Big-time hills rake in headlines, crowds and megabucks. A fascinating journey through the past and back to the present showed me there’s another world out there offering the same adventure differently.
Small, remote community hills play a vital role in the survival of the ski industry. Low prices – lift tickets priced $15 or less – and easy access help fuel the passion that gets passed on to future generations.
Traveling with Tom Stebbins of Spokane’s Vision Marketing, we passed through Orofino, Idaho, on Highway 12, turned left on Highway 11, crossed the Clearwater River and headed into the mountains.
An hour later we arrived in the tiny town of Pierce in the Clearwater Mountains, buried in snow. We rested in a cute little hotel called the Outback Inn before hitting three different T-bar hills the next day.
First stop was Bald Mountain, 7 miles up the road. It’s a place from another era. The price of a family season pass – $375 – hasn’t risen since 1959. We were welcomed by Chris Kuykendall of the Clearwater Ski Club, bright sunshine and 30 inches of fresh snow. Potlatch Corporation owns Bald Mountain. Nearly 50 years ago Potlatch carved out the hill so workers in nearby logging towns could ski. Today Potlatch leases the hill to the Clearwater Ski Club – volunteers doing everything from plowing the road to paying the bills to keep Bald Mountain alive.
“Our parents built it and now its time for us to take the reins,” said Kuykendall, Executive Director of the Clearwater County Economic Development Council. “But with logging in decline, we work a lot harder to get half of what they had. It’s a shoestring hill but I think we can make some positive changes.”
The vintage T-bar pulled us to 684 feet of vertical and 140 acres of short, sweet drops into pillow soft snow.
Our next stop was a two-hour drive southwest to Cottonwood Butte. The winding mountain road passed by the high fences and razor wire of a remote state prison. A snowstorm and ski patroller Pat Hylton greeted us. He showed us the best of 840 T-bar-served vertical feet. We skied powder-filled trails, mini cliff drops and trees.
The skiing at Cottonwood was excellent, but we left to hit Snowhaven before day’s end.
Snowhaven, a mile above Grangeville, is a thriving 40-acre bump overlooking the Camas Prairie. Local Chuck Hepner joined us on the T-bar and led us to the deepest of Snowhaven’s 440 vertical feet. Snowfall filled our tracks. We couldn’t leave without a shot at the tubing hill and felt like kids again.
After a night in Riggins on the Salmon River we returned to the 21st century.
The morning we pulled into Brundage dawned cold and clear. Conditions were outstanding. We chased Brundage guide Cory Whitney to powder stashes in the trees and bowls. In between we ripped wide-open blue cruisers. After taking a break outside a yurt on the summit, we skied until we couldn’t make another turn.
A trip starting on the most humble of hills ended at Tamarack Resort, an emerging world-class destination in the Payette River Mountains. We recovered from pounding Brundage slope side in The Lodge at Osprey Meadows, an elegant mountain hotel.
Next morning Tamarack guides Dave Williams and John Costa towed us behind a snowmobile into the backcountry.
We explored glades and open bowls to the north and south of Tamarack, getting untouched lines, deep powder and a fitting conclusion to an unforgettable skiing experience.