Sleeping Giant turns a profit for first time in years

Mark Davis, Powell Tribune photo Skiers ride the slopes after dark at Sleeping Giant Ski Area and Zipline Saturday. The lights were just one of several investments new owners have installed at the facility. The ski lodge will stay open well into April.

POWELL — The parking lot at Sleeping Giant Ski Area has been overflowing and folks have been streaming to the mountain outside of Yellowstone National Park; they’re unloading the families anywhere they can find a spot, including out on the highway. 

Skiers have been enjoying the deep snow that’s fallen in recent weeks and, for the first time in years, the once-struggling facility is turning a profit. It’s a dreamscape for the new owner of the lodge and ski slope, affectionately known as “Sleepy G” by the hip kids.

“I think the main reason for the sudden success is the snow,” said general manager Mike Gimmeson. 

“We’re getting so many storms coming in — I think we got about 6 feet over the last two weeks. So that always helps. But we’re also holding special events, live music, and our night skiing. I think we’re building momentum.”

For Gimmeson, who first learned to ski while attending Powell’s Parkside Elementary School, success is heartening. He remembers how important it was to be exposed to the sport as a kid and he’s started to invite schools for free skiing — including those from his alma mater.

A recent visit to the North Fork ski area marked the first real field trip the kids at Parkside have taken since the shutdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, said principal Jason Hillman.

“It was great!” Hillman said. “They do such a good job working with the students. They spend the entire morning in lessons and then stay with them on the slopes.”

The school has been doing the annual trip for years, but this year they went on a Tuesday instead of Friday.

“We had the entire mountain to ourselves,” he said.

Gimmeson said they are now inviting all school-age kids to participate, rather than just fifth graders.

“I came up with the idea that, you know, let’s let all grades ski free,” he said. “If we can get more ages up here — from second all the way up to eighth grade — we get a more diverse crowd, and the kids will learn at a younger age.”

“We’re really trying to adjust plans to whatever works, because we’re basically starting over,” Gimmeson added. “We want to make it so it works for everybody.”

The ski area was operated by a nonprofit organization, the Yellowstone Recreations Foundation, from 2009 through last year. However, the foundation consistently struggled to make ends meet, leaving Sleeping Giant’s future uncertain. That’s when entreprenuer Nick Piazza of Cody stepped up, purchasing the ski area through a newly formed company, Community Mountain LLC.

Gimmeson has been experimenting with ways to make the slopes more accessible to very different kinds of groups, regardless of age. This year they added an outdoor bar made entirely of snow, live and recorded music beaming from the speaker system, new warming huts and outdoor COVID-friendly rest stations and lights. As Gimmeson spoke on Saturday, Bob Marley played in the background as the sun began to set behind the peaks and the artificial lights began to glow.

Skiers enjoyed a range of activities at the lodge, from roasting wieners around a fire in the snow and picnicking in the newly installed yurt, to tailgating and enjoying refreshments (including adult drinks) around the fireplace in the lodge. 

It’s not just locals traveling to Sleepy G. Word has been spreading about the fun atmosphere and folks are coming in from all over the area, including bypassing Red Lodge’s ski slopes.

Brennan Grondin, of Absarokee, Montana, was on his first trip to the Sleeping Giant lodge, traveling with friends just to check it out.

“It is smaller [than Red Lodge], but I’m having a lot of fun,” Grondin said. “There’s a wider variety of runs and different kinds of slopes. And I like the terrain park.”

One of his favorite parts of the trip was the price to ski.

“Red Lodge prices are going up. And here, you come and it’s just like super cheap,” Grondin said. “And it’s like, it’s a nice price for a good time.”

Success was fast in coming for the first-year owner. Piazza said he was “both excited and a little terrified” to take over the operations on the North Fork last summer, hoping at the time to not lose too much money on the purchase of the once nonprofit facility.

The ski area plans to stay open as long as the snow is good and has events scheduled through mid-April — though last Saturday may have been the last night of the season under the new lights. As the days grow longer, it’s now light enough to ski without the bright beams until the 7 p.m. closing time.