mountain up there, for the gondola.”

Favorite trail or zone: “I used to always ski over there at Shedhorn a lot … I always liked Pack Saddle and Dude Park … Now, my favorite one would be over at Moonlight, over on Lone Tree, down through Whiskey, I guess. There’s so many of ’em. I don’t know.”

Favorite memory: “Some of those dirtbag memories. I remember the first time going up there on the peak. I’ll never forget that, man … The ride up in the gondola, we better not mention that … Getting off that tram and just looking around, that’s something I’ll never forget. A few days after it opened, with a bunch of friends just sitting up on top of the mountain, just lookin’ around.”

Grateful for: “Just been grateful for the people I met up there, and lifelong friends that we’ve become. I’ve met some of the best people, I think, in the world up there. To ski and hang out with them afterwards, that’s what I’m grateful for. The opportunity to meet these people and ski with them. To this day, we’re still friends—the ones that are still around.”

Community role: Longtime community member; community housing trust executive director

Skiing Lone Mountain since: “My first season pass was the winter of ’90-’91.”

Favorite trail or zone: “I like tree shots that are hidden in plain sight … I like all the little tree shots …”

Favorite memory: “I think it was actually discovering Shedhorn … The tram was great, everyone was on it, and it was getting all the attention … And it was so much fun those couple years, because Shedhorn is so full of nooks and crannies … The sense of discovery, that was a blast.”

Grateful for: “The people that it’s attracted. You know, the culture and the way the resort has grown and built around. The underlying sense of adventure and shared discovery. The people that it brings [are] my tribe.”

Community role: “Your favorite ‘Stumpy Sunday’ bartender … I’ve probably served you a drink after skiing.”

Skiing Lone Mountain since: “I think January will be 17 years.”

Favorite trail or zone: “I would say Dirtbag Wall. It’s usually a little rocky to get into; it’s sometimes a bit of a gamble. But sometimes, you gamble and you win.”

Favorite memory: “Skiing Pockets many years ago. It’s not open most winters, and I’m not sure we’ll ever get to ski it again with the location of the new tram, but maybe we’ll be surprised.”

Grateful for: “I’m grateful for all the different types of terrain we have at Big Sky Resort—there’s so many different aspects. Most ski resorts are on a ridge, so the terrain is facing the same direction. Lone Peak is unique because terrain is facing every direction, so we can ski all aspects of this standalone beauty … I could probably talk about skiing at Lone Peak all day if you wanted me to.”

Community role: “Well, I was a ski bum for two and a half years. And then I was ski patrol … Which is still kind of a ski bum.”

Skiing Lone Mountain since: “I came here in March of ’77 … I started [patrolling] in ’79.”

Favorite trail or zone: “I would just say, off the summit.”

Favorite memory: “I’ll go back and say when the Mad Wolf chair opened. Because it was a lot less boring patrolling on Andesite once we had the backside to ski. The old Mad Wolf double chair … That opened up a lot of stuff.”

Grateful for: “The mountain and the terrain. Keeps a lot of people here, I think … Been a good ride. Still doing it.”

Community role: “I first worked at Big Sky Resort from 1987-1991 … I started Yellowstone Tour Guides … I have always put my ski time first, with 100-plus days of skiing most years.”

Skiing Lone Mountain since: “I have been skiing Big Sky since I was a little kid, sometime in the ’70s. I grew up in Livingston.”

Favorite trail or zone: “I don’t really have a favorite run or zone of the mountain; it has always been about what side of the mountain has the best snow conditions. Nowadays it’s often about where the fewest crowds are.”

Favorite memory: “Probably a powder day when the patrol invited myself and Chad Zeigler up early for [avalanche] control. They ran us up on the tram, and stopped the tram halfway up so we could watch the avy control all around us. Once on top, the patrol still needed to do the Marx, Lenin and Dictator areas, so the patrol told us we could ski down Liberty to the Dakota lift … There was 4 feet of fresh snow in the Liberty Bowl and a good 3 feet on Dakota’s runs … Many, many face shots that day. There are no bad days skiing.”

