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.