Skiing on the Down Low

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Down Low 1204

One morning last winter,

I decided I'd had enough of chairlifts. No more high-flying, space-age, zillion-dollar contraptions for me. I wanted to feel earthbound and in control, more like a primate and less like a bird. I made a resolution. For a few weeks at least, I vowed to ski at areas that offered only surface lifts.

Surface lifts, of course, tow skiers along the ground, preferably standing up. They include ropetows, T-bars, J-bars and poma lifts. Despite being low tech for mostly low hills, they do offer advantages. They keep you out of the wind. When they break down, you can let go and ski away, as opposed to waiting hours for a high-wire rescue. And they keep your muscles warm.

Surface lifts are also cheap. You can buy a used one for next to nothing and, with help from your friends and perhaps an engineer, set it up on the hillside of your choice-which is precisely what small groups of enterprising skiers have been doing for years. The West is studded with tiny, homespun ski areas, where you'll find natural snow, genuine characters, undiluted Americana-and nary a chairlift. These places are not always easy to locate. Advertising may not consist of anything more elaborate than a stack of crudely photocopied fliers next to a local cash register. Sometimes the only evidence of their existence, besides the areas themselves, is a small road sign, somewhere outside of nowhere. Most are open only on weekends. But if you're lucky enough to find one running, you can get pulled uphill, all day long, for peanuts. The powder isseldom tracked, the terrain surprisingly varied. And you can lunch with the locals in a tiny lodge for about three bucks.

Williams Ski Area

Williams, Ariz.

My surface-lift safari starts on a chilly February Saturday in Williams, Ariz. (population 2,700). Signs with giant arrows point at empty motor courts along fabled Route 66, the main drag through town. A much smaller arrow, on one of those little brown road signs, marks the turnoff for the ski area. At 9:30 a.m., when I pull into the parking lot a mile-and-a-half west of town, mine is the 11th car.

In the cabin-like lodge, I meet 76-year-old Laird Moody, who's run the area since 1962. Moody says he's been waiting since 1968 for the U.S. Forest Service to rule on a proposed expansion that, if approved, would more than triple the area's 600-foot vertical drop. Yet he doesn't seem angry about the36-year delay. "It's like being in a football game where you get to the one-yard line, and then the teams change," he says, shrugging. "The supervisor retires and all the people go somewhere else." Moody's silvery beard, wrinkles and gentle demeanor suggest a modern-day fairy-tale character: the man who waited forever for a Forest Service ruling.

While waiting, Moody has made do with a 38-acre parcel on a foothill of 9,260-foot Bill Williams Peak, some 60 miles south of the Grand Canyon. He runs an economical operation: His wife, Tora, cooks fresh vegetarian food in the snack bar. Cisterns catch rainwater for the toilets and hoses. And Moody maintains the 1962 poma lift, the ropetow and a '70s-vintage Thiokol groomer. He has to be frugal because the area's annual skier visits number between 2,000 and 4,000, possibly the fewest of any commercial area in the United States.

After several rides on the poma lift, I surmise that much of the ski area's clientele hails from someplace without snow, like Phoenix. Riders teeter when the poma tugs them forward. The skiers who fall cling to the platter as if it were a life preserver. One woman spins sideways and crashes, losing a ski and, to my surprise, a boot. Moody, who's oiling part of the lift, descends a ladder to help. The skiers and snowboarders who keep their balance may disembark at any of four landings, near terrain that matches their ability level. That convenience is one reason Moody says he's kept a surface lift all these years.

Higher up, the setting feels unusually sene. The puffy white clouds, the snow-flecked pines and the stiff-legged skiers in blue jeans all seem to belong in a postcard of 1970s skiing. Inconspicuous wooden signs, nailed to trees, identify runs with names like Far East, Wild West and Way West. And the terrain is fun: steep slopes near the summit, glades along the flanks of the hill, a groomed face above the lodge and several meandering trails. I ride the poma until my muscles give out.

In late afternoon, I return to town and claim a stool inside the historic Sultana Bar. A woman wearing a mechanic's suit tells me the bar is popular with the ski crowd, but it's four o'clock on a Saturday and there's no sign of another skier. As I start my long journey to the next locale, I can't help wondering how much longer Laird Moody's nifty little ski area will manage to hang on.

