Smalltown Montana ski area has steep and deep and you can rent the mountain
It's Ok to show up in greasy overalls at Turner Mountain ski area near Libby. Dave Reese photo
By DAVE REESE
Editor, Montana Living
Seventeen-year-old high school student Milan House knew that missing school for a day was going to set him back in his studies.
But like Christmas, this day comes but once a year - opening day at Turner Mountain ski area in Libby.
"This is way too important to miss," House said, while riding the chairlift at Turner Mountain on opening day for the small ski area located in the remote mountains outside of Libby. Not only was it opening day at Turner, this day was special for another reason: the ski area had received a bountiful blessing of cold, dry snow in the previous week, and on top of that the sky was sunny and blue, creating perfect conditions for the roughly 100 people who showed up for the opener.
Those people also got a preview of Turner Mountain's new 4,000-square-foot lodge. The lodge, with Swiss-style features, replaces Turner's snack shack, a modified shed with a barrel stove in the center, booths around the edges and a hamburger grill in the corner. The lodge opened this year and was built almost entirely with volunteer help, although money for materials came from part of an $8 million federal economic development grant that the city of Libby received.
The lodge was one more example of how Turner Mountain, established in 1961, was built entirely on the backs of volunteers. The mountain is run almost entirely on volunteers, including ski patrol.
In 2001 the mountain received a loan guarantee and grant to help build the resort's single chairlift, although volunteers helped install its lift, which replaced the antiquated T-bar that had been in use since Turner first opened.
The T-bar was once billed as the "longest T-bar in America." "If it wasn't for volunteers, and in some cases generations of them, we wouldn't be able to make it," said Bruce Zwang, a lifetime Libby resident and member of Kootenai Winter Sports, the nonprofit organization that operates Turner Mountain. "Our primary purpose is to keep our lift tickets as affordable as possible, and that's why we rely so heavily on volunteer efforts." Ticket revenues help operate the mountain, and everyone is volunteer except lift attendants.
Since the chairlift was installed, skier visits have doubled, and Zwang said he anticipates skier visits to rise even further with the opening of the new lodge.
The next project on the volunteer "to-do" list is widening of the access road to Turner.
In the 44 years that Turner has been open, the mountain has survived largely with volunteer help and myriad donations. For instance, the 25 ski patrollers (all volunteer) wear red parkas handed down by Big Mountain ski area in Whitefish.
Art Purdy, 75, wore his parka proudly on Turner's opening day while making turns in the powder. Purdy has been a patroller at Turner for 25 years and is the longest-tenured patroller there.
Skiers at Turner still enjoy the family atmosphere, where people in Carhartt overalls and blue jeans seem to outnumber people in polypropylene and Gore-Tex.
Turner has that small-town feeling even on a big powder day, when skiers drive over from Kalispell or Spokane. When Zwang takes his kids skiing, he doesn't have to worry about them. "I just have to ask the lift attendant if they've seen Jeff or Kelly and usually they'll know," Zwang said. "People like the family friendly atmosphere; it's a good, safe place for the kids."
Despite Turner's rise in status with a new lodge and a new chairlift, the family attitude remains. Prices are still reasonable. You can get a hamburger for $2.25, and lift tickets are only $24 for adults.
One of turner Mountain's most unusual features is the fact that you can rent the entire ski hill for private functions. Whether it's a wedding or just to have the hill to you and your friends, you can do it for about $2,300, ski patrollers included.
When you rent the mountain, "You can have as many as you want or as few as you want; you have total control over who skis there," Zwang said.
Turner, with about 400 skiable acres and 2,200 feet of vertical drop, the mountain gets rented out two or three times a year, Zwang said, and only on days when it's not open to the general public. Turner is open Friday through Sunday, with a season that lasts mid-December to April.
The conical-shaped mountain has no bad fall lines; everywhere you ski on the "cone," you'll find a perfect line. Grooming is done on only about 25 percent of the mountain. With 70-percent advanced and 25 percent intermediate terrain, the mountain is a powder-skier's haven. "Even on a big day there's a lot of skiable terrain up there," Zwang said. "We don't have lift lines to speak of. It's easy to have an experience all by yourself."
On the Net: www.skiturner.com