Grateful for: “I am grateful I was here for the early days, and the endless amount of powder that would last for days. Before snowboarding, the skiers would make lines next to each other in the bowl, slowly working their way across the bowl to Exit Chute. It often took two days to make it all the way across the Bowl … Once the Bowl was tracked out, it was then onto the BRT traverse, to take us to Challenger’s terrain before the lift. I don’t recall Challenger’s terrain ever tracking out before the lift was built in 1988, probably because of the mandatory run down the Bozeman Trail to get out of there. I still believe Challenger ruined the biggest powder stash on the mountain. I’m also grateful for the huge number of friends I have made here. The dirtbag community is one of the best at any ski area, and everyone is here for the same thing, just to live and ski, and that is what it’s all about.”

Community role: Musician, singer songwriter.

Skiing Lone Mountain since: “This will be the start of my 16th winter.”

Favorite trail or zone: “Depends on which way the wind blows. But I kinda like Dakota.”

Favorite memory: “Valentine’s Day, 2012. There was like an inch of snow reported, and [we] got to the lifts at 8:55 … There was only one [group] in front of us … We went to the tram—nobody’s there. We skied the couloir … Went over to Gullies, and it was up to my waist … Rest of the day, we got to ski the tram—there was no line that day … I skied the North Summit, Dictators, Marx and Lenin, and on my third Big Couloir, there was finally a line [at the tram].”

Grateful for: “I’m just always really grateful for ski patrol and the work that they do. Getting things open, taking care of people and keeping the mountain safe … Obviously [the resort] for providing lifts to access this amazing terrain.” 

Ryan Ayres looks out the grand window of Big Sky Resort’s Vista Hall toward Lone Mountain. The sun is losing its fight against swarming clouds. An October snowstorm is blowing in, and Ayres and his fellow ski patrollers have been preparing the mountain for another long winter. Ayres will spend his 25th with Big Sky Ski Patrol.

“I’ve always been really proud of our mountain,” he says, his eyes still scanning the 11,166-foot rock, where the new Lone Peak Tram is finishing its two-year construction process. “And I don’t know that I would ever be able to find a mountain as unique as this. So, when it comes to [Big Sky’s] growth and whatnot, it’s hard for me to get upset about it. Because why wouldn’t people want to come and check this out? It’s something that I’m proud of, and always wanted to share with people. This amazing mountain.

“So that’s kind of the backdrop for all of us, on any given day,” he says. “And it’s pretty unique.”

Ayres would know. Big Sky Resort’s 50th season will mark his own milestone of 25 seasons with the Big Sky Ski Patrol. He’s been the director for the past four, but stepped down after last winter. He’ll spend more time supporting his wife, who owns Cinnamon Lodge and Events near Big Sky, while patrolling three to four days a week.

Recounting patrol’s evolution through the 21st century, Ayres’ tone, grin and thoughtful choice of words match his observation that the crew is perhaps less tight-knit and wild, but better off in many ways.

Camaraderie remains, built between ski boot fatigue and wind-chilled fingers and toes. The Big Sky Ski Patrol has a unique ability to suffer, he says, and he’s not sure the skiing public realizes how hard the job really is.

“We ‘embrace the suck,’” Ayres says—it’s an unofficial mantra. “When it sucks out there, we’re like, ‘Eh, this is what we’re all here for.’”

Such an attitude is a rite of passage.

“To be able to suffer without complaining, and laughing in the face of adversity, I think, gains a lot of respect … The people that work hard, put their head down and get it done, gain probably the most respect.”

Ayres is quick to name those that have earned his respect. “Jon Ueland, ‘Yunce,’ I mean … he’s gotta be pushing 65, he’s a smokejumper and he’s still the first one out the door, out there in adverse conditions and lookin’ down the barrel of the ‘Apple Core’ in the ‘Little [Couloir],’” Ayres says.

And of Cindy Dixon—Big Sky’s longest-tenured ski patrol director, formerly known as Bob—Ayres says, “She’s out there. Did the director job for 30-some years, and now out there acting as a mentor to the younger patrollers.”

From the plethora of specialized climbers and mountaineers, to EMTs and medical professionals, Ayres said he respects a lot of different patrollers for a lot of different reasons. Ayres himself earned respect the old-fashioned way. When the Wyoming native and Montana State University student-turned-ski-bum joined patrol as a volunteer in 1998, old-school ways layered another test on an already harsh job.

