December 6, 2023

Maintaining the Specialness

Story by Gabrielle Gasser, Photos courtesy of Nancy Sheil and Big Sky Resort

Patrol Director Nancy Sheil on Celebrating 50 Years of Big Sky Resort

BIG SKY – Standing in the locker room on an early November day, Patrol Director Nancy Sheil welcomed her team for the resort’s 50th season. Sheil reflected on her own experiences, commemorated this momentous occasion for the resort, and shared some of the reasons why Big Sky means so much to her.

“I was drawn into this work by skiing from the summit of Lone Mountain,” Sheil said in her welcome address to her Patrol team this November. “Little did I know the depth of connection and relationships I would form, forged by the shared experiences, the lifestyle, and the work that we do.”

Nancy in 2007 with her avy dog Cache
Nancy in 2007 with her avalanche rescue dog, Cache

As Big Sky Resort celebrates its 50th anniversary this winter, Sheil marks her 23rd year in Big Sky and enters the 23/24 ski season as the new director of Ski Patrol, the first female to hold the position in resort history.

“This milestone is an opportunity to reflect on our growth, the path that led us to now,” Sheil said in an interview. “We have something special here. A big anniversary like this is an opportunity to be intentional about how we will work to maintain the specialness.”

Sheil is one of the many people who was drawn in by the magic of Big Sky to make a life in the shadow of this iconic mountain. When she visited Big Sky in the fall of 2000 on her way to college, she had no idea how this brief detour would transform her life.

“I'm still so awed all the time,” she said. “It's hard to believe that it's been twenty-three years since I've been here.”

Nancy hiking the A to Z's circa 2001

Nancy Hiking the A to Z's in 2001

Early snowfall that year enabled the resort to open on October 16 and captivated by the mountain, the community, and the inexplicable connection she developed to this place, Sheil decided to stay. She was able to snag a job in ticket sales and secure housing, and the rest is history.

“Throughout my time in Big Sky, the resort and Lone Mountain have been a constant, a steady presence,” Sheil said. “Even though I moved to Big Sky as a 20-year-old, I often think that I grew up here. I became an adult in Big Sky—my first real jobs, two college degrees, my first mortgage, starting a family, and a career.”

Nancy Hiking Lone Peak, circa 2001

Nancy Hiking Lone Mountain, circa 2001

Originally from Alabama, Sheil had only ever skied a couple of times in her life in North Carolina prior to coming to Big Sky. Pretty soon, she was skiing 100-plus day seasons and working bartending and service jobs in the evenings, so she had time to ski during the day. Sheil earned a spot on Patrol in 2003, and in the years since, she finished college, earned a master’s degree and a teaching certification, took a break from patrolling to teach, and welcomed two children who are now growing up in Big Sky.

There are many things that Sheil says she loves about Big Sky, including the lifts providing access to 5,850 skiable acres, the variety of terrain where you are sure to find good conditions somewhere, as well as the old and new friends who all share a passion for being out on the mountain.

Nancy skiing off the tram in 2022

“As a patroller, something that makes it so special is being up on the mountain first thing in the morning, experiencing those quiet moments in sunrises and storms, and the anticipation of what the day will bring,” Sheil said.

Of course, one of her favorite experiences on Lone Mountain has been riding the tram, especially those early-morning trips with only patrollers in the cabin.

“It's an iconic peak,” Sheil said. “Coming up and crossing that upper cirque, you feel like you're being drawn into the mountain.”

Ski Patrol waiting by Swift Current 6 to start making sure the mountain is safe to open

Now, the new Lone Peak Tram will make that experience accessible to a wider variety of skiers, riders, and sightseers with a 75-person capacity and a bottom terminal that can be accessed by green terrain.

“I think it's going to be a different way to experience that same feeling of cresting the top of the mountain and the way that you're pulled into that experience on the summit,” Sheil said of the new tram.

The New Lone Peak Tram hangs above Lone Mountain

Looking forward, Sheil says, she sees part of her role as Patrol director as honoring the past as well as welcoming the future.

“As patrollers, we have a unique opportunity to be stewards of these powerful experiences,” Sheil said. “I am grateful for this opportunity to lead our team in helping to create these shared experiences of joy, wonder, and connection.”

Nancy with fellow patroller, Rachel Efta in a storm

Ody Loomis, patroller, nurse, and longtime Big Sky resident, has been friends with Sheil since their rookie patrol season together in 2003. Loomis has watched Sheil rise through the ranks over the years, and she says it has been inspiring to see her grow into the leader she has become today.

“[Sheil] comes from a very strong background,” Loomis said. “If I were to describe her in three words, I would say she is determined, dedicated, and kind. [Sheil’s] unique past gives her a diverse foundation well equipped to lead.”

It is these qualities that will help Sheil guide the Patrol team through what Loomis describes as a “pivotal moment” in the resort’s history heading into the 50th anniversary season.

Left: Nancy and Ody in 2007. Right: Nancy and Ody touring Beehive Basin in 2021. 

Sheil wrapped up her welcome address to her team by expressing gratitude for the past and excitement for the future.

“Being a part of this team – our Ski Patrol family – is one of my life’s joys,” she said. “The friendships and camaraderie we share are rare, and they are the core of what makes working here so special. We’ve found ourselves here and are living the stories that will be told for the next 50 years.”

Gabrielle Gasser is a writer and photographer who grew up in Big Sky, Montana and is currently based out of Bozeman. In the winter you'll find her ski instructing out on the slopes at Big Sky Resort or curled up with a good book.