The grounds crew at Sundance Mountain Resort got a lesson in muscle math this winter. Yes math, not mass — though they built plenty of that too while called upon to shovel sidewalks and pathways during a season in which the ski area collected 520 inches of snow, a record by more than 10 feet.
Once the snow stopped this spring, or at least took a short pause, the workers dug up some tape measures and took down the length and width of all the stairs and patios, walkways and decks they’d had to clear between November and April. Then they did some calculations.
More than 45,000 tons of snow. That’s how much they’d shoveled, most of it by hand.
“The joke,” Czar Johnson, the resort’s vice president of operations, said, “was that we saved them all 100 bucks in gym memberships.”
Most of the heavy lifting may be over, but at Sundance the race has just begun. The resort prides itself on having one of the longest summer seasons of any ski area in the nation, typically starting around Memorial Day and ending in late October. So its crews expect to have a narrow window in which to switch from winter and summer operations. With a base of more than 100 inches still on the ground, though, that transition this year will be particularly tight.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Johnson conceded. He added, “You can’t adjust our schedule too much one way or the other.”
As if to encapsulate the struggle, Sundance will showcase a little of both seasons this weekend during a special bonus session. It plans to offer scenic lift rides up Outlaw Express to Mandan Summit for foot passengers — one of its marquee summer activities. Yet once there, guests have the option of clicking into their skis or snowboard and riding over to Red’s Lift, from which they can explore most of the intermediate to advanced terrain of the back mountain. Or they can strap into some snowshoes to take a short hike to a zip line tour.
“The unique thing about this resort is there’s something special going on every season of the year,” Chad Linebaugh, Sundance’s president and general manager, said in a news release. “This weekend will serve as a milestone as snow melts away and we celebrate the beginning of summer. And the fact that we can ski the Back Mountain [sic] this late into the year will be historic.”
Historic and hectic.
Johnson said all Sundance’s employees, not just the grounds crew, had to pitch in this winter in order to keep the resort operating. Ski instructors picked up shovels during their downtime. Patrollers added an extra level of padding to lift towers after the snowpack climbed above where pads were originally placed. Lift operators had to dig out areas around the lower lift stations so chairs wouldn’t drag. At the top, they roped off sections so skiers and riders wouldn’t be tempted to make early exits by jumping off into the pillowy powder piled up just a few feet below them.
Yet it seemed as soon as one task was completed, one area cleared, more snow would fall. In total, during its 121-day season, Sundance saw snow on 75 of them.
Johnson’s crews were exhausted, and he knew it. So when management approached him about extending the regular season out an extra weekend, from an April 2 closing to April 8, he hesitated. He acknowledged feeling conflicted again when he was approached about opening this weekend.
“Our staff was beat up,” Johnson said. “They had all given 130% to get us to closing day, and thinking about asking them to go that much deeper for a couple of extra days, you know that definitely weighed into the conversations.”
Ultimately, though, Johnson did the math and decided it was worth it. How often do Sundance devotees get to ski in May? Until this year, the answer had been never.
“To be able to ski in the middle of May is historic,” said Johnson, who has worked at Sundance since 1995 and has not heard of it staying open any later than mid-April.
“I think people are going to come up just to be a part of that, even if they’re done skiing,” he added. “They’re going to make a couple runs, then they’re gonna go up to Bearclaw, order some nachos, have a beer and sit on the deck and celebrate being outside at Sundance.”
After this weekend, Johnson’s overworked crews would probably like to solely focus on setting up summer operations. The resort plans to have most of that rolling by May 26. Mountain biking isn’t expected to begin until mid-June, however, and the new trails the resort is installing probably won’t come online until at least July.
Unfortunately for them, though, the math may not pencil out. Johnson said too many variables exist to correctly calculate the end of ski season right now, especially with so much snow still on the mountain.
“We’re not going to close the door to additional opportunities,” he said. “We’re definitely going to see how this weekend goes and see what kind of response we get and see how it all works. And if it works and conditions stay favorable, then the door’s open for looking at additional weekends.”