After Complaint About Safety, Montana Snowbowl Refuses Pass to Longtime Customer

When Jim Sylvester put his note into the comment box at Montana Snowbowl last winter, he did it anonymously. He’d heard plenty of stories of retaliations against customers who’d complained in the past, and, as a season pass holder for decades, he wanted to keep skiing there. The hill, after all, is less than an hour from where he lives, and he typically skis four days a week.

But Sylvester isn’t skiing Snowbowl this season, because the ski area has refused to sell him either a season pass or discounted day passes. Rather, Snowbowl says he is a “disruptive” customer. His transgression: complaining that a cat track that empties an expert run at the bottom of the mountain was a crowded, dangerous choke point. Under the ski area’s Special Use Permit from the Forest Service, it’s within its rights to refuse his business. Adventure Journal made repeated efforts to contact Snowbowl for comment, but the calls were not returned.

“The customer is never right at Snowbowl,” Sylvester says, who claims that he’s heard from lots of friends who ski at the mountain that they’d been yelled at when they put their names on comments in the suggestion box. So Sylvester left his name off the note that chided management about the icy conditions and troughs that had developed at the run-out from the East and West bowls. But when management didn’t act on it, Sylvester decided to contact the Lolo National Forest, which administers the ski hill’s permit, and warn them that somebody was going to get hurt and possibly sue.

“Intermediates were having a heck of a time making it through there and I was really worried somebody might get hurt,” said Sylvester.

That’s when matters blew up.

A Forest Service employee in the Lolo office contacted Snowbowl and told them about the complaint and, against Forest Service policy, also told Snowbowl that Jim Sylvester was the one to voice it. When Sylvester wanted to renew his season pass last spring to ski for his 33rd season at the mountain, they refused his business unless he apologized for complaining. Sylvester said no, arguing that it’s within his rights to lodge a concern about safety, that doing so is not disruptive, and that the resort has no right to refuse his business.

The Forest Service’s Boyd Hartwig confirms the leak to Snowbowl and says that Lolo is investigating his complaint and whether he’s being treated in compliance with the permit.

“Public safety is a big part of what we measure. We can’t be up there every day, but we’re there every few weeks and we share what information we gather with the owner,” he said. Additionally, the Forest Service monitors whether the ski area is in compliance with its permit. Snowbowl has refused to sell other patrons season passes in the past, but a guest is guaranteed equal access and non-discriminatory treatment and the Forest Service is investigating if Sylvester’s been singled out.

Sylvester believes that the Forest Service will rule in his favor and that when they do he’ll be permitted back on the mountain. And that may well happen, because Snowbowl could certainly stand a little positive public relations: A few weeks ago, a lift was delayed for almost two hours because a chair detached at the loading area. Lift passengers had to be belayed off their chairs, and, to make matters worse, when word spread on Snowbowl’s Facebook page, the resort apparently deleted the negative screeds as fast as they were coming in.

{ 14 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Carson

    I’m guessing that a regular season pass holder like Sylvester probably buys his pass around October. So, here we are in mid-January and the Forest Service is still investigating? When will they make a ruing, May? Maybe June?

  • huh?

    “Intermediates were having a heck of a time making it through there and I was really worried somebody might get hurt,” said Sylvester.

    Um, guess what, it is a black diamond/expert run! NOT FOR INTERMEDITES! All runs that feed to it are advanced. So, let me get this straight? He threatens a business by going after the company’s insurance company, makes false statements about safety when the really the run was just more difficult and the area should be forced to deal with his antics? Here is what I am going to do, I am going to visit every ski area I can, when I find conditions on a run to be unacceptable, I am first going to call the forest service, then I am going to try and call the insurance company, then I am going to the local paper to top it off. I am going to be able to take over all these ski areas in no time, all under the pretense that these runs are unsafe and that I do not like them.

  • Jim Sylvester

    I try to buy my pass in April. The Forest Service has known about the problem since August and blew me off until the press got hold of it. They ruled in Snowbowl’s favor. I am buying a snowmobile this week for backcountry access. Snowbowl will get a little of my business as possible. Powder days at Snowbowl are hard to beat, thus my wanting a pass.

  • Mikey

    thats really too bad to see…. why even have a comment card area if you all do is ignore and punish? I frequent the area regularly and they will not see 1 cent of my money

  • Crawdaddy

    “We’ll let you buy a season pass if you apologize first.” Really?? And deleting the negative Facebook posts? Is this a business run by adults, or by 7th graders? Snowbowl is now synonymous with “hilariously lame.”

  • Adam

    Wow. I thought snowbowl was sweet, not anymore. Can’t support a place that doesn’t support its customers. They should be thanking him, not expelling him. What a joke. Places like this make me so mad.

  • huh?

    You guys have no clue what you are talking about. It was never a safety issue and his action clearly crossed the line of a standard complaint. He threatened the operation of the entire business by making false comments to the forest service about safety on an expert run becuase he was concerned about the intermediates? Then he attempted to go to their insurance company. Sounds like a very loyal pass holder. This guy has a history of wreckless skiing and got what he deserved. All this because he has no idea how to ski an expert run. Seriously?

  • Mikey

    I think at this point people are not so worried or concerned about the actual complaint but how the hill has responded and treated the person making it. When you read other articles that say this has happened before with this hill and that they delete negative comments from their Facebook wall it makes people angry.

    Maybe his complaint was not valid, i don’t know. maybe he is a reckless skier and “got what he deserved”, again i have no idea. Regardless of his issues this matter was not dealt with in an appropriate or adult manner which seems to be common from this hill.

    Also i’d put $5 that huh? is somehow affiliated with Snowbowl….

  • Jessica

    Huh you’re seemingly quite ignorant. How do you think one progresses in skill if as a beginner you don’t get te courage to move forward to the intermediate and as an intermediate to an expert without moving forward? I will only ski at a resort where a safety concern is treated seriously and a pass holder pointing out such is appreciated and not accosted and treated so poorly. As a business owner of both a local and a global company I couldn’t fathom treating someone so poorly. Kudos to Mr Sylvester for going up the chain of command to see a problem was taken care. I’ll certainly never ski Snowbowl under the current ownership. I also plan to write to the Forest Service and ask for their logic and rationale. I’m rather disappointed after reading this.

  • michael frank Post author

    UPDATE: Lolo has not reached a verdict. Sylvester did receive a letter from them stating that they had not found grounds for discrimination on one count, but that they are still investigating…When we know more we’ll report on what we’ve learned.

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