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Slippery slope

Skiers suffer early season setbacks at Snowbowl

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Montana Snowbowl opened Nov. 27 to a crowd of some 1,000 skiers and snowboarders in what co-owner Brad Morris describes as "the strongest start we've had that I can remember." The near tripling of the resort's opening day average resulted from the onset of what is expected to be a major powder year; snow depth at Snowbowl's summit has already reached 54 inches. But a day-one mechanical glitch on the Grizzly chairlift set the tone for a more troublesome early season trend: lengthy delays.

Morris confirmed that in the first four days of the season, Snowbowl's Griz lift shut down three times due to separate mechanical issues. The first incident, which led to the evacuation of several passengers by rope, occurred after ice formed on the lift's haul line, something Morris says is extremely uncommon at the resort. Concerns over a faulty brake and loose drive belt led to the second and third shutdowns respectively.

"It could happen any time, and those things are tested and the lift is inspected by the engineers from the insurance company before we even operate it," Morris says. "That was the first time we've ever had ice on the lift. It's a common problem in the West, where there's more precipitation. We've never even on the Lavelle [Creek] lift had that problem."

Three breakdowns on the Grizzly chairlift this season generated complaints over consumer satisfaction at Montana Snowbowl, and pushed Rep. Betsy Hands to request legislation addressing refunds for lift tickets. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Three breakdowns on the Grizzly chairlift this season generated complaints over consumer satisfaction at Montana Snowbowl, and pushed Rep. Betsy Hands to request legislation addressing refunds for lift tickets.

Each shutdown this season has lasted at least an hour, creating long lines and prompting mountain management to issue occasional day pass refunds to customers. Several Independent staff members observed Snowbowl loyalists griping over repeated setbacks in the first days of the season, when snow was fresh and demand was high.

In response to the latest lift line grumbling, Rep. Betsy Hands, D-Missoula, has requested a draft bill mandating refunds for skiers in the event of a chairlift shutdown of one hour or more. Hands, herself a lifelong skier, says she's been stuck on the Griz lift in the past. She was seen verbally expressing her dismay just weeks ago during Snowbowl's third breakdown of the season, and later heard similar complaints in person and on Facebook from constituents.

"I've always celebrated the fact that Snowbowl's in my district, so I do feel a certain desire to keep it a place that's vital and celebrated," Hands says. "I know just a ton of people who love Snowbowl and go up there all season long and in the spring have such a strong passion for their last days at Snowbowl. It's a great place, but it needs to stay competitive."

Hands has yet to decide if she'll drop the bill onto the floor of the 2011 Legislature; she says she'd prefer a dialogue with Snowbowl's ownership before taking the issue any further. And with a big powder year in the offing, Hands feels the issue needs to be resolved quickly to make sure skiers are spending their money locally.

"I think the real issue is that with the big powder year that everybody's anticipating, that's when Snowbowl has its challenges," Hands says. "That's when they can't manage the rider load. So people are thinking, 'God, this is the year that we're going to be really out there taking up the slopes and having a good time,' and it makes you question whether or not you want to go to Snowbowl, or do you want to go to Lost Trail or Disco?"

Yet those in Montana's ski industry argue that resorts already have adequate policies for dealing with customer inconveniences based on years of individual experience. Snowbowl offers refunds in select circumstances, and people stuck on lifts will frequently get coupons for hot chocolate. Any legislative move could be interpreted as an attempt to control independent business, says Doug Wales, director of marketing for Bridger Bowl and a board member of the Montana Ski Area Association. That's a "slippery slope" from an industry perspective.

"I would definitely be resistant to the idea of any legislated policy on how to conduct business," Wales says. "The customer votes with their wallet, and certainly if you don't provide a good experience or meet the needs of your customers, businesses either don't survive or they suffer the repercussions of that."

Wales and Morris agree the issue of chairlift shutdowns is far too complex to be addressed legislatively. Scores of factors can play into the decision to close down a lift, many of them unrelated to mechanical failures.

"What if you had six lifts and one of them shut down? How much would you refund for that?" Morris says. "What if the shutdown was due to weather? Would that be different than if it was due to mechanical problems? In the case where we have a temporary shutdown, we frequently extend the operating hours for that day, so how would you work that?...It's kind of a moving target."

The industry's arguments likely won't sway Hands, who opted against a season pass this year due to her legislative obligations. Like many in Missoula who stick to day passes, she's hesitant to drop another $40 just to stand in a lift line.

"Saturday was the fourth day it had been open," says Hands, referencing Dec. 4, "and it had broken down three days. They had a 75 percent record of breakdowns. That's just not acceptable."

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