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The man behind Maverick Mountain's survival

The slopes of Maverick Mountain northwest of Dillon are bare. The parking lot is a rutted mess, a season of snow having left its mark in the form of deep trenches. The resort's lone chairlift sits idle, its drive unit dismembered and shipped off to Missoula for repairs. A chalkboard sign next to the ticket window reads "Thanks for a great season," the only remaining nod to four months of deep snow and decent crowds.

In the dimly lit, carpeted bowels of the main lodge, owner Randy Shilling stands alone behind a workbench tuning rental gear. His hair's gone gray, though he won't share his age, and his hands are cracked and covered in shop grime. He speaks with an easy-going lilt about how his days are anything but typical even in the off-season. Shilling's the maverick behind Maverick Mountain, a man with a reputation for wearing as many hats as it takes to keep the lift running.

"There's no typical," Shilling says. "It's like, what's a typical winter? There's not a typical winter, there's not a typical day."

Shilling's life has been dependent on the seasons for the past 25 years. And winter hasn't always been kind to Maverick, where man-made snow is nonexistent and the nearest sizable town—Dillon—isn't all that sizable, with a population just over 4,000. For Shilling, Maverick represents a ski culture gone by, one of the last vestiges of the small "mom-and-pop" resorts that used to dot western Montana. Nearby areas like Butte's Beef Trail and Z Bar T and Anaconda's Wraith Hill shuttered decades ago due to lack of snow and increased competition in a more commercialized ski industry.

"We survived here," Shilling says, "but sometimes you scratch your head and wonder how."

A more apt question may be for how long. There's a "For Sale" sign at the base of Maverick now, just off the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. Maverick's been on the real estate market for at least two years. Shilling says he's "running out of energy." He stopped climbing lift towers to conduct maintenance a couple years ago, a task he used to feel comfortable with. Interest in Maverick's future hasn't been high, though. Stelling Real Estate in Missoula knocked down the asking price for the resort last year, from $950,000 to $850,000.

"I'm tired sometimes," Shilling says. "I just think this place could be a whole lot more successful if you had someone young coming in with some new ideas and a lot of energy. I've spent my 24, 25 years here. I think it's time for someone else to come in."

click to enlarge Nick Polumbus, former president of the Montana Ski Area’s Association, feels Randy Shilling’s one-lift Maverick Mountain “reinforces the fact that acreage doesn’t define the experience in Montana.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder
  • Nick Polumbus, former president of the Montana Ski Area’s Association, feels Randy Shilling’s one-lift Maverick Mountain “reinforces the fact that acreage doesn’t define the experience in Montana.”

Shilling bought Maverick from former owner Red Camp back in 1988, after just one day on the slopes. An avid East Coast skier who spent his early years at New England resorts like Sugarloaf, Shilling had come west to Calgary for the Winter Olympics and hit Maverick on a whim. He'd never worked in the ski industry and never had any deep desire to own a resort.

"It wasn't even a thought," he says. "I skied here one day, the day after St. Patty's. We'd had about six or eight inches of fresh snow. I came down and told the owner what a great ski area he had. He put his arm around me and said, 'Son, if you like it so much, you should buy it.'"

Shilling purchased Maverick that summer. Since then, he's developed some grand plans, few of which have come to fruition. The resort cut three new runs on the mountain's north face in 2003. In 2011, employees removed hundreds of beetle-killed trees, and Maverick began developing a vegetation management plan with the U.S. Forest Service. But money's been tight, to the point that Shilling increased ticket prices a few years back. A master plan approved by the Forest Service in 2000, which calls for a second lift and additional runs, would require the kind of investment Shilling simply can't afford. Even expanding Maverick's operations beyond the winter season—to include mountain biking or restaurant service for summer tourists on the scenic byway—is out of reach.

"Right now, we're just a one-season resort," Shilling says. "One of the things I'd do is look at changing that and coming up with, say, a three-season resort. I think the potential is there for that ... But to make all that happen, it takes a tremendous amount of work and money."

Shilling doesn't dwell for long on the things he hasn't accomplished. Most of his employees have been at the mountain for at least a decade, he says. Maverick has a loyal following of skiers from the Bozeman area, a fact he attributes to short lift lines and the mom-and-pop atmosphere. Last year, voters in Big Sky Weekly's Best of Big Sky contest voted Maverick the third best resort in the state behind mainstream ventures Big Sky and Moonlight Basin. Even though the development Shilling thought would come to the Grasshopper Valley never materialized, he doesn't second-guess the decision he made back in 1988.

"I'd do it again," Shilling says. "In a heartbeat. My wife left with my daughter. She wasn't happy here. There's been a lot of heartaches. I live alone. It's not a glamorous lifestyle. But you make a commitment, and you stand by it. When I bought the place, I said I was going to keep it running. And I keep hoping something will turn around and we'll have one of those magical years where every chair is full."

He still has time. Asked if he's nervous about not finding a buyer, Shilling just shrugs. "I'm not going anywhere," he says. "I've got too much invested in it."

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