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November 2010

Waking Up Sleeping Giant

Community and state funds have relaunched this small-town, non-profit area.

Written by Claire Walter | 0 comment

If you’re going to reopen and expand a small, local ski area in northwestern Wyoming that closed after the 2003-04 season, it helps to have an angel buy the land, a state grant to help fund infrastructure improvements, an enthusiastic nearby community to raise additional funds, a supportive U.S. Forest Service district office, and little other red tape. Such was the happy situation faced by Sleeping Giant area manager Andy Quick.

Not that the job was easy. It took two years and $2.1 million. But at the start of the 2009-2010 season, the area was up and running, and drawing skiers and snowboarders from nearby Cody (population approximately 9,000), Powell (pop. 5,400), Worland (pop. 5,300), Thermopolis (pop. 3,200) and the region’s widespread ranchers, who had been heading to Red Lodge and other Montana areas.

From Old Times . . .

Originally opened as Red Star Camp in 1936-37, the area was renamed Sleeping Giant in 1938. The owners of the neighboring Shoshone Lodge, near the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park, ran it as a winter season amenity. Sleeping Giant was a small, simple family-owned operation—500 vertical feet, one double chairlift, one T-bar, one tow, one little day lodge, no snowmaking. The last significant improvement had been a day lodge expansion in 1992.

Finally, the Forest Service was concerned with safety issues regarding the very old T-bar, and because the owners were unable bring it into compliance or replace it, Sleeping Giant took a nap.

. . . to a New Life

Fast-forward to the fall of 2007, when local investors Jim Nielsen and Tom Fitzsimmons bought the area. They resold it to the not-for-profit Yellowstone Recreations Foundation, which was set up to bring the area back to life, and operate it as a self-sustaining winter amenity without a debt load.

The Foundation’s first task was finding money. Locals dug into their pockets raised the nearly $800,000 required to secure a $500,000 State Land Investment Board grant. The foundation’s “Wake the Giant” campaign included T-shirt sales and giant jars all over town to receive contributions large and small. In the end, it raised more than $900,000. The state’s $500,000 was earmarked for a new lift, snowmaking, electrical work and other infrastructure improvements.

Government agencies at all levels fast-tracked the project. “A non-profit called Forward Cody managed the application for us,” Quick says, adding, “The Forest Service wanted to get the area operating. The Wapiti District [of the Shoshone National Forest] lumped a lot of components into an ‘exclusion category,’” so only one set of federal approvals was needed. The process took just six months. “The state has also been profoundly cooperative,” Quick adds. So were the county commissioners, who supported the area’s efforts to obtain a Wyoming Business Council grant.

The Facelift

Then the upgrades began. U.S. 14/16 runs right past the area, but the North Fork of the Shoshone flows between the road and the base area. The bridge crossing it was too fragile to support heavy equipment, so replacing it was job one.

The septic system desperately needed work also. Because the lodge is close to the creek, sewage must be pumped uphill to a drain field. The catch basin had become heavily timbered, so it was logged over the course of two years to create a wide-open novice slope, appropriately called Catch Pen. An even gentler slope, with a conveyor lift purchased from Mt. Sunapee, N.H, was created in front of the day lodge. Quick calls this key to Sleeping Giant, as it brings in the families that local ski hills need.

Two chairlifts now rise from the base. A refurbished Heron double serves the east side runs, and a new triple to the west replaced the ancient T-bar. The new chairlift, dubbed the Sheepeater, was recycled from Mammoth, Calif. It reaches higher than the old T-bar, boosting the area’s vertical to 940 feet and accessing new runs and glades. A mid-station is located at the old T-bar’s top terminal.

The old area had zero snowmaking; now, it’s on both sides of the mountain. Water is pumped out of the North Fork by a 15-horsepower charge pump and moved up to the pumphouse that feeds 23 portable stick guns.
Sleeping Giant boasts a terrain park that uses all-natural materials, including timber cut from the mountain. The area’s Rails & Bails event in January drew 62 skiers and boarders, from as far away as Winter Park, to compete for $5,000 in prize money. The event put the area on the map with park riders.

Both functional and cosmetic upgrades were made to the day lodge. A wood-burning forced-air furnace heats it. As Quick notes, “We have plenty of dead trees.” Other upgrades included roof repairs, new-for-the-area kitchen appliances donated by owners of a fly-fishing lodge, the installation of waterless urinals in the men’s restroom, the addition of a sizable south-facing deck to the day lodge and the purchase all-new rental equipment.

The Numbers

Sleeping Giant operates Fridays through Sundays plus holidays. Two hundred people is an average day, 350 a good day, and 500 the 2009-10 record. Season passes last season were $329 for adults, with discounts for youths, children, military and seniors. An adult full-day lift ticket was $29. For 2010-11, an adult season pass was just $199 if purchased before April 15, with incremental increases to $345 after Nov. 1. Last season there was limited pass reciprocity with Red Lodge and other Wyoming ski areas, and this winter, fifth graders ski free. Some 30 local businesses offer passholders discounts on food, products and services.

With no mandate to make a profit, Sleeping Giant can take it slowly—building a local and regional market, providing winter recreation in a place with lots of winter, and growing only when funds permit. Andy Quick is OK with that.