If you did not know to turn left on Pipe Creek Road, outside of Libby, Mont., you could easily miss Turner Mountain. Set on a forested knob that is alternately caressed by moist fogs and pounded by deep powder storms, Turner is the only ski resort in the U.S. that has but one paid employee and otherwise depends on a volunteer labor force. Add a single, ancient T-bar, pitch-perfect terrain and a $17 lift ticket, and it's no surprise when friends wonder aloud: "You sure you want to write about this place?"
David Redman spends winters volunteer patrolling at Turner Mountain. While the T-bar tows us up the mile-long track to the 5,952-foot summit, he offers compelling "you-should-have-been-here-last-week" testimony. "The snow was thigh-deep last Friday," he comments in the off-handed manner of someone who has been spoiled by too much of a good thing.
Rising out of a wooded defile between northwest Montana's Cabinet and Purcell mountains, Turner sits squarely in the path of deep lows that sweep off the Gulf of Alaska. Snowfalls are regular and plentiful, and yet outside of Lincoln County, Turner is virtually unknown. Part of the problem is there is no direct route to Turner. Figure 165 miles from Spokane, Wash., and 190 from Missoula, Mont. Such distances have worked to preserve¿and depress¿this 40-year-old ski area. Still, with 800 acres of terrain, of which 70 percent is black diamond, and uncounted backcountry lines, Turner averages 60 skiers per day. Multiply that by a weekend-only season from Dec. 15 through April 1, and the area boasts 2,500 skiers per year¿that's less than 25 percent of a single day at Vail!
Straddling the junction of Montana Highways 2 and 37, Libby doesn't look much like a ski town. Other than the Snowshoe Ski Haus and the Lindco-Trollhjen nordic sweater store, it has the air of a blue-collar town fallen on hard times. In winter, aside from Turner Mountain, there is little to draw tourists to Libby. Snow lies heavy on the town's roofs, parks and roads; beat-to-hell pickup trucks far outnumber new SUVs, and local businessmen play to area strengths by combining gunsmithing and real estate. And yet, despite its frayed downtown, Libby is rich in natural beauty. Rising against the eastern horizon, Glacier National Park is the big draw, but Libby and its surrounding mountains are typically missed by the big diesel buses full of German and Japanese tourists.
Because Turner is run by volunteers who hold down day jobs in Libby, the mountain is only open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This three-day week allows the snow to accumulate, and it is a rare Friday indeed when locals aren't greeted by at least a foot of powder. As such, Turner might offer the best lift-assisted powder skiing in the U.S.
Dave Zwang and his wife Debbie own the local ValuRite Drug Store in Libby and have skied Turner since they were kids. With an average snowfall of 250 inches per year, Dave points out, "When people say Turner gets more powder than other resorts, that's not exactly true, it just doesn't get hammered as quickly."
Mountain Manager Dave Anderson's father, Elmer, was on the original board of directors that founded Turner. Dave grew up and met his wife at the area; he's now teaching his sons to ski. He agrees people get spoiled by the snow. "A few complain if they can't find untracked on Sunday afternoon," he says. But it's this same powder that causes him to spend more time at Turner than he should. "My wife would like me to be home for dinner on time," he confesses, "but her father plowed Turner's access road for 20 years, so she understands."
You're new here," Gary Altman says as he hands me the T-bar. Between Altman's wool houndstooth suit and florid tie, you would never guess this bespectacled liftie makes his living as a biologist for the Montana Fish and Game Department. Before I can admit I am, the T-bar spring stretches for the 2,110-vertical-foot ride to the top. Built in 1960, Turnes lone diesel powered T-bar is the longest in the U.S.¿a thigh-smoking 5,600 feet of steel-to-steel cable, shivs and wooden derricks.
The 15-minute ride to the summit is a fair trade for Turner's cold, light snow. Runs radiate off the top in a 280-degree semicircle, and in succession, I ski the north-facing runs of Mambo, Chan's and Main's¿open powder fields that cascade toward Turner's weathered base lodge and small cafeteria. To the east toward the Cabinet Range, No Go, Cornices and Pneumonia offer gladed lines that trace the low angle winter sun.
Cut by skiers, for skiers, these runs speak to the heart, soul and sweat equity of the resort. Running chainsaws and weed eaters in summer's dry heat is grueling work, but a season pass is the payoff for five eight-hour days spent clearing glades and hacking brush. Or, man one of the T-bar shacks for two hours and you can ski the rest of the day for free. Given Turner's snow and terrain, it is not surprising that there is no shortage of volunteers.
Turner sprang into being in 1958, basically because its first board of directors wanted to ski close to home. The group eventually picked Turner Mountain for two reasons: First, Pipe Creek Road skirted the mountain, which meant they only had to build a two-mile access spur; second, Turner had burned off in 1910 and again in the 1940s, which meant minimal clearing.
In 1960, the board formed a corporation that sold stock to finance and build a T-bar up one of the present day Pig Chutes. Because electricity stopped (and still does) 14 miles down Pipe Creek Road, the J. Neils Lumber Company donated a spare bulldozer motor to drive the bull wheel and a bulldozer to plow the road. Turner Mountain was in business.
In the Sixties, sweat-equity ski resorts like Turner were common. In the 40 years since, however, most either grew up or went out of business. Today, Turner's only paid employee is Merlin Moore, a retired diesel mechanic who takes care of all the motor maintenance. And yet despite low annual skier counts and problematic cash flow, Turner is trying to expand.
The beauty of any lift is a free ride uphill, and though the T-bar is still sound, there is no denying it's outdated. The present board of directors knew the cable would need to be replaced in the near future and debated whether Turner should spend $50,000 on a new cable or a new chair.
Subscribing to the philosophy of "if you build it, they will come," the board hopes a fixed-grip double will draw skiers from the distant Big Mountain, Snow Bowl, Schweitzer and Silver Mountain ski areas. After much discussion, in 1997, the board paid to locate, buy and re-engineer two identical used Riblets from Washington's Snoqualmie Pass. Transporting the Riblets across the Cascades to Libby proved to be a logistical nightmare, but the board wanted to make a public commitment to the mountain and town. Turner is also working on changing its tax status to a nonprofit corporation in hope that locals will contribute to the project.
Last January, the lift wasn't much to look at. Stored out at the Champion Lumber Mill, which collapsed when the new owners couldn't afford to shovel the massive wooden trussed roof, the Riblets are little more than a series of snow mounds under which the standards and crosspieces are buried. The shivs are stored out of the weather, but it would take an engineer, or skier's eye, to divine any promise in the stacked wheels, bolts and chunks of steel. And yet, Bruce Zwang is ecstatic. "You don't have any idea how much work this represents," he says. "Our plan is to raise money to refurbish the lift, then install it in the summer of 2001. We absolutely do not want to lose a ski season, so it has to go up in one summer. Our philosophy is 'keep it simple,' so folks in town will be able to work on the stuff."
Listening to Zwang, it occurs to me that Turner's greatest asset is not the snow or terrain, but the self-reliant men and women who willingly spend their summers driving nails, cutting brush, welding and painting. These are the children, grandchildren and friends of Turner's first can-do board of directors, who simply wanted to go skiing. In hindsight, the auspicious group was lucky to stumble upon Turner. But then, the same can be said of every skier since.llingly spend their summers driving nails, cutting brush, welding and painting. These are the children, grandchildren and friends of Turner's first can-do board of directors, who simply wanted to go skiing. In hindsight, the auspicious group was lucky to stumble upon Turner. But then, the same can be said of every skier since.