Ayres spent eight years handling Dayna, a Big Sky avalanche rescue dog, before Dayna’s retirement in 2021. PHOTO BY KATE MIDDLETON
Patrol performs daily terrain inspection and mitigation along the Headwaters, a thrilling-yet-consequential bootpack hike—notice the hand-rope anchored to the rock—with outlets for extreme skiing on either side of the ridge. To the left (pictured), the A-Z chutes. To the right, the Headwaters. PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN AYRES

“You know, when I started, it was very—cowboy. Rough. You had to be thick-skinned; you had to be willing to take criticism and whatnot,” he recalls. “And some of the people I looked up to were some of the ones that were most critical, and most thick-skinned, and some of the hardest to get on their good side.”

That suited Ayres’ style, he says, but even through his own thick skin, he carried the heavy weight of fear while working. And that pressure doesn’t work for everybody, he says.

“If you do it wrong, you’re gonna hear about it from this group of people,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to let those people down. And at the time, when you messed up, you had to buy beer—I couldn’t afford to buy the beer. And so that style actually suited me well.”

He pauses.

“We do not promote that style of learning anymore,” Ayres assures, laughing.

Now more than ever, the Big Sky Ski Patrol follows a skills-based mentorship model. Older or more experienced patrollers are expected to pass on as much of their skillset as they possibly can and are rewarded for doing so.

“I talk about how hard the work is,” he says. “But there’s a lot of down time, and a lot of shack time. And that’s a lot of stories
… trying to keep the oral tradition alive to a certain extent.”

It’s a formalized skill-sharing process, with an informal element of preserving the well-aging parts of a 50-year-old tradition.

“We’ve worked hard on our culture, over the years,” he says. They’ve adopted three pillars: teamwork, accountability and humility. Any personnel issue, Ayres says, can usually be solved by addressing at least one pillar. He notes that humility has been a big catalyst for improvement.

“Some people might see us as kind of arrogant or egotistical,” Ayres says. “But the reality of it is … We have a specific skill set, but there’s other people out there that have other skill sets that are really valuable as well.”

Big Sky’s patrollers weren’t always so empathetic toward other departments on the mountain, Ayres admits. But now, with humility in mind, patrollers are encouraged to consider the challenges, possibly invisible, that others may face.

“If our lift operators aren’t there on time, or our road crew didn’t get the road plowed on time … It’s like, you don’t know what happened with those people,” Ayres says. “So, you know, they’re doing their job to the best of their ability. What we can do is do our job to the best of our ability … We have to do it in a respectful way.”

Ayres can point to one specific moment that challenged—and ultimately improved—the culture of Big Sky Ski Patrol. In 2013, Big Sky Resort merged with Moonlight Basin, an adjacent ski area with its own ski patrol. Ayres says each culture brought their differences.

“That was probably the biggest cultural challenge we had, ever,” Ayres says. “They had their way of doing things over there, and we had our way of doing things over here.” The Moonlight team brought it to patrol’s attention that Big Sky could be better, Ayres recalls, but it took a few years to raise the bar in unity.

Ayres reflects back to around 2018, when current Big Sky Ski Patrol Director Nancy Sheil helped steer things in a better direction. Ski patrol leadership came together, challenged with identifying their values and creating a shared vision. They identified guiding principles in teamwork, accountability and humility. Once a culture of, “You’re an idiot, you blew it, go buy beer,” Ayres says, he saw a shift to a culture where feedback can be delivered up and down the chain, and with mutual respect. He’s proud that his team bought into the “easily understood values” and chose to follow their leaders.

“That’s where I think it was a win for us on the culture … I’ll be honest with you, it wasn’t that hard,” he says. “Because people were on board.” Ayres’ personal growth has followed the same curve as the patrol’s shifting culture.

“I think I’ve grown to understand that you don’t have to be that super salty, off-putting hard, harsh person in order to be successful. I can be vulnerable, I can show that side of myself. I know that I can ask for help. I know that I don’t have to go out and do it on my own.”

At one of North America’s most unique ski areas, the Big Sky Ski Patrol manages roughly 270 degrees of high-alpine avalanche terrain on Lone Mountain—not to mention the demanding safety operations across all of Big Sky Resort’s 5,850 in-bounds acres. PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN AYRES


Alongside the patrol which he eventually led, Ayres adapted from the “old-school patroller mentality” to more of a professional one.

Improvements notwithstanding, Ayres hesitates to call it the tight-knit family unit he remembers. He wrestles with that; it’s still a family, but the sheer number of patrollers has grown.

Ayres joined the patrol more than two decades into its growth. Even then, he remembers Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners at each other’s homes. Patrollers’ kids grew up together.

