Bill Cubbage has a comment for just about every member of the Whitefish Mountain Resort staff as he zips around Big Mountain, whether it’s a compliment for a liftie’s well-constructed dismount ramp or a friendly greeting for a patroller checking on guests. Although he doesn’t quite know every single staff member yet, the new director of mountain operations hopes to be personally acquainted with the 200 people he oversees by the end of the season.
He took over the position full time last summer following the retirement of longtime Director Chester “Chet” Powell, who started working at the mountain in 1976. After serving as the snow sports director for 11 years, Cubbage now oversees six departments across the mountain: lift operations, maintenance, ski patrol, snowmaking and grooming, mountain ambassadors, recruitment and events.
Cubbage said he’s involved with “pretty much anything that happens on the snow.”
As a result, his daily routine generally includes skiing all across Big Mountain, checking in on ski patrollers, lift operators, equipment managers and guests. Occasionally, the job also entails hopping into a busy lift line to scan passes or busing tables at the Summit House
“I’m less of an expert and more of a head coach,” he said of his new role.
“It really depends on the day and circumstance,” he added as he crisscrossed the mountain from the Flower Point eastern boundary over to the garage above the village that houses groomers and snow plows away from the public eye.
Although this is Cubbage’s first winter season leading the mountain, he’s become familiar with just about every facet of the ski industry from 30 years in the business. Since learning to ski around age 9 on the short, icy Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, Cubbage has worked at ski resorts from Idaho, to Switzerland, to New Zealand, serving in every position from parking lot attendant, to ski instructor, to management.
As a pre-teen, Cubbage moved from Pennsylvania to Washington, where he fell in love with the larger mountains and powdery snow of the West. During college at the University of Washington, he taught ski lessons in his spare time and, eventually, during his not-so-spare time as well.
“I absolutely loved teaching skiing, to the point that I wasn’t going to graduate,” he admitted. “I wanted to ski as much as possible.”
He did go on to graduate in 1989, but followed his passion to Switzerland, where he worked as a ski resort parking lot attendant for two years after college. “I knew I wanted to chase the snow and I wanted to chase different snow,” he remembered. “I’ll admit, I did it for the pass.”
He continued to chase the snow around the U.S. and around the world, teaching lessons at Telluride, Vail and Beaver Creek in Colorado during the Northern Hemisphere winters and then traveling to New Zealand to continue teaching there during winter in the Southern Hemisphere. During this period, Cubbage experienced seven consecutive winter seasons.
Then in 2004, he moved from ski instruction to management when he was tapped to help start up Tamarack Resort in Idaho.
“I was part of the resort opening team. I ended up wearing a lot of different hats,” he said, which prepared him for the move to Whitefish in 2009 when Tamarack closed.
The Idaho resort reopened a season later, but Cubbage had already moved on to the snow sports director position at Whitefish. “It was a good fit,” he noted.
He spent nine seasons overseeing Whitefish’s snow sports program, until last year when he transitioned into the assistant director of mountain operations role before taking over as the full-time director in the summer.
Now, Cubbage spends four or five out of every seven days on the mountain, reaching the summit by the time the lifts start running to be prepared for when the situation at 6,817 feet “goes sideways.” He monitors 35 ski patrollers, five groomers, 11 lifts from different eras and manufacturers, and agency relations with organizations like the U.S. Forest Service and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
In the summer, he stays busy managing mountain biking, hikers on the Danny On Trail, the alpine slides, scenic chairlift rides and weddings.
“It’s full-on. What am I not up to?” he joked.
And when he’s not on the mountain, Cubbage spends time with his family, including his children, ages 10 and 12, and takes on a different leadership role as a youth hockey coach.
“It’s game on,” Cubbage said of his seemingly endless list of responsibilities. “It’s pretty fun.”
While all of these tasks now fall under Cubbage’s purview, he said his predecessor Chet Powell is still around to help out. “He’s still available. He answers my calls,” Cubbage said with a laugh.
Powell has stepped into a special projects role, sticking around Big Mountain but leaving the big decisions up to Cubbage, who said he doesn’t want to make a lot of changes from the successful strategy that carried Powell for more than 40 years.
“It wasn’t broken,” Cubbage commented. “I’m always wary to change things for the sake of change.”
With that said, Cubbage does have a few big plans in the works for the next few years. These include addressing congestion on the mountain and in the parking lots, increasing snowmaking capacity and moving two chairlifts.
Most mountain visitors are likely familiar with the anticipated move of Chair 8 to service Hellroaring Basin, which Cubbage said is slated for summer 2021, pending approval from the Forest Service. The following summer, Cubbage expects the resort to replace Chair 4 with a four- or six-person high-speed chair that will start running at 9 a.m. near the base of the Magic Carpet. This change will also require re-sculpting the terrain around the new lift, which Cubbage said won’t be open for skiing any longer.
The Chair 4 project is part of an effort to spread skiers more evenly across the mountain, Cubbage explained. He said overcrowding has become a top concern, especially for locals.
“They wonder why we keep selling more passes because we’re going to run out of acreage,” he noted. “But we have 3,000 acres here. On the busiest day you can still find yourself alone on a run.”
When it comes to out-of-town visitors, he said he commonly receives feedback praising the snow quality, but lamenting the foggy conditions.
“People don’t realize those two have a very heavy correlation,” he pointed out, explaining that he believes the cloud cover helps the snow quality on Big Mountain.
In his own experience, Cubbage said Whitefish stands out from the myriad other resorts he has skied around the world because of its value, the mix of locals and visitors and the friendly staff.
“People are certainly friendly here. That’s one of our calling cards,” the outgoing Cubbage said.
And while positive feedback is encouraging, he said there are a few other scenarios that have been the most rewarding on the job so far.
“It’s joy when I get up to the top real early in the morning and there’s recent snow. The mountain looks like all that and a bag of chips,” he said. “Or in the evening, when it’s been a smooth day. That’s gratifying.”
He said he even gets a kick out of the challenging days, “the ones where you’ve had your battles,” like Friday, Jan. 17, when a power outage stranded visitors on chairlifts across Big Mountain.
In November, Cubbage and his crew practiced responding to a mountain-wide power outage, so when the real deal struck they were able to clear everyone off the lifts in less than an hour and a half. “I feel like that was pretty great,” he said of one of his first big challenges in the new position. “Those are gratifying when you really nail those.”
Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4459.