As I listened to the recent Community Ski Areas at Risk Symposium and the reopening saga of Sleeping Giant, Wyoming, it sounded awfully similar to a story I heard a few weeks ago in the far northwest corner of Montana. If you draw lines between the famous ski towns of Sandpoint, Idaho; Whitefish, Montana and Fernie, British Columbia, in the center of that triangle lies the not-so-famous (but by some accounts infamous) town of Libby, Montana. Twenty miles north of this outpost of 2,628 people, Turner Mountain operates as one of America’s most unique, under-the-radar ski areas. Scott Kirschenmann, board member of the nonprofit Kootenai Winter Sports Ski Education Foundation that operates the mountain, kindly gave me a grand tour of the place that Ski Magazine once called some of the “best lift-assisted powder skiing in the U.S.” and which Powder Magazine visited as part of its series called Montanafest Destiny, but which really survives through community support.
Though it employs only three people during ski season, Turner Mountain is anything but small. A mile-long double chair with a mid-station rises 2,110 vertical feet. That places Turner in the top ten percent for vertical nationwide, ahead of famous mountains like Alta, Kirkwood, and Loon. The lift offers hundreds more vertical than all of Liftopia’s 5 Best Lifts in North America (Silverton’s double, KT-22 at Squaw, Chair 23 at Mammoth, Peak at Whistler and Deep Temerity at Aspen Highlands.)
Known for its fall-line skiing, 60 percent of Turner’s terrain is rated black diamond, though there are plenty of intermediate cruisers. From 1961 until 2001, a Constam T-Bar built mostly out of wood – the longest surface lift ever built in the US – served the same profile with a crazy 18-minute ride time. The “new” Riblet double chair, built entirely by volunteers with parts from Stevens Pass and The Summit at Snoqualmie, improved that to 11 minutes. The project used zero helicopter time and no paid contractor, only locally-available equipment and $92,000 (plus a $128,000 low-interest loan) from the Libby Area Development Authority. Skiers donated to sponsor individual chairs and towers. The sign on tower 1 reads simply, “Life is Good.”
With an all-new lodge in 2004 and a brand new maintenance shop (again, built by volunteers) Turner sports more deluxe facilities than most mountains its size despite relying on grants, donations and fundraisers to break even. Volunteers perform extensive summer grooming and mountain’s glades are among the best-cut I’ve seen anywhere. Perhaps that’s due to Libby’s logging tradition or the fact that locals can earn a season pass by putting in hours on the mountain.
Turner Mountain has no grid electricity and no telephone service, but when the generators run, high-speed internet is provided through a line-of-sight connection at the summit. Scott has even installed micro cell towers from AT&T and Verizon so skiers can stay connected, at least in the base lodge. He is working on a webcam and an automated weather station. An electrician by trade, he’s done upgrades to the lift too such as a remote control for the hydraulic tension system. He told me the E-Stop circuit for the lift is five miles long!
As the awesome book Downhill in Montana notes, more than 60 ski areas once operated in the Treasure State but only 15 remain, just three of those with a high-speed lift. Skier visits for Turner Mountain’s entire Christmas-through-early-April season average less than a modest single day at my home mountain of Jackson Hole. That means Turner needs all the support it can get. Go ski there if you can. So-called hill rentals really pay the bills. For $3,750 (the lift ticket price times 100) you can rent the mountain on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Employees from a number of other ski areas in the region have pooled money for a powder party in the past along with numerous groups from Canada.
Turner relies heavily on other ski areas for equipment, recently acquiring parts from a removed Riblet at Whitewater, BC; rental gear from Blacktail Mountain, patrol jackets from Whitefish Mountain Resort and lift evac gear from Schweitzer. Scott says the board would like to add a beginner surface lift and a couple-gun snowmaking setup for lean years and they would love any old equipment you have laying around. Creative trades that don’t involve cash are king. The mountain may raise the ticket price to $38 this year, making a hill rental $3,800. Not bad for almost 1,000 acres with four days’ worth of powder stacked up on a Friday.
You can always make a tax-deductible donation to Turner Mountain by sending a check to the Kootenai Winter Sports Ski Education Foundation, PO Box 210, Libby, MT 59923.