Snowhaven Grangeville, Idaho

The Camas Prairie in central Idaho doesn't look like a place that would have one ski area, let alone two. Stubbly hay and wheat fields cover most of the earth. Grain elevators dominate the skyline, and my motel is packed not with skiers but with fishermen, here to catch steelhead on nearby rivers. Yet on Saturday morning, when I request directions to the ski area, the woman at the motel desk asks, "Which one?"

"To reach Snowhaven, turn right at the C&C Express," she says. "Go straight where the road forks, even though there's no sign." I drive seven miles south from Grangeville to the ski area, passing an old drive-in theater and an idling tractor-but no cars-along the way. Inside the '70s-style lodge, I ask to speak with someone who can answer questions for a magazine article. Moments later, an LMC snowcat stops outside. The driver,a stocky bald man, waves me over and invites me to hop in. This must be the surface-lift version of public relations, I thinkas I scramble across the treads.

The driver, Scott Wasem, explains that the town of Grangeville has operated Snowhaven on a shoulder of 6,200-foot Mt. Idaho, in the Clearwater Mountains, most winter weekends since 1964. It averages 50 customers per day, who pay $13 for a lift ticket. "We try to hit the college kids because they don't have the money to go to the bigger courses, and the senior citizens because the bigger courses are too hard on their legs," says Wasem, who farms in the valley and seems at home in the groomer. On Saturdays, a volunteer ski patroller drives a school bus carrying a few dozen kids from town (round-trip cost: $1). The bus has just arrived, and a cluster of teenage snowboarders stands at the base, toeing the snow and waiting for the T-bar to open.

"We know most of the people whoski here," Wasem continues. "If we have a kid who's acting up, we just call hisparents. If we don't know somebody,I introduce myself to them, and thatway I start to recognize them. That means a lot to people."

After studying the area's only trail map-a crude painting on the side of the lodge-I make a few runs on the gentle, southeast-facing terrain, which opens onto views of the Bitterroot and Gospel ranges. Two feet of powder has fallen since last weekend, and Wasem has left much of the 40 acres ungroomed. As I carve the untracked fluff and absorb the silence and scenery, I feel as calm as I've ever been at a ski area. I would stay awhile, but other powdery, and barely populated, surfaces await nearby.

Cottonwood Butte Cottonwood, Idaho

Leaving Snowhaven, I cross over to the other side of the Camas Prairie and look for Cottonwood Butte. The sign for the ski area points left, so I turn. But the next sign I see says, "North Idaho Correctional Institution," and then the prison appears, replete with razor-wire fences and a watchtower. This can't be right. I make a U-turn. Only on a second pass do I locate the ski area-by exiting the backside of the prison parking lot and continuing until I come upon a handpainted sign that says, "Welcome-You've Escaped toCottonwood Butte."

Inside the lodge, Gabe Riener, a volunteer on the board of directors, tells me the slogan harks back to the '80s, when the prison had dodgy security and escaped inmates occasionally did turn up at the ski area. We also discuss the friendly rivalry between his hill and Snowhaven, 29 miles away. Snowhaven skiers claim to have better snow because Cottonwood Butte is too low and because the groomer there pulls a "culvert" instead of a roller. Riener counters that Cottonwood has steeper runs and an 845-foot vertical drop-nearly double that of Snowhaven.

After purchasing an all-day lift ticket for $12 at the snack bar, I spend an hour chasing Riener as he pinballs through the snow-covered boulder fields known as The Bluffs. It's a blast; the steep fall-line runs make it easy to forget that this is not a mountain, but the high point of a prairie.

Later I share a T with Cliff Arnzen,an angular 75-year-old rancher who for decades has volunteered as a Cottonwood ski patroller. Arnzen says the area has overcome many challenges. In the '90s, for instance, it had to acquire two used lifts in order to replace its aging T-bar. One of the lifts cost money, but the volunteers from Cottonwood still broke even on the deal: "They got a four-wheel-drive truck thrown in, and they sold the truck for about the same price they paid for the lift," he explains. After procuring the two lifts, the group worked to assemble them into a single, 3,000-foot-long T-bar. Everything went smoothly until a T hooked a tower and yanked it out of true on one of the season's busiest days. Yet Cottonwood Butte endures, mostly because the locals want it to.

