Steep, Deep and Cheap at Montana’s Turner Mountain

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Turner Mountain, Montana is larger than 90 percent of American ski areas but operates as a nonprofit with just three employees during ski season.

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.

Turner Mtn Map

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.”

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The monster tension terminal of the old T-Bar still looms over the 5,900′ summit as a reminder of Turner’s history.

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Montana Snowbowl Readies TV Mountain Expansion

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A 1,088-acre expansion onto TV Mountain will include six new ski runs and a used double chairlift at Montana Snowbowl for 2017-18.

If all goes according to plan, Montana Snowbowl will add up to 1,088 acres of ski terrain next winter in a homecoming of sorts.  Expanding onto neighboring TV Mountain, Snowbowl will nearly double in size, going from a modest two Riblet doubles and a Doppelmayr T-Bar to a major Montana player with seven lifts and 2,243 acres.  Construction is underway and legendary artist James Niehues is currently painting the trail map for North America’s biggest expansion of the year.

The Forest Service finally approved Snowbowl’s TV Mountain expansion in May 2014 after ten years studying a connection to the long-lost Snow Park Ski Area.  Owner Brad Morris acquired the Burlingame and High Alpine doubles from Snowmass (for free) in 2015 and the first of four new lifts will open this season.  Work started last fall, but early storms forced crews to pause over the winter.

Montana Snowbowl does not have a true beginner or low-intermediate lift, in part because most Missoulians learned to ski at Marshall Mountain until 2003.  Facing a need to broaden its appeal beyond advanced skiers, Morris worked with the Forest Service on the expansion plan which he submitted for approval in 2004.  Thirteen years later, the beginnings of a new lift dubbed ‘B’ stretch 4,900 feet from the original Snow Park base area to the summit of TV Mountain with 23 towers under construction.  In contrast with the Grizzly chair that rises steeply from the current base area, the new lift will ascend a modest 1,440′ vertical west of TV Mountain’s namesake towers.  Ride time will be 11 minutes with a capacity of 1,200 skiers per hour.  Burlingame’s tension-return station is already standing while the drive station up top will likely be High Alpine’s.

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Red Lodge Mountain Mixes Past and Present

Red Lodge Mountain, located near the famous town of the same name and the northeast corner of Yellowstone, is Montana’s fourth largest ski area.  You wouldn’t know it pulling up to the classic lodge and old school lifts out front.  Opened in 1960 as Grizzly Peak, it now skis like two distinct resorts – the original mountain with 1970s-era double chairs and a huge expansion served by dual high speed quads that opened in 1996. Approaching its 60th anniversary, the mountain faces dueling challenges of prolonged drought and competition from the booming Big Sky region.

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Grizzly Peak opened with one lift, now called Willow Creek, in 1960.  This classic Riblet double has since been shortened to start above the base area and only operates on peak days.  In 1970, the resort added two more Riblet doubles that also still operate – a beginner lift dubbed Miami Beach and another to the summit called Grizzly Peak.

In 1977, Red Lodge added a rare Borvig double at a western ski area called Midway Express.  It served no new terrain but allowed skiers to return to mid-mountain without having to ski all the way to the base area.  With just five towers and a vertical rise of only 400 feet, this lift proved too expensive to operate and was abandoned in 2010.  Most of the chairs were auctioned to raise cash and the sheaves, comm-line and haul rope were dropped to the ground and left.  The terminals and towers still stand today.

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The Midway Express double six years after closing for good.

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Chair Falls at Heavenly, Lift Evacuated

According to published reports, an unoccupied chair fell from the light side of Heavenly’s North Bowl triple just before 11:00 am today.  As a result, approximately 65 people were evacuated from the lift in about two hours.  The incident is under investigation.  North Bowl is a 1984 Riblet triple with insert clips.  The video below shows a skier being lowered by rope and North Bowl will remain closed until further notice.

Oldest Operating Lifts in the US & Canada

1. Single Chair, Mad River Glen, VT – 1948 American Steel & Wire Single Chair

The single chair at MRG still has its original towers and terminal structures but everything else was replaced by Doppelmayr CTEC in 2007.  As part of that project, towers were removed, sandblasted and repainted before being flown back to new foundations with new line gear.  Doppelmayr also replaced the bullwheels, chairs, grips, drive and haul rope.  This begs the question of ‘when is an old lift a new lift?’

