SANDPOINT – Judy Wilger learned to ski a little later in life than most at Schweitzer Mountain Resort.
“Oh yeah, I was terrified staring down the end of the baby hill,” Wilger said of her first training run a decade ago at the age of 56. On Friday, decked out in skiwear and seated next to her grinning husband, Jim, she made the half-hour bus trip to the resort that turns 50 this month.
One could forgive Wilger’s first fears. Describing the wipeout that injured her leg and ended her first (and only) childhood skiing experience on Lookout Pass at age 6 requires a quick flick of the wrist from Wilger, indicating her splayed childhood body.
“I got about 6 feet, and then I went splat,” Wilger said.
The couple, who bonded over skiing at the resort, were two of the hundreds packing the slopes at Schweitzer on the first day of its weekend-long anniversary celebration. Lift tickets sold for $10 Friday, a fraction of the $71 regular price. When the ski area opened Dec. 4, 1963, skiers paid $4 a day for a lift up the mountain.
Today tickets will be priced at $19.63 to mark the anniversary, free birthday cake will be served to visitors, and staff will crack open a time capsule deposited in one of the resort’s chairlifts 25 years ago.
“We have two ski patrolmen who were around when we filled the capsule,” said resort spokesman Sean Briggs. “Even they don’t know what’s inside.”
Skiers and snowboarders snatched up the discounted lift tickets Friday morning, then heaved their gear across the snow – made crunchy underfoot by an intermittent freezing drizzle – to one of the serpentine but swiftly moving lift lines. Families and friends huddled in groups at the bottom, children holding hands of parents and grandparents and the youngest propped up on shoulders above the crowd.
Among those zigzagging their way down a wall of white powder briefly illuminated by a peeking sun were friends Jared Daugherty and Duke Bradbury, both of Spokane. Their group rose early and were on the road before 7 a.m. to be among the first hitting the slopes on the discounted day.
“It’s so nice up here on the Community Days,” said Bradbury, who usually skis at 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort in Chewelah and plans to spend the anniversary weekend in a rented room with pals. “You can’t beat it.”
Though the Wilgers have season passes, they shelled out $20 for two lift tickets Friday to support two Sandpoint-based charities. Community Cancer Services, which assists patients with lodging and financial aid, and Bonner Partners in Care, a free weekly clinic offering medical services to the poor, received all the money paid for lift tickets Friday.
The resort announced later Friday it had raised $21,630 from lift ticket receipts to be split between the two charities.
The focus today will be celebrating a heritage that began with an idea dreamed up by Jack Fowler, of Spokane. On his way back from a skiing trip to Big Mountain in 1960, Fowler stopped at what was then known as the Schweitzer bowl, seeing in the deep snow the foundation for a ski resort. Three years later, inaugural manager Sam Wormington opened the ski area that was then a lodge, a rope tow and one chairlift.
Jim Wilger, a native of Minnesota who grew up skiing the slopes of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, now points out the structures of the modern Schweitzer, which spans 2,900 acres, with the familiarity of a hometown Main Street.
“There’s Pucci’s Pub,” Wilger said, pointing to the watering hole that beckons with its neon beer signs and front-window Pac-Man machine. Wilger said he and his wife end many runs on the slopes with a drink at the bar with friends, many of whom have been skiing on the mountain for decades.
With the right light, the mountain can sparkle, Jim Wilger said. His favorite days are when the fog in the valley gives way to bright sunlight at the summit.
“I call those ‘Glacier days,’ ” Wilger said. “It gets so foggy, then you reach the top and you feel like you’ve gone back in time.”