Today, the team runs 120 deep, plus volunteers. Ayres suggested that he might not see some patrollers between November and April.

“I do see it as an incredible support system and the camaraderie is still very tight … We refer to it as a patrol family. But it’s just big—it’s just much bigger now than it once was.” One clear benefit has emerged: especially in the past three years, a peer-resiliency group has taken leadership on mental health and emotional support needs.

“That probably has gotten better. Because in some ways, it’s more professional. And less, like, ‘Oh, we just had something happen, we’re gonna all get together and drink together.’”

Now, peers reach out to a comrade in need, perhaps cooking some food as a gesture of care.

“So we’ve grown up,” Ayres says, nodding. “We’ve grown up in the way we support each other. We’ve gotten better.”

Another shift has helped retention since the ’90s. In Ayres’ early days, very few patrollers had a spouse or children. He married in 2001.

“At that point, the cards started falling, people started to get married, started having kids. Seeing that there was a path forward with a family was a big deal for me,” he recalls. He could envision a career.

“‘I can have a family, I can do this, and I can make it work,’” Ayres recognized. And he did make it work, patrolling Lone Mountain for half his life while raising a kid.

The identity of a Big Sky ski patroller is shifting. Once a badass gig for any ski bum with their EMT certification, it’s now becoming a career path with a culture accessible and sustainable to a wider range of personalities.

The operation has grown significantly—Ayres estimates 50 patrollers per day now, versus 20 when he started. Summer work was once limited to a small crew taking initiative without too much guidance. Now there are full-time summer jobs for patrollers in the lift-served bike park.

And in the winter of 2020-21, the Big Sky Ski Patrol voted to unionize. It was a painful and emotional time for Ayres—as director, he felt responsible for keeping his team happy and engaged but had to sit across the table from them in the collective bargaining process. He’s glad both parties agreed to a deal in about nine months, much faster than some industry peers, and he sees both sides being proud of the outcome: better wages and benefits, especially for seasonal workers, which the resort soon moved toward matching company-wide.

“I think the straw that broke the back was COVID,” Ayres recalls. “The cost of living in this area … People feeling like there was not a clear path for a career as a ski patroller.” He’s seen growing trust, transparency and normalcy in the two winters since negotiations began.

The job has changed, and some patrollers bailed. But that’s Big Sky. The resort and the greater Big Sky community have spent 50 years growing into a place where more people could work and live year-round. Growing pains abound, but Big Sky is probably more fertile than ever to young, career-oriented folks like Ayres was in 1998.

Today, those folks are rookies. When Big Sky Resort celebrates another quarter-century in 2048, the Big Sky Ski Patrol will have shape-shifted again, and today’s rookies might gaze out toward Lone Mountain in search of the right words for own their story.

When Christine Baker thinks about her first visit to Big Sky Resort 41 years ago as a child, it’s the unique experiences and people she most recalls rather than any particular run down the slopes. It seems like a fitting anecdote, considering Baker’s nearly 30 years as a resort employee have mostly centered on creating experiences for others. Starting as a ski instructor in the late ’90s—and teaching people to ski that still remember her decades later—Baker has become one of the most recognized faces on the mountain and an influential force behind the scenes. Now serving as Big Sky Resort’s VP of mountain sports, managing winter and summer activities, she is a vessel for the resort’s future as much as she is its past.

Mountain Outlaw: What’s special about skiing in Big Sky, Montana?
Christine Baker: Big Sky is vast and majestic. That we can ski an iconic peak like Lone Peak, where you can travel from one side to the other, almost 360 degrees, is truly special. The sheer amount of all types of terrain, from beginner to high-alpine expert, means that people of all experience levels can explore to their heart’s content.

M.O.: You work in ski education. What does it mean to have shared the art of skiing with so many people in this special place?
C.B.: It means that I am a very fortunate person. Each year I hear from guests who I started skiing with 20-plus years ago. It is very clear that Big Sky holds a special place for them, one they will never forget. The stories we hear of instructors who have connected guests with this mountain [are] incredible. Seemingly small things like the right dinner choice, to life-changing interactions where the guest has written a book about the experience. Each interaction with instructor, guest and the mountain has the potential to be the start of a lifelong relationship.

