By BENJAMIN KIBBEY
The Western News
About a month since opening for the season, Lincoln County’s hometown ski area is having a strong year, thanks in part to the good snow conditions.
Bruce Zwang, one of the Turner Mountain volunteers who works to keep the local landmark humming along, said that the season has already seen some great powder days, and great skiing overall.
Zwang said he was pleased with the numbers he has seen this year, especially over the holiday season.
Yet, a big day at Turner Mountain may only have around 150 skiers, and that is part of the charm, Zwang said. The uncrowded slopes are a big selling point for tourists.
“I like it because it’s easy to keep track of your children,” he said. “And you don’t have to fight those crowds. You don’t have to stand in a lift line for half the day.”
“So, if you’re interested in pure skiing, I think Turner is the niche market there,” he said.
The most common comment Zwang said he gets from out-of-towners is that it reminds them of the small town ski areas they had when they were growing up.
Those kinds of ski areas don’t exist many places anymore, he said. Most either grew into large resorts or went out of business.
“We’re dedicated to keeping that option present here in Libby,” he said.
Considered a “skier’s mountain,” Turner offers skiers an experience they cannot get other places.
“We’ve got a tremendous fall line, and a lot of fall line skiing, which means there’s not a lot of traversing to speak of,” he said.
Turner has 22 named runs ranging from beginner to black diamond and 2,110 feet of vertical drop, but one double chair lift is enough to service the whole mountain.
Though small, Turner still has a rental shop — which only recently got all new rental gear — and a lodge that features an accomplished local chef, Zwang said.
The snack bar may serve burgers and fries, but they aren’t the typical snack bar fair, he said. Chef Jeremiah Walker hand-makes the burgers and hand-cuts the fries each morning. There are also homemade soups, and specialty options that change from week to week.
“The food up there is tremendous this year,” Zwang said.
And the prices aren’t bad either, with a typical meal staying easily under $10.
Turner also offers hill rental to groups Monday through Thursday, when they are not normally open. This year has seen typical rental levels, with around 80 percent of the available time filled, Zwang said.
The tourism aspect serves an economic benefit for Libby in the winter months, he said.
“Having a recreational opportunity and draw for tourists in January, February, March, I think, is very important,” Zwang said.
But Turner Mountain isn’t just a community asset as a tourism draw, Zwang said. It’s an asset to the people who live here, and one he is committed to keeping available to them.
From his first skiing at 4 years old in the 1960s to joining the board of directors around 1990, the ski area has been a central part of Zwang’s life. He wants to see it remain as something that locals can enjoy.
“Often in the past, many communities would see their residents priced out of the sport,” he said. “We’re dedicated to make sure that doesn’t happen here.”
With lift tickets ranging from $21 for children 7-12 to $38 for an adult, the prices are half or less that of even the closest neighboring ski resorts.
That is accomplished, in part, by only having three paid staff. All of the off-season maintenance and much of the in-season work is done by volunteers.
A local ski area such as Turner Mountain serves an important role, both in giving minors something to do in the winter and providing an outlet for families, Zwang said.
“I think skiing and snowboarding are tremendous sports for the youth to get involved with,” he said. “You’re outside, it’s fun, and it’s a very clean and productive activity.”
There is no established policy regarding age restrictions for children on the slopes alone, though parents are expected to use good judgement, Zwang said.
Though usually only open Friday through Sunday, Turner Mountain will be open on a Monday for the annual Presidents Day Community Appreciation Day. Special vouchers will be available from local sponsoring businesses, allowing residents $15 lift tickets for adults and free tickets for 18 and under.
Aside from the annual Crazy Days in March — with games, activities and costume contests — there are no other planned events for the season.
However, Zwang encourages the public to come out any Friday, Saturday or Sunday and take advantage of free sightseeing rides to the top of the mountain on the ski lift, he said.
“Just as a community service, we offer free chair lift rides — if we’re not too busy, which is most of the time — and it’s a great place to come,” he said.
Even non-skiers can take advantage of the free offer, see the great views from the top of the mountain, get a meal at the lodge and enjoy the outdoors, he said.