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Zip lining

Boosting the bottom line

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Montana Snowbowl's summer operation has always been low-key. The mountain's single tracks are popular in the local mountain biking scene, and a disc golf course at the top of the Grizzly chairlift draws a decent crowd. But the thrills are largely skill-based—something co-owner Brad Morris intends to change this summer.

Right now, employees are working to turn a jumble of steel and rebar near the shop into tower foundations for a new zip line course. One concrete pad is already in place on Longhorn, Morris says, and once the weather dries up, staff will begin pouring the rest. Morris hopes to have four separate zip lines open sometime this summer, with each capable of carrying two people side-by-side in a hammock-like harness.

"Snowbowl's pretty ideal for zip lines because we have all those canyons coming together," Morris says. "That's the ideal situation, to go from one side to the other."

Morris envisions a beginner zip line in close proximity to the existing tow-rope. Other lines will likely extend from Grizzly Chute to lower Longhorn and from Longhorn to Paradise. Users would ride in groups with guides, Morris says, adding that passes will probably cost around $30 or $40.

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Zip lines have caught on fast at ski resorts nationwide as a way to improve slow summer seasons. Whitefish Mountain Resort installed four lines in 2009 and had more than 9,000 zip liners that same year. According to Whitefish spokesperson Riley Polumbus, the course proved "wildly popular," and the resort has since added three more lines. Whitefish, which charges $75 to $84 per person to zip line, recorded 14,266 zip liners last year.

"Summers can be challenging for ski resorts," Polumbus says. "Even with all the activities we have here, we get really excited if we break even. It costs money to be open at all ... so this is definitely helping us improve the bottom line."

Zip lining has even contributed to a change in U.S. Forest Service authority. Congress passed the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act in late 2011 to expand what activities the agency could permit at ski areas.

Snowbowl is nevertheless installing its course entirely on private land, Morris says. But the 2011 law does open the door for expansion.

"It's a pretty expensive proposition," he says. "We'll see how it goes."

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