At the bottom we meet Arnzen's wife, Mary Jane, who heads the ski school. "We get kids from all over-from Moscow and Colfax and Kamiah," she chirps. A lesson-and-rental package costs $15. The way Mary Jane explains it, there are advantages to learning slowly. A lesson lasts until a skier feels comfortable going from the top to the bottom. Then the lesson ends and the skier must buy a ticket.

All day, people have been telling me I'm not the only "tourist" on the hill. Near closing time, I finally meet the others-members of the Eagle Cap Ski Club of Joseph, Ore. The club runs the Ferguson Ridge Ski Area, another weekends-and surface-lifts-only place, and Charlie Kissinger, the club president, invites me to stop by. When I tell him that I'll have to return home by the next weekend, he says to come on a weekday. "We'll open."

Ferguson Ridge Ski Area Joseph, Ore.

The clerk at the Motel 6 in Clarkston, Wash., gladly provides directions to Joseph. "Follow the river for seven miles," he says. "Go through Asotin and up Asotin Grade-about five or six miles of winding road. Cruise on top for 20 miles. Right after Anatone you start down Rattlesnake Grade, a real big canyon. Go down into it, up out of it, and 50 miles later you hit Enterprise, which is near Joseph." Fortunately, it's all on the same road, so my odds of getting lost are slim.

The first thing I spot at Ferguson Ridge is a hand-painted sign that says, "NO DOGS PLEASE." Just above it, on the same pole, another sign urges people to "Clean Up After Your Dog." A woman carrying a snowboard informs me that dogs like to pee on the pole. And when I ask about the official dog policy, Kissinger laughs and says, "We don't know."

The ski area dates to the mid-'80s, when nine friends purchased 280 acres and began clearing trails on 170 of them. When the snow fell, they noticed that the trails formed a giant peace sign. They gave the trails quirky names, such as "Harold's Revenge," after a particularly dangerous batch of homemade wine. They erected a ropetow, a used T-bar,a patrol shack, a lodge and an outhouse that looks like a chapel. To help pay the bills, they sell a few lift tickets. "It's a passion, something we all love," says Kissinger. "We're just a bunch of ski bums who have this little way to justify our existence. We say we're doing it for the kids, but the adabe Riener, a volunteer on the board of directors, tells me the slogan harks back to the '80s, when the prison had dodgy security and escaped inmates occasionally did turn up at the ski area. We also discuss the friendly rivalry between his hill and Snowhaven, 29 miles away. Snowhaven skiers claim to have better snow because Cottonwood Butte is too low and because the groomer there pulls a "culvert" instead of a roller. Riener counters that Cottonwood has steeper runs and an 845-foot vertical drop-nearly double that of Snowhaven.

After purchasing an all-day lift ticket for $12 at the snack bar, I spend an hour chasing Riener as he pinballs through the snow-covered boulder fields known as The Bluffs. It's a blast; the steep fall-line runs make it easy to forget that this is not a mountain, but the high point of a prairie.

Later I share a T with Cliff Arnzen,an angular 75-year-old rancher who for decades has volunteered as a Cottonwood ski patroller. Arnzen says the area has overcome many challenges. In the '90s, for instance, it had to acquire two used lifts in order to replace its aging T-bar. One of the lifts cost money, but the volunteers from Cottonwood still broke even on the deal: "They got a four-wheel-drive truck thrown in, and they sold the truck for about the same price they paid for the lift," he explains. After procuring the two lifts, the group worked to assemble them into a single, 3,000-foot-long T-bar. Everything went smoothly until a T hooked a tower and yanked it out of true on one of the season's busiest days. Yet Cottonwood Butte endures, mostly because the locals want it to.

At the bottom we meet Arnzen's wife, Mary Jane, who heads the ski school. "We get kids from all over-from Moscow and Colfax and Kamiah," she chirps. A lesson-and-rental package costs $15. The way Mary Jane explains it, there are advantages to learning slowly. A lesson lasts until a skier feels comfortable going from the top to the bottom. Then the lesson ends and the skier must buy a ticket.

