After a monumental storm blanketed the Helena area in nearly a foot of snow in the days following Halloween, Great Divide ski area opened its slopes on Saturday. The Nov. 11 opening was its earliest in 68 years.
“There was a first wave and then a second wave (to the storm) that really got things going,” said Tina Buttelman, ticket office manager at Great Divide.
“We’ve upgraded parts of our snowmaking system, so we were able to make more snow,” Buttelman said. “With the natural elements and then all that new snowmaking is what really got the mountain open.”
By Saturday afternoon, Buttelman said that, excluding season pass holders, they’d sold over 700 tickets between a presale at Ten Mile Creek Brewery, online sales, and in-person day pass sales. Since Great Divide is the only ski hill in Montana open this weekend -- other than Lookout Pass on the Montana/Idaho border -- people traveled from all over to ski the roughly 600 feet of vertical downhill at the local Helena hill.
Vincent Bonaobra, his wife, Gemalyn Bonaobra, and their friends, Jem and Bryan Bedico, traveled an hour and a half from Great Falls just to put their skis on snow.
“When we heard about Great Divide, we were there,” Vincent Bonaobra said.
“They even built a ramp in his backyard to prepare,” Gemalyn Bonaobra said of Bryan Bedico.
When Bedico heard that Great Divide was opening, he said there was no question in his mind about whether or not to plan a trip down. He and Vincent planned the trip together and brought a total of nine friends with them to ski.
“Oh we’re like, we gotta go; Thanksgiving is too long,” he said of waiting for other Montana ski areas to open.
Nick Liston and his wife also traveled from Great Falls with their 7-year-old son, Bentley. It was Bentley’s second time ever skiing, and he was practicing with Nick on Saturday.
Nick said his initial reaction to hearing Great Divide was opening was, “Hell yeah!” He said he had been away at a work conference for a week and was excited to help Bentley learn to ski.
“They had the snow,” he said of Great Divide. “This is a great way to have some family time.”
Bentley said that his favorite part of going skiing is “going down,” and that he thinks the sport is “cool.” He and his dad spent the morning perfecting their pizzas in the Backyard.
But not everyone traveled long distances to enjoy to early-season skiing. There were plenty of Helena locals up and about as well. Joanna and Ed Thamke said they’ve lived in Helena for 29 years and been skiing up at Great Divide just as long.
“Our kids were on the ski team here,” Joanna said. “They grew up here.”
Now, she said, her daughters are both students at MSU.
“I’m going to send a pictures to my daughters and brag,” she said. “They were worried about us being empty nesters.”
Ed Thamke said he loves coming to Great Divide for the atmosphere.
“It’s just a real homey, friendly environment,” he said. “I love the mom-and-pop feel ... this is just fun.”
This year, sightings of Kevin Taylor, owner and resident jack-of-all-trades at Great Divide, may be fewer than in years past. Due to some personal concerns, he will be stepping back from working as much as he has in past years.
However, Buttelman said that guests shouldn’t notice any dramatic changes in their Great Divide experience. She said that Taylor’s daughter and son-in-law, Betsy and Shane Moran, will be taking over many of his duties and keeping the business in the family.
“They’re hoping to step in and take over some of those roles that Kevin was doing,” Buttelman said of the Morans. “Yeah, there’s changes going on, and hopefully they’ll make your experience smoother.”
Regardless of the changes happening around the mountain, Buttelman said that they are excited about this historically early start to the season.
“We always try to be open for Thanksgiving,” she said. “It’s a good way to start the season two weeks ahead of schedule.”
“We are really looking forward to this season,” she said. “La Niña should bring lots of snow.”