2. Gatlinburg Sky Lift, Gatlinburg, TN – 1954 Riblet double

Everett Kircher of Boyne fame bought this chairlift from Sugar Bowl, CA for $3,000 in 1954.  Originally it was a single chair built in 1939.  Modified sheave assemblies were machined at the Kircher’s car dealership in Michigan when the lift went to Tennessee.  At some point it appears to have gotten newer-style Riblet towers.  Boyne Resorts still operates this lift 800 miles from their nearest ski resort. (edit: JP notes in the comments below that this version was replaced by a Riblet double in 1991.  Thanks JP!)

3. Chair 1, White Pass, WA – 1955 1962 Riblet double

This lift only operates on busy weekends and holidays but it’s an old one and a good one .  A classic Pacific Northwest center-pole double with very few modifications from its original design and no safety bars! (edit: Brian notes in the comments that this lift was actually installed as Chair 2 in 1962.  The original chair 1 operated 1955-1994.)

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Chair one at White Pass lives on despite an adjacent high speed quad.

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Lift Profile: Spokane Falls SkyRide

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The only lift I know of that crosses under a major bridge.

The $2.5 million Spokane Falls SkyRide is one of only a handful of lifts in North America owned by city government.  Doppelmayr CTEC built the pulse gondola in 2005 to replace a Riblet version that debuted in 1974.  Riders board at the drive station in downtown Spokane’s Riverfront Park.  The gondola travels down through the park, across the Spokane River and under a four-lane bridge before turning around.  All this happens in only 1,120 feet.  It takes 15 minutes to ride round-trip at a painful 150 feet per minute (the design speed is 600 fpm.)  The gondola’s turnaround station on the far bank of the river does not have loading/unloading or even an operator.  A ticket for the SkyRide costs $7.50 and it operates year-round.

Looking down at one of five pulses of cabins.
Looking down at one of five pulses of cabins.

Spokane’s original Riverfront SkyRide, built by Riblet, ran in a similar alignment from 1974 to 2005.  (Riblet built over 500 lifts in a shop three miles away.)  The Riblet version of the SkyRide had open air cabins but the new one has 15 CWA Omega 6-passenger cabins.  Because the cabins are enclosed, the SkyRide shuts down when the temperature exceeds 85 degrees, which happens fifty days a year in Spokane.  Last year Doppelmayr developed a plan to retrofit cabins with larger opening windows but so far these have not been installed.  Despite this issue, over 70,000 people ride the SkyRide every year.

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Lifts by State (and Province)

Ever wanted to know how many lifts are operating in each state?  Read on.  Colorado has the most operating lifts of any state with 275.  California is close behind with 263 followed by New York (189) and Michigan (165).  There are only 9 states with more than 100 lifts each.  The majority of states have fewer than 20 lifts today.  Five sad states have no aerial lifts at all to my knowledge – Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii and Louisiana.  (Louisiana used to have a 6-passenger Poma gondola called MART that crossed the Mississippi River.)

Each one of Canada’s 10 provinces has at least 3 lifts used for skiing.  Only the Nunavut and Northwest Territories do not have a lift.  Quebec has the most lifts by far with 226 followed by British Columbia (165), Ontario (162), and Alberta (87).

The average age of lifts varies significantly by region.  Maryland’s 7 lifts average 17 years old while Ohio’s 33 lifts are more than twice as old at 34.4 years.  Utah and Montana stand out as having new lifts averaging 19.4 and 19.9 years old, respectively.  Places with really old lifts tend to be in the East and Midwest.  Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and New York all have lifts that average more than 30 years old.

It’s also interesting to look at which brand has the most operating lifts in each state/province.  25 states/provinces are dominated by brands which disappeared decades ago – Yan, Riblet, Borvig and Hall.  Borvig dominates in 5 eastern states – IL, VA, IA, ME, and PA.  Hall lifts are pervasive in many eastern states – ND, CT, MA, NY, WI, MN, OH, and SC.  Riblet still dominates all of the northwest and some of the midwest – MO, OR, WA, SD, AK, NM, IN, MI, and KY.  Yan takes its home state of Nevada and neighboring California and Arizona.

Doppelmayr is the most common lift brand in surprisingly few states – MD, GA, MT, NJ, NH, ID, and NC.  The story is different in Canada where Doppelmayr is the top brand in most of the country – BC, MB, SK, AB, QC, and NB.  Despite being gone for a decade, CTEC and GaraventaCTEC are still the most popular in Utah, Wyoming and West Virginia (thanks solely to Snowshoe Resort.)  Finally Poma and Leitner-Poma take their home state of CO plus VT and ON, NL, PEI and NS in Canada.