Sleeping Giant got things off to a promising start Sunday with a sneak peek that drew some 400 skiers and snowboarders to the hill.
“People were grinning from ear-to-ear in the lift line,” said service manager Gen Armstrong.
The grins are likely to get bigger as the snow piles up and the available terrain expands.
Certain to be open this weekend are Sleeping Giant’s beginner’s area, the upper and lower terrain parks and at least limited runs off the Big Horn double-chair lift. It’s possible, if more of the white stuff falls from the heavens, that the western Sheepeater Lift could have a limited opening as well.
The best chance for more snow before the weekend appears to be Thanksgiving Day.
“It all depends on Mother Nature from here on out,” Armstrong said, adding that the 28 inches of natural snow so far is up a bit from last year.
Last winter brought a season total of 180 inches of snow to the North Fork slope — more than four times the dismal 42 inches it received the year before. The boost was in part fueled by “La Niña,” which is forecast to return again this year; the “anti-El Niño” climate phenomenon typically brings colder and wetter weather here.
“That’s what we’re slated for (La Niña), so that means snow — great snow for our region,” Armstrong said.
Red Lodge Mountain Resort also is poised to open Friday and hopes to be 100 percent open on its front side. The mountain has received more than 3 feet of snow since Halloween and has been making snow, too. In a news release, the resort’s general manager, Jeff Schmidt, described the conditions as “the best ... the mountain has seen for opening day in many years.”
If the weather continues to cooperate, Red Lodge managers hope to open the Cole Creek quad-chair the first weekend in December.
Future planned events for Sleeping Giant include a new “Go With a Pro” lesson series, where first-timers and novices can buy three days of lessons — including rentals and lift tickets — for $99. Giant managers are also now offering the entire ski slope for rent on days the area’s not scheduled to open (excluding holidays, Sleeping Giant is typically closed Monday through Thursday).
The ski area didn’t find interest in renting the lodge out for events this summer, but Armstrong guessed part of the reason is because it was a new offering, and events such as weddings are planned well in advance.
“I think that program will grow if nothing else,” she said.
Those all are efforts to boost revenue and reduce operational losses at the nonprofit ski area, which is run by the Yellowstone Recreations Foundation.
Sleeping Giant brought in $283,454 in the July 2010 to July 2011 fiscal year while spending $452,417. That $168,963 cash-flow deficit actually narrowed a $198,196 loss from 2009-2010 — the ski area’s first year open since 2004 and first in business under the Yellowstone Recreations Foundation’s ownership.
The ski area is continuing work to reduce the deficit, but some of the losses come from the way the nonprofit is set-up.
Armstrong noted that part of the area’s mission is to stay affordable for local folks. The organization also gifted approximately $66,200 last year in donations, ski passes to families in need and support of local physical education classes, she said.
Another big cost is off-season maintenance.
“Winter operations, we can cover with what we bring in, what we put out,” Armstrong said, but summer sends the finances into the red.
“That’s why we’re pushing for summer activities with the Forest Service,” she said.
Another change being discussed is using more volunteers in mountain operations, she said, and managers continually look for ways to cut costs.
“We are a business, shopping around (for) the best prices and trying to pinch every penny we have, to try to make this work and stay around for the community,” Armstrong said. She also expressed thanks for the generous support the area provides.
“What other little community like ours has all these awesome opportunities?” she asked.