M.O.: Tell me about one of your earliest memories from skiing Big Sky Resort.
C.B.: My first visit to Big Sky Resort was around 1982. My parents had been here the year before and taken lessons. At that point, most of the instructors were Austrian and participated in a traditional Austrian show, complete with lederhosen, Edelweiss wrung out on bells, and a wood-chopping dance where Ski School Director Robert Kirchlager entered hanging upside down from a lodgepole pine.

The performance accompanied dinner in the Huntley Dining Room. During the wood-chopping dance, a large piece of wood went flying out, and my mom’s instructor, Gerhart, picked it up and later gave it to me with the inscription: “Dearest Christine, in remembrance of your first trip to Big Sky.” I know that I had a great time skiing that week, but the off-snow thoughtfulness is the thing that I most clearly remember.

Baker speaks with a group of instructors training for the PSIA-AASI National Team. PHOTO BY ELIZA KUNTZ

M.O.: How has the ski resort and surrounding community evolved since your early days in Big Sky?
C.B.: The evolution has been about as vast as the mountain itself. From 10 instructors to over 400, from a handful of restaurants that were open for short seasons to a large variety that are open year-round.

When I started working full-time in the late ’90s, this was still a relatively small ski town. Now we are a full-fledged community that is working hard to have all the supporting infrastructure and resources that its members need.

M.O.: We often talk about the growth of skiing here, but tell me about the story of mountain biking at Big Sky Resort, and your role in it.
C.B.: My first experience mountain biking at Big Sky was in the summer of 1999. My friend Courtney and I borrowed bikes, rode up the gondola and rode down Moose Tracks … This was my first time on a mountain bike. I was wearing tennis shoes, and I definitely went over the handlebars. Immediately, I became hooked on mountain biking.

Big Sky [Resort] has offered downhill, lift-assisted mountain biking and rental bikes since 1996 or 1997. Taylor Middleton and Glenniss Indreland were some of the people out there marking out our first trails. The resort developed a few trails … many other trails were rider-built. In 2008, I remember that the ‘easiest’ trail we had for folks was to ride down ‘Pacifier,’ and if you’ve ever tried riding downhill on a gravel road, you know how inviting that is.

Over the past decade or so, we’ve really transformed our trail system. We’ve created a progression for an individual or a family to learn the sport and be able to participate in it multiple days in a row, just like they do skiing or snowboarding in the winter … We need to show our guests the potential for them with mountain biking.

M.O.: What lessons from the first 50 years of Big Sky Resort do you hope will inform the way the resort approaches the future?
C.B.: I’ve heard our General Manager, Troy Nedved, say that we want to be the best employer in the industry and I consistently feel that sentiment around me. I like that momentum and am excited for it to continue. We are looking from a holistic point of view—when we add this lift, what impacts does it have, and how do we work and appropriate adjustments into the plan.

M.O.: Most people would say you’re living the dream. Do you have any regrets?
C.B.: We can always look back and see how we could do things differently, but no regrets here. I know I am lucky.

The sustainability specialist for Big Sky Resort is charged with the Lone Mountain-sized task of inspiring and executing the reduction of Big Sky Resort’s carbon footprint. Amy Fonte’s optimistic attitude makes her an equal match for the job.

As climate change threatens the future of the cold, snowy winters that the business of skiing depends on, industry leaders like Big Sky Resort are wrestling with their own contribution to the crisis. Since assuming her role in 2021, Fonte says she’s motivated by finding solutions to such a complex problem.

Studies including the 2021 Greater Yellowstone Climate assessment reveal that winters have been getting shorter, warmer and drier in the last several decades, a trend that’s projected to worsen. Ski resorts around the world are reckoning with this threat to their industry, while at the same time confronting the reality of their own large-scale output. A 2021 report published by Boyne Resorts, which owns Big Sky Resort, showed Big Sky has the largest carbon footprint of any of its 10 ski areas—8,449 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in fiscal year 2020-21, topping Maine’s Sunday River (8,025 MTCO2e). Big Sky and Sunday River are Boyne’s only resorts above 6,500 MTCO2e, according to the report. In response, Big Sky Resort launched its ForeverProject in 2021, an umbrella for its sustainability work and guided by its goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. Fonte’s job is to lead North America’s third largest ski resort in achieving this.

