Image by Reistroffer Design

Unlike most individuals facing a brutal South Dakota winter, Brandon Mercado embraces the change of the seasons. This is the time of year Mercado gets to return to one of his favorite past times: skiing and managing the rental areas at Great Bear. For 10 years, a modest ski slope outside of Sioux Falls has provided an annual highlight for Mercado during the dreary, cold months.

When the temperature drops and snowflakes begin to fall, many of us instinctively retreat to indoor amusements. For Brandon Mercado, however, this climatic shift means it’s time to head for the chalet. This 27-year-old works full-time in the detail shop at Vern Eide, but for five months out of the year his domain is the rental area at Great Bear, which he spends his evenings managing.  

Mercado is in his tenth season working at the ski area. He said that the people are what keep him coming back year after year. Aside from the colorful and entertaining clientele, Mercado gives his coworkers credit for making Great Bear fun for him, “Everybody’s really nice. It’s a cool place to hang out—very relaxed.” 

Mercado said the abundance of high school and college kids who work there every year keep it fresh and interesting. About half of the staff returns each season, while the other half turns over due to college and other obligations. 

Particularly on weekdays, Mercado sees a lot of the same faces over and over, citing the location as ample for attracting regular skiers and snowboarders. Great Bear opens at 3 p.m. on weekdays in order to accommodate the after school and after work crowds. Mercado said most ski areas close in the late afternoon, but Great Bear sends people up the lift until 9:45 every night of the week. On Saturdays and Sundays they open at 9 a.m. and tend to get more people in from out of town, including families who make Great Bear part of their weekend in the city.  

 Born in Louisiana, Mercado is an “army brat” whose family moved around quite a bit before settling in Brandon 12 years ago. This background of diverse climates has certainly attributed to Mercado’s interest in all outdoor activities (especially baseball and jet skiing) but it could also be the reason he shies away from plunging temperatures, “I love snow and I love skiing, but I don’t love it when it’s extremely cold out. I’m kind of a fair-weather skier.” 

Mercado had no previous experience on skis before landing his job at Great Bear, but despite being a late bloomer, he has participated in many competitions held at the ski area over the years. He admitted that while often placing in competitions, he rarely wins. Mercado points to a skier in his age group named Josh Kobernusz as a big reason, “He used to teach in California—how to ski rails and things like that—but he got injured and moved back. He’s still a really great skier, though.” 

Mercado also looked at some of Great Bear’s younger skiers with awe, explaining that many of their high school-aged regulars are not afraid to try anything when there is a Rail Jam or race or Big Air competition. While he enthusiastically joins in, Mercado takes a mature approach, “I’m 27 and I don’t want to break anything, but I still have fun.” 

This attitude is one that has no doubt been honed after years of filling out accident reports for every person injured on rental equipment. He said the most common injuries are shoulder and wrist damage acquired by beginner snowboarders, but that they are usually minor. They have seen a few more serious incidents, though, like fractured pelvises or an occasional seizure. However, Mercado asserts that they have a great Ski Patrol, most of whom work in the medical field.

 This is the first in many seasons, according to Mercado, where Great Bear has not had to make much snow. One common misconception is that when there is less naturally occurring snow in the area, Great Bear does not have snow either. He explained that the park typically maintains the same approximate snow base, whether it is natural or manmade. After a heavy snowfall, he said people show up in droves, because they tend to gauge by what they can see from their windows.

According to Mercado, the best part of the season is the very end, because that is when Great Bear hosts its annual Snirt (combination of snow and dirt) Fest. It is their way of celebrating another season passing and welcoming spring. This event is typically held during the second weekend of March and each year it has a different theme.

Although the theme for Snirt Fest 2010 (tentatively scheduled for March 6th) has yet to be chosen, it will be a lot of fun if the past is any indication. The theme for 2009 was “Mardi Gras” and 2008’s was “A Formal Affair.”  Mercado said it was cool to see people racing down the hill in tuxes. 

Aside from the standard downhill race, Snirt Fest features a wide variety of challenges including a costume contest, a fire hose race and a pond-skimming competition wherein participants ski downhill and try to skim across the water of a pond dug specifically for the event. The pond skimming contest is, of course, the perennial favorite amongst Snirt Fest’s participants. Mercado said the best part is watching all of the spills made when skiers do not quite make it, including one incident where a skier did not realize immediately that his pants had come off in the water.   

As far as skiing goes, Mercado has few aspirations, “I’m not trying to be in the X Games or anything, because the time for that has passed.” 

He does enjoy the freedom found on a pair of skis, however, and plans to continue as long as he has fun. Mercado looks at Great Bear’s Adult Race League as a good way to stay active without taking the sport too seriously. Some participants go on to compete in more prestigious races elsewhere, but Mercado admires them merely for the fact that they come out each Wednesday and enjoy themselves, “It’s really just an excuse to hang out with your buddies and have fun.” 

Although he does not participate in the weekly races right now, Mercado is not ruling it out for the future. As far as his tenure at Great Bear goes, Mercado sees no end in sight, “I really love working here and plan to be here for a long, long time.”


Upcoming events at Great Bear:

Feb 6th: Hot 104.7 FM Big Air Bash

Feb 7th: Sun ‘N’ Fun Rail Jam

Feb 21st: Howalt McDowell Ski/Snowboard Races

March 6th: Snirt Fest presented by Eagle Build Designs

For more information including rates visit

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