Teton Pass Ski Area closed for the season on March 22 about two to three weeks earlier than owner Charles Hlavac had planned to prevent out-of-state and out-of-area skiers from traveling to the county and possibly spreading COVID-19.
Hlavac on March 27 said Teton Pass Ski Area, located 25 miles west of Choteau on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, had great spring snow and could have stayed open until April 5 or 12, even with the governor’s order shutting down all bars and restaurants.
Hlavac said the ski hill was still open for business, with the lodge restaurant doing a limited take-out menu. Teton Pass was the second to the last ski area in the U.S. to close, Hlavac said, just one day before Lookout Pass Ski Area closed.
“We were getting calls from people wanting to come from out of state and ski here, and I didn’t want to see that,” Hlavac said, adding that he wants to see people comply with stay-at-home orders and help to flatten the curve of the pandemic, that has sickened people in every state in the nation and in the majority of countries across the globe.
COVID-19 is a viral illness that causes mild cold-like symptoms in most people, but can cause serious illness in some and complications, including pneumonia and kidney failure, can be life-threatening for others, particularly high-risk populations including the elderly, people with underlying chronic health conditions and those who are immuno-compromised.
As of Monday, March 30, Teton County had not yet confirmed any cases of COVID-19.
“Overall we were super happy,” Hlavac said of his first season of operation. “We met and exceeded expectations for skier visits and revenue numbers. … I’m feeling very positive about how things went.”
Hlavac said the ski area had a very good snow year, noting that the snow levels in the Teton River drainage are at 120% of normal.
He said the season started later and ended earlier than he had hoped and skier numbers reflect that, but overall, he was encouraged by the number of skiers who came and enjoyed the uncrowded slopes. The ski area provided seasonal jobs to 25 workers, including cook and wait staff, lift operators, rental shop staffers and others.
Hlavac said the majority of the ski area’s traffic came from within 100 miles of the ski area, mostly from Choteau, Teton County and the small farming and ranching communities along the Rocky Mountain Front plus Great Falls and Helena. After a few big snowstorms, skiers came from Kalispell, Whitefish, Bozeman and Missoula too. “They come out when the snow is good,” he said.
The ski area saw smaller numbers of skiers for its three Randonee races, but Hlavac said that was not unexpected for a rebuilding season.
Operationally, he said, the ski season went flawlessly with no equipment failures. That, he said, was reassuring and confidence-building for the staff to know that they could operate the ski area well and will only do better going forward.
“It certainly was a challenging first year,” he said. “We are definitely going to be open next year.”
Hlavac, who managed the ski area from 2010 to 2017, purchased the Teton Pass Ski Area Inc. from owner Nick Wood of New Zealand and several other investors in September 2019 for an undisclosed price.
Wood had closed the area in December of 2017, saying the resort did not make money, and he and his partners, after suffering other financial setbacks, could not afford to open it for the 2017-18 season.
Wood listed the ski area for sale, originally asking $3 million for the resort, operated on a 402-acre forest special-use permit. The resort includes three lifts, a lodge with a restaurant and liquor license, a ski gear rental shop and several outbuildings. Wood later dropped his asking price to $375,000.
Once he purchased Teton Pass Ski Area Inc., Hlavac began working with the USFS on several amendments to the 25-year special-use permit. Working through some of those issues along with several others led to a later-than-hoped for opening last winter, starting on Dec. 28.
He said the ski area operated three days a week, Friday-Sunday, after the Christmas holiday and was without the bar in the lodge all season because the liquor license had not yet transferred. That process is nearing completion and will be done before the next ski season.
In the off season, Hlavac said, he will have a lot of work to do. “We’re going to have a lot more time to plan and prepare” for the 2020-21 ski season, he said.
Off-season work will include maintenance and repairs on the ski slopes and buildings, preparing a marketing campaign for pre-season tickets and day passes as stocking stuffers, booking school groups and lining up key personnel, Hlavac said. “We are really looking forward to turning the page and operating next season,” he said.
One major summer project will be the clean-up of a seven-year-old diesel fuel overfill that happened before the ski area had an automatic shut-off valve on its fuel tank and dispenser. Hlavac said he is continuing to work with the USFS and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on the plan for remediation.
Hlavac said the ski area will be available during the summer for weddings and other gatherings. Anyone wanting to book the area should contact him at email@example.com.
To help pay the bills, Hlavac will continue with his two other business ventures. He owns Steepwater Engineering and does ski lift consulting for ski areas across the state and northwest. He also operates Wind Mountain Tree Service, a tree-trimming