SHELL — A balmy 14 below zero and a slowly-warming sunshine greeted the sleepy slopes of Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area Friday on its first opening day in 15 years.
Even though the first sign of a paying customer did not surface from the nearest town until around 9:25 a.m., Antelope Butte staff awaited the visitors with eager anticipation.
The first set of recreators to arrive — outside of crew members and their children — was a trio of young men fully-equipped and well dressed for the weather conditions. Tucker Nelson, a resident of Shell, was excited about the close proximity of the slope to his hometown. Before, he would travel to Sleeping Giant Ski Area in Cody, Meadowlark Ski Lodge near Ten Sleep and Red Lodge in Montana. Those three options are nearly equidistant for Nelson at around two hours per trip, give and take.
“The availability of being able to come up after school and stuff once it opens (is cool),” Nelson said.
His two cousins, Ryan and Seth Tobler of Idaho, said they usually frequent the same place in Idaho, so the change of scenery was refreshing.
Antelope Butte staff members were equally as eager to work the limited runs Friday, whether reminiscing about childhood trips up to the mountain or starting fresh as fresh explorers of the slopes.
Terri Wales, a Sheridan resident, started as a rental technician at 16 years old and moved into lift operations in 2004 when the recreation area was last functional.
“I’m excited,” Wales said. “I’ll help with lift operations and anything else they need me to do.”
In anticipation of its opening, Wales said she completed a few runs at Antelope Butte earlier this week to loosen up again.
Newcomers Dakotah Gali and Clayton Hunter jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the operations at Antelope Butte, coming most recently from the Snowy Range Ski Area in Centennial and occasionally Meadowlark.
Hunter had just organized his newly-shipped ski and snowboard rental equipment an hour before winter sports enthusiasts were set to arrive and fill up the small rental building, next to the ticket booth. The lodge appears to be nearing completion with windows installed and the majority of interior and exterior framework set, but a fairly sparse interior and unsided exterior remain.
Hunter, originally and once again from Worland, brings a solid knowledge of bindings and boot fittings to AB, noting that he will likely “geek out” on new and challenging bindings brought to him. Several snowboards set against the wall still needed bindings attached, but Hunter said he was quick at installing them and it shouldn’t be a problem.
He will bring his expertise down the mountain to co-host a winter expo in Worland later this winter to help spread the word about Antelope Butte and proper safety and comfort tips for winter athletes. A big push Hunter on customers will be helmets for every child.
The rental facility has around 105 ski rentals available, with a focus on equipment for children, which Hunter said was a primary reason for him transferring his skills to the northern portion of the Bighorns.
“The reason I chose to come here is because it’s a family resort, and Snowy Range is exactly that as well,” Hunter said. “They focus on kids and youth and, as John (Kirlin, executive director of AB) likes to say, pass on the torch. As soon as I heard that, I fell in love with this place.”
The quantity of equipment Hunter rented out each day at Snowy Range varied from 875 to 950 rentals. The smaller scale and lack of computer technology to register customers will be a slight adjustment for Hunter, but he’s eager to see the resort grow in use and popularity for the region.
Kirlin spent the majority of his morning snowmobiling from one last-minute task to another, stopping only to say it’d be a while before he could slow down to chat.
Another new face to the team was Gali, AB’s ski patrol director. Gali gained most of his experience as a ski instructor at Meadowlark and Snowy Range, and was excitedly anticipating his chance to move into a position at Antelope Butte.
Gali and his team completed practice runs in a soft opening last weekend, watching over a group of Tongue River Elementary School students last Friday, a group of invite-only skiers and snowboarders on Dec. 22 and a word-of-mouth select few for a Sunday run.
“Last weekend when we had our soft open, there were three ski patrollers here that were essentially the last patrollers to ride a lift at Antelope Butte (in 2004),” Gali said. “The last and the first (this year). They had spent a lot of time here. They were pumped; some people were emotional.”
Before recreators arrived on Friday, Gali ensured the three open routes were safe and no large obstacles had fallen in the path overnight. Gali’s team will patrol the area and hope for a slow day in the recently-completed medical room adjacent to the rental room.
For old and newcomers to the Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area, excitement filled the air near Shell for the first time in 15 years, and the Antelope Butte Foundation anticipates the resort to remain open daily through Jan. 6, and on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between January and March.