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Sports >  Outdoors

Bill Jennings: Silver Mountain celebrates its history with ‘Jackass Day’

By Bill Jennings Correspondent

In 1885, prospector Noah Kellogg’s donkey stumbled upon a silver vein that became the Bunker Hill mine, an institution that defined the Silver Valley for a century. Today a sign can still be found on the outskirts of Kellogg that reads, “This is a town founded by a jackass and inhabited by its descendants.”

In 1967, when ski area developers leased a mountain basin above Bunker Hill Mining Company’s claims, it seemed appropriate to christen the new resort “Jackass Ski Bowl.” The chairlift began turning in January 1968. Silver Mountain is celebrating the occasion on Friday on “Jackass Day,” with tickets at an early-1980s price: $12.

Arnold Bircher, 80, of Pinehurst, Idaho, was there at the beginning. He journeyed to North Idaho from his native Switzerland in 1960 to work as a logger out of Priest River. He was a ski instructor at Schweitzer when it opened in 1963. Jackass needed someone to run the ski school and Bircher was the man for the job.

“The skiing was just as good at Jackass as it was in Switzerland,” he said. “We had real good snow the first winter I was there. Lots of powder and super good skiing.”

The terrain chosen for Jackass is tailor-made by nature for good skiing and riding. The original Riblet double, known today as “chair four,” or “Jackass,” was strategically placed for pure fall lines and long runs. The best skiing and riding at Silver Mountain is still where Bircher carved his turns 50 years ago.

“One of the best things about Jackass was you would know every skier up there,” he said. “You got to know them all because there weren’t that many. We would get maybe about 300 people on a Sunday and if we had 100 people throughout the week that was real good. To begin with, sometimes there was only six or seven skiers.”

Developing a new ski area in the Silver Valley in the late 1960s was a gamble. The powder Bircher remembers from his first season was followed by one of the biggest snow years on record in 1968-69. But a major drawback to Jackass’ prospects was the seven-mile drive up a treacherous mountain road. The fledgling ski area was also vulnerable to the weather. After a promising start, two seasons of stingy snow sent Jackass into foreclosure in 1973.

Bunker Hill stepped up to buy Jackass’ assets. But the ski area’s colorful name – beloved by some and loathed by others – was changed to Silverhorn, an Anglicization of The Silberhorn, a legendary peak in the Swiss Alps.

Bunker Hill didn’t intend to make a profit from Silverhorn. It operated the ski area more as a community service, as well as an attraction to lure the technical employees it needed to the Silver Valley. Lift ticket prices in the season of 1981-82 were only $12. But the bottom dropped out of the silver market in 1982, ending the run for Bunker Hill and Silverhorn’s $12 lift ticket.

This time the City of Kellogg stepped up to preserve skiing in the Silver Valley. The Shoshone County road department took on the expense of plowing the access road. A combination of federal and state grants and labor subsidies made continued operation possible.

Civic leaders sought to change the definition of Silver Valley away from mining toward tourism. To reach that potential, a different route to the resort had to be found. Eventually the City of Kellogg, mining magnate Harry Magnuson, the U.S. Forest Service, the State of Idaho and the Swiss gondola company Von Roll Tramways joined forces to raise millions of dollars and create Silver Mountain pretty much as we know it today.

The resort has been bought and sold a few times since then. Its future has never been certain. The latest owner bought the deed and rolled the dice in late October. Yet through all its struggles, Silver Mountain has been the ski hill that refused to die. You can celebrate its future with the past on Jackass Day.

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