“I think that [ForeverProject] plan is just our first step in being transparent,” Fonte told Mountain Outlaw. “We don’t have all the answers. But we want to pave the way. We want to work with others … Being a leader in [this industry] is just being very vocal about what we’re doing, sharing our experiences. We’re not perfect, but we definitely want to push forward, and keep moving forward.”

Fonte’s work includes collaborating with people across the resort to impact each component of its broad system. She’s worked to educate department leaders on how to implement needed change and identified infrastructure projects—Fonte is proud that the resort installed its first solar array in 2023.


Like Fonte’s job, the ForeverProject is multifaceted. Big Sky’s master plan includes 12 “big moves,” Fonte says, broken into four categories:

  1. “Foundational moves” will represent approximately 12% of the push toward carbon neutrality by focusing on clean energy and electrical infrastructure;
  2. “Near-term capital projects,” about 18% of Big Sky’s ForeverProject plan, include decarbonizing existing and new buildings, improving snowmaking and chairlift efficiency and prioritizing renewable energy;
  3. “Emerging opportunities,” about 2% of the plan, include the eventual transition to electric alternatives for the resort’s heavy-duty vehicle fleet. In the meantime, Fonte is proud that the resort recently transitioned its diesel engines from petroleum diesel to 99% renewable diesel made with hydrotreated vegetable oil;
  4. “Balancing moves” will be the largest segment of Big Sky’s ForeverProject impact, accounting for roughly 67% through purchase of renewable energy credits and carbon offsets. Balancing moves are designed “[to] close that final gap that we can’t reduce on our own through efficiency practices,” Fonte said.

“Sustainable solutions tend to be good business solutions,” Fonte said. “They tend to be long-term thinking: How can you preserve [resources] to use in the future so people can enjoy the mountain for years to come?”

Fonte said large corporations are responsible for making big changes, and individuals have a significant role as well. The resort’s visitor experience is designed to educate guests and workers. Food and beverages are served in compostable containers, and come with a choice for disposal: landfill, recycling or composting. Water bottle fill stations encourage reusable water bottle use by touting Big Sky’s “pure mountain water;” letting vehicles idle is discouraged to “preserve our clean mountain air;” and ski lodge décor boasts that “all of our lift operations are powered by carbon-free energy sources.”

“It’s fun to learn new things and learn how you can make a difference,” Fonte said. She hopes Big Sky’s visitors will agree.

With her side gig as a board member for sustainability nonprofit Big Sky SNO, Fonte is fanning her expertise beyond just the resort, working with private businesses, local nonprofits, community events and Big Sky’s three private clubs—even striking up conversation on chairlifts. In her dual roles, she’s able to align sustainability goals between the resort and the broader community.

“It’s just cool to work with amazing people who really want to do what’s best for the planet. And best for people,” Fonte says.

Fonte is originally from Florida and took the sustainability specialist job after working in social sustainability for Montana’s Yellowstone County, where Billings is located. She holds an undergraduate degree in sustainability science, and Master of Science in sustainability management from the Kogod School of Business at American University. She calls this work her “life’s purpose,” but it’s not easy. Still, when asked about hope, Fonte answered decisively. “I don’t think I would do what I do if I did not have hope. I know those solutions are possible. I know that sustainability can be very daunting … That’s true, it is a huge, large-scale problem. But I know solutions are out there. They’re coming. Technology is always improving. We’re heading in the right direction.”

Editor’s Note: The Explorer chairlift is the last remaining of four original chairlifts constructed for Big Sky Resort’s opening in 1973. As Big Sky Resort celebrates its 50-year anniversary, the Explorer chairlift is one of the oldest remaining historical artifacts from the early days of skiing in Big Sky, but its days are numbered. Mountain Outlaw Assistant Editor Jack Reaney wondered what this relic might say if it could talk. Here’s his version.

Iam weary. I am slow, old, creaky, old and slow. I’m on my last legs, but it’s been a good run. I’m a fixed-grip Heron Poma two-seater from 1973, and I haven’t changed much from my original Robert Heron design.

One chairlift expert calls me “a workhorse,” one of few remaining Heron chairlifts scattered across the American West. I’m told he’ll gush about my mechanical simplicity—an underground motor, very few electronics and a haul rope still tensioned by counterweight—and how I’ve “stood the test of time” through five reliable decades.

These days, I’m among Lone Mountain’s slowest people-movers and I won’t take you far. I climb 622 vertical feet, some 250 fewer than my typical peer, and I reach terrain that’s mostly tame and green.

