LIBBY – At the start of the day’s second run skiing Turner Mountain we stumbled upon an entire aspect of the mountain with virtually untouched snow. A few lines in the powder pointed the way forward through an expertly thinned glade, the sun dappling the areas not shaded by pines. The pitch was moderately steep and consistent as far as one could see.
The skiing itself was the type that enamors you of the sport, providing those fleeting moments when you feel weightless and totally in control, barely adjusting the angle of your outer ski to arc around and between the trees. At the bottom, I realized I was chuckling to myself over my good fortune, at finding myself here on this particular day with little else to do but repeat the process for hours.
It is, I’ve learned, a not uncommon reaction to skiing at Turner Mountain.
Located about 25 miles north of Libby in the Kootenai National Forest, Turner Mountain embodies the small, unpretentious Montana ski area. It features one chairlift, one groomer, and one modest lodge heated by a wood-burning stove. But that single chairlift accesses 2,110 vertical feet of skiing over 400 acres, much of it gladed.
Because Turner, which operates as a nonprofit, is closed to the public Mondays through Thursdays, skiers who make the pilgrimage on a Friday after a storm earlier in the week will find first tracks all over the mountain. Despite that draw, there are rarely lift lines and relatively few cars filling the parking lot on any given day.
The only viable explanation for the sparse crowds has to be the mountain’s remote location; depending on road conditions the drive from Kalispell takes about two and a half hours. The lack of crowds is certainly not due to a shortage of accolades. Last year Skiing Magazine gave Turner the award for having the friendliest locals. And several years ago Ski Magazine ventured that Turner might offer the “best lift-assisted powder skiing in the U.S.”
In keeping with one of Turner’s unofficial mottoes, “Steep, Deep and Cheap,” lift tickets are the same price they have been for years: $30.
“One of our primary goals has always been to keep our lift tickets as cheap as we can,” Bruce Zwang, one of Turner’s board of directors, said. “We see a lot of people being priced out of the sport because of the cost.”
Zwang sits on a board comprised of Libby locals managing Turner Mountain in the conservative, low-key manner it has operated for 50 years. Though lift attendants and snack bar concessionaries are paid employees, the maintenance crew, ski patrol and management are volunteers.
“It’s always been a community-oriented mountain operated by volunteers,” Zwang said. “It’s always had the same local feel in that everybody knows everybody pretty much.”
Skiing in the Libby area dates back to 1936, when residents formed the Kootenai Ski Club, and began descending hills around the town, according to the community website, libbymt.com. In 1961 Turner opened with a 1,200-foot rope tow. The following season, the community formed Kootenai Winter Sports to begin raising money to install a T-bar lift.
Zwang began skiing at Turner in 1965, and recalls it being more open, with less trees and no groomed terrain. By all accounts, the 18-minute T-bar ride to the summit was a leg burner, and widely believed to be the longest T-bar lift in North America.
“To be honest with you I don’t know if that’s completely true or not,” Zwang acknowledged.
By far the biggest change to come to Turner was the installation of a double chairlift in 2001. Because the mountain runs as a nonprofit, it was eligible for grants, along with a $128,000 loan guarantee from the Libby Area Development Company. Riding the chair up, the names of the community members and organizations that donated time and money to build it are emblazoned upon the lift towers.
The chairlift reduced the ride up from 18 to 11 minutes, and Turner began drawing slightly larger crowds. There are no plans for another lift, since the existing chairlift allows you to ski virtually anywhere on Turner Mountain.
“The beauty of Turner is you can access that whole mountain with one lift,” Zwang said. “Going top to bottom, you can ski everything.”
Kootenai Winter Sports is currently shooting to raise $25,000 to purchase a second groomer, not necessarily to provide less off-piste terrain, Zwang said, but to have the ability to smooth slopes with one machine when the other is down for maintenance.
The mountain is also planning its “Crazy Days” celebration March 19, themed around Turner’s 50th anniversary, featuring races, games, costumes and a potluck. On April 2 the mountain hosts its annual “Top to Dog” relay race, where teams skin up the mountain, ski down, run 3.2 miles to East Fork Pipe Creek Road and then mountain bike 12 miles to the Red Dog Saloon for pizza and beer.
Yet another component of Turner Mountain’s subtle success is that the resort can be rented for $2,500 on non-weekend days, which, divided among 30 or 40 people, is still less than the cost of a lift ticket at many bigger resorts across the West. Zwang said more and more groups are taking advantage, typically booking on Thursdays, and a recent write-up of the experience in the Calgary Herald increased demand.
On our Friday of skiing, a group of 30 had rented it out the previous day, yet we still managed to find untracked lines well into the afternoon, and stashes of deep, soft snow in the trees as we took our last run of the day. Leaving the parking lot, the weekend festivities were just beginning, as those remaining started heating up their grills and cracking beers like a football tailgate party. Putting the resort in our rearview mirror I realized the primary way to leave Turner Mountain: reluctantly.
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