by nathan oster
Local skiers and snowboarders who for the last 15 years have been traveling great distances to find fun on the slopes have reason to rejoice this holiday season: Antelope Butte is reopening Dec. 28.
Jeff Grant, president of the nonprofit Antelope Butte Foundation, confirmed it Monday afternoon, announcing not only the date of the grand opening, but also a stretch of nine straight days of skiing (Dec. 28-Jan. 6) at the recreational area, which is located 35 miles east of Greybull on U.S. Highway 14.
It will be a rolling start, as the lodge won’t be ready to go, nor will the big lift that takes skiers to the top of the hill be operational. But the new “carpet” for beginners will be operational, as will the smaller of the two lifts, known as the park lift.
An old garage has been remodeled and will serve as the temporary lodge, where visitors can rent skis and warm themselves up. Part of it will also be set aside for ski patrol purposes.
The 11,400-square foot lodge is undergoing renovations and won’t be completed this season, Grant said. A “legacy campaign” is underway to raise the money required to complete it. About $1 million is needed and Grant said “a nice dent” has already been put into it.
When it’s done, the lodge will offer food service, a bar and retail merchandise such as hoodies, T-shirts and hats, as well as the rental shop.
Grant said Antelope Butte has hired a few workers, but that more are needed. At first, it’ll primarily be to operate the lifts. A year from now, when the lodge open and the second lift is running, more will be needed.
“We’re hoping we can find some good people this year,” said Grant, adding that moving forward from the winter of 2019-20, the vision is for Antelope Butte to be a four-season recreational destination.
In the winter, it offers 225 skiable acres and 23 marked trails and runs. Proposed summer activities, which would start in the summer of 2020, include scenic chair rides, mountain biking, mountain boarding, festivals, summer camps and facility rentals.
“Once we get to that point, it’ll be a lot easier to offer year-round employment,” he said.
Operations wise, Grant said ABF has received its operational permit from the U.S. Forest Service and that the park lift and the new carpet have been tested and certified and are “ready to go.”
The summit lift, the larger of the two with 104 chairs, was never tested due to concerns about “a bearing noise.” Once that is worked out, it’ll have to go through the same safety checks as the other lifts in order to be utilized.
“We’re fixing the issues with that and hope to do a load test before the end of the year, although a lot will depend on whether there’s a government shutdown in five days,” said Grant. If that happens, the U.S. Forest Service will shut down.
Grant said the plan is to run the lifts every day during the holidays, starting Dec. 28 and ending Jan. 6, and then settle into Friday, Saturday and Sunday hours for the remainder of the season.
Even in years the lifts haven’t been running, people have been hiking to the top of the hill and skiing down. Grant said they will still be able to do so, but the only lift that’s going to be operational at first is the smaller park lift, which has 38 chairs.
From that lift, approximately four of the runs at Antelope Butte will be easily accessible. When the summit lift is operational, it’ll open up the rest of the hill. Grant said ABF is presently evaluating which of the existing runs will be ready to open at that time, adding that some may be roped off initially. Long term, ABF’s vision is to open not only all of the old ski runs, but also to create new ones on the hill, he said.
With no snowmaking equipment, the ski area will be depending on Mother Nature. She’s been kind so far. In fact, Grant used he word “amazing” to describe the snow.
“We got an incredible amount of snow in November and on the lower level, if you get off where the snowmobiles and snowcaps are running, it’s above the knee, mid thigh.
“It hasn’t been compacted yet, but there’s plenty of snow for people to come in and ski and snowboard. We’re going to have an area for tubing, too.”
The re-opening of the ski hill will be celebrated on both sides of the Big Horns. Antelope Butte closed in 2004. Prior to that, it had been a destination for winter fun since the 1960s and 1970s.
Grant said he wasn’t part of the ABF when the current campaign to reopen the ski area started around 2010, but knows that it’s been a long, challenging road. That it’s reached this point at all is a testament to the grassroots effort on both sides of the mountain, he said.
“I think it’ll feel good for all of us on the 28th, when we see kids up there renting skis, getting on the carpet and taking lessons, and when we see the more experienced skiers hopping on a lift and getting ready to take on a hill,” he said. “That’s what we’ve had in the back of our minds, this lost generation of 15 years or so where kids grew up and never learned to ski or a snowboard because they didn’t have this place. We wanted to change that.”