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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