All day, people have been telling me I'm not the only "tourist" on the hill. Near closing time, I finally meet the others-members of the Eagle Cap Ski Club of Joseph, Ore. The club runs the Ferguson Ridge Ski Area, another weekends-and surface-lifts-only place, and Charlie Kissinger, the club president, invites me to stop by. When I tell him that I'll have to return home by the next weekend, he says to come on a weekday. "We'll open."

Ferguson Ridge Ski Area Joseph, Ore.

The clerk at the Motel 6 in Clarkston, Wash., gladly provides directions to Joseph. "Follow the river for seven miles," he says. "Go through Asotin and up Asotin Grade-about five or six miles of winding road. Cruise on top for 20 miles. Right after Anatone you start down Rattlesnake Grade, a real big canyon. Go down into it, up out of it, and 50 miles later you hit Enterprise, which is near Joseph." Fortunately, it's all on the same road, so my odds of getting lost are slim.

The first thing I spot at Ferguson Ridge is a hand-painted sign that says, "NO DOGS PLEASE." Just above it, on the same pole, another sign urges people to "Clean Up After Your Dog." A woman carrying a snowboard informs me that dogs like to pee on the pole. And when I ask about the official dog policy, Kissinger laughs and says, "We don't know."

The ski area dates to the mid-'80s, when nine friends purchased 280 acres and began clearing trails on 170 of them. When the snow fell, they noticed that the trails formed a giant peace sign. They gave the trails quirky names, such as "Harold's Revenge," after a particularly dangerous batch of homemade wine. They erected a ropetow, a used T-bar,a patrol shack, a lodge and an outhouse that looks like a chapel. To help pay the bills, they sell a few lift tickets. "It's a passion, something we all love," says Kissinger. "We're just a bunch of ski bums who have this little way to justify our existence. We say we're doing it for the kids, but the adults like it a lot, too."

On weekends, an adult all-day ticket to Ferguson Ridge costs $12, while a half-day goes for $15. Or so the joke goes. I'm here on a Tuesday, when everything is free. Kissinger has spread word that the area will open today, and a dozen or so people and four dogs have shown up. After Kissinger fires up the diesel generator, the humans commence riding theT-bar, with the canines trotting alongside.

Located at the tip of a ridgeline descending from 9,200-foot Redmont Peak, Ferguson Ridge has a 600-foot vertical drop and expansive glade skiing amid towering fir and pine trees-it's the most varied, and prettiest, scenery so far. Unfortunately, today a drizzle slowly matures into a downpour. As the rain intensifies, we retreat to the lodge, where we tap a mini-keg of locally brewed porter and warm up around the woodstove.

Hours later I drive away, and gazing up at the 9,000-foot peaks of the Wallowa Range, I contemplate the things that never happened during my surface-lift safari: I never saw another car on an entrance road, never parked where I couldn't ski to my bumper, never waited in line, never wished to be anywhere else and never met a person who wasn't kind. High-flying chairlifts and high-falutin' people seemed far away. Heck, everything but the ground seemed far away. And that was just fine with me.

DECEMBER 2004

e adults like it a lot, too."

On weekends, an adult all-day ticket to Ferguson Ridge costs $12, while a half-day goes for $15. Or so the joke goes. I'm here on a Tuesday, when everything is free. Kissinger has spread word that the area will open today, and a dozen or so people and four dogs have shown up. After Kissinger fires up the diesel generator, the humans commence riding theT-bar, with the canines trotting alongside.

Located at the tip of a ridgeline descending from 9,200-foot Redmont Peak, Ferguson Ridge has a 600-foot vertical drop and expansive glade skiing amid towering fir and pine trees-it's the most varied, and prettiest, scenery so far. Unfortunately, today a drizzle slowly matures into a downpour. As the rain intensifies, we retreat to the lodge, where we tap a mini-keg of locally brewed porter and warm up around the woodstove.

Hours later I drive away, and gazing up at the 9,000-foot peaks of the Wallowa Range, I contemplate the things that never happened during my surface-lift safari: I never saw another car on an entrance road, never parked where I couldn't ski to my bumper, never waited in line, never wished to be anywhere else and never met a person who wasn't kind. High-flying chairlifts and high-falutin' people seemed far away. Heck, everything but the ground seemed far away. And that was just fine with me.

DECEMBER 2004

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