But even so, I have a role here. I watched Lone Mountain become your beloved winter playground. While the world moves faster and faster around me, please hear my slow, mechanical hum, my 10-minute story of crawling along. Have a seat.

Being a so-called beginner lift, I’ve given the first chairlift ride to many skiers and snowboarders, young and old. Many kept with it and moved on to steeper slopes.

All kinds of skis have dangled from my chairs. In the late ’90s, they became shaped, and then they fattened. But while styles came and went, I haven’t changed much since 1973, nor did the snowflakes, the rocks and trees of my Lone Mountain.

I never expected to carry bikes; that summer retrofit wasn’t part of my contract. But it gave me something important to do when the snow melted away. And I wasn’t quite 10 years old before I carried an awkward sort of sideways, two-footed, one-planked ski. I thought, there’s no way this “snowboard” will catch on.

Those riders sat crooked; many struggled at the top and I watched some nasty toe-side slams on the groomed trail below—not to mention their miserable hop-shuffling in the flats. But I was wrong; they make up almost half the beginners nowadays. I’m used to it. And if a half-century in Big Sky taught me anything, you can only try to keep up with whatever’s next. That doesn’t mean you change. I’ve hardly changed and I’ve had one hell of a run. But sure, change surrounds my stubborn build.

So I’m old, yes, but pretty as ever. I make a damned good foreground for Lone Mountain. My antique simplicity calls back to a simpler time, a well-preserved snapshot of Chet’s vision as I climb the first steps toward the peak. But even so my days are numbered. I’m told I’ll retire after two more winters.

Have you heard of this new two-stage gondola taking my place? Have you seen that design? I hear this gondola will drop beginners at a mid-station near where I currently end, but get this—it will continue climbing from there, all the way to the base of the new Lone Peak Tram. Spectacular.

Question is, when you step boot into that fast-moving, black and blue idol of modern skiing, will you remember who stood here first?

I’m not soured by what’s taking my place, mind you. I just hope I’m not forgotten.

I’ve had my time, and I know the truth: the experience of skiing here has become unparalleled. Back in ’73, it was me and three other lifts carrying a few dozen friendly skiers, or so it felt. American skiing flourished in Colorado, California and Utah, and history was rich across New England slopes. Unless they liked to visit Bridger Bowl, this part of Montana wasn’t a destination for most destination skiers. That’s what changed between 1973 and today. Big Sky realized its potential and became some sort of household name.

It wasn’t all at once, mind you. Every few years, something new and attractive would come along to join me. There were new lifts and fresh innovations—Challenger raised the bar and the Lone Peak Tram raised it higher, and snow sports accelerated with the advent of “high-speed” detachable lifts. Our early ski maps diagrammed four chairlifts and about a dozen trails. Four decades later, we added Moonlight Basin and by acres, we had a stint as “The Biggest Skiing in America.” Then the IKON Pass packaged our lift tickets with the far-reaching likes of Aspen, Jackson Hole, Snowbird, Palisades Tahoe, Sugarbush and Sugarloaf, and the skiing world noticed this place.

And these new chairlifts, my goodness. Quad chairs were a novelty in my day—could you even imagine an eight-pack with a windshield and heated seats in 1973? That kind of engineer was putting astronauts on the moon while the rest of them designed me and my contemporaries. I am dwarfed by the speed, volume and grace of 21st-century chairlifts—I’ve been made mediocre by all that is grand around me.

It’s been seven years since I lost my last remaining companion: a Heron Poma triple chair in the bowl, designed like me only wider, tough as nails but worn down by exposure to Montana’s winter wind. That, and the need for speed that didn’t concern Big Sky in 1973.

I’ve watched most things change since then, and I’m next in line.

I am history. I am 50 years old and called “Explorer.” Among the zings of these new lifts, I hope you’ll still join me for a 10-minute ride, approaching Lone Mountain at my reflective pace. Put me to work while I’m still around; send those new skiers—and yes, snowboarders—up my line, so I can watch their glowing faces as they descend my slopes for the first time. Or perhaps you’ve long outgrown the bunny hill, and you’re waiting with baited breath for your first ride in that glorious new tram. But know I’ll be here for that end-of-day last lap, when you need a reminder of those early days, those first-ever runs. Please, have a seat.

Jack Reaney is an Outlaw Partners staff writer and news reporter based in Big Sky, Montana.