It was ours, all ours.
Turner Mountain was coated with more than 40 centimetres of fresh powder when our busload of friends rolled into its tiny parking lot in February. The virgin white bounty tucked away in Montana's backwoods was untouched: No people on the chairlift. No tracks on the slopes. No one could slash the snowy perfection until we said so. We were in charge.
It was, for one glorious day, our private playground. We rented the mountain – all 240 skiable hectares of it. We wore scratched helmets and knit tuques, but weighty gold crowns and delicate diamond tiaras would have felt right too. Because, seriously, who rents a mountain? A mountain complete with lifties and ski patrol to keep everyone safe, a lodge to keep everyone warm, and cook staff to keep everyone fed. As we poured out of our chariot that nippy morning, we asked a more relevant question: For $45 each, which is cheaper than a lift ticket at many lesser mountains, why doesn't everyone do this?
There was a short moment of silence when we arrived, as we stared out the bus window, blown away by our luck. But this was no time for deep thoughts – we had shredding to do. There was a rush to tie up snowboard boot laces, clamp down ski-boot snaps and get to the top. I was among the first on the chairlift, and while looking down at the wispy powder, I did what everyone else did: hooted, hollered, giggled and squirmed in my seat, wishing the slowest chairlift in the world would go just a touch faster.
"All I can say is: 'Wow, man,'" said Chris Gallagher, one of the trip's organizers. "I've never seen so much fresh powder spread amongst so few people for so cheap."
From the top of the mountain, Turner's perfection – it looked like a brand-new, white, poufy goose-down duvet stretching 643 vertical metres – was second only to its eeriness. This kind of emptiness is usually reserved for those who go to the trouble of skinning mountains in the lonesome backcountry, or cough up a grand for a day of heli-skiing. All we had to do was ride a rickety double chairlift.
But – again! – enough dawdling. It was time to rip.
I scooched my snowboard to the edge of Sundance Bowl, one of Turner's 25 open runs, and glided right. Riding powder is like floating on unbelievably airy whipped cream – soft, fluffy and free. Wiping out in the stuff is just as much of a treat, save for the unplanned front flip that usually comes with my powder crashes. Both are equally fun, although my spectacular acrobatics drew more applause from the swinging chairlift above.
Luckily, egos go unscathed on days when you're playing in snow up to your knees. It takes a run or two to remember how to survive in powder. You have to shift your weight to the tail of your board to keep snow from accumulating on the nose, which weighs you down and ends in a face plant.
I raced down the mountain a few times – endlessly repeating the hoot, float, crash sequence – before the beauty of renting a mountain finally sank in: I didn't have to hustle to be the first through a swath of trees or to cut a fresh line on a run that already had visitors. There were so few of us, the day was almost over before making a run involved the burden of crossing over someone else's tracks.
Turner Mountain, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this past winter, is a secluded secret in the northwest corner of Montana. Libby, the nearest notable town, is home to about 2,600 people. Despite its pristine surroundings, the town is best known for its asbestos crisis and subsequent lawsuits. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been cleaning up the mess since 1999.
Geography, and perhaps the area's modest incomes, keeps the ski area quiet – Turner is 177 kilometres from Kalispell, Mont., making airport access tricky, particularly when the larger, glitzy Whitefish Mountain Resort is right there. Going the other direction, Spokane, Wash., is about 290 clicks away, and that means driving by Schweitzer Mountain Resort. We travelled about 265 kilometres from Kimberley, B.C., to get to Turner, again bypassing bigger ski areas.
The mountain's isolation means it is open only Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but the non-profit organization will spin the lifts any other day in exchange for the rental fee. We paid $2,500 (U.S.) last year, and donated $400 to a fundraising drive to buy a new grooming machine. It will cost $3,000 for the privilege of privacy in 2012. We've booked our trip.
Renting the mountain on Thursday means any snow that fell the previous three days is part of the deal, but piles of powder are not guaranteed. I've been on a private excursion to Turner when spring conditions dominated the mountain; there was no need to pout. Rather than drinking cases of beer and playing games inside, as we did on our snow day when tingling frostbite trumped pleasurable powder, we drank kegs of beer while dancing in T-shirts outside as a DJ cranked the music.
"There are no rules at Turner," said Don Crawford, who has volunteered at the mountain since the 1970s. "We just really enjoy sharing the mountain with people who enjoy skiing. It is a special place. There's not a lot like it."
He's not exaggerating. Lifties will help you load cases of beer onto the chairlift – try doing that at Whistler – and, for those with lesser skills, they'll slow it down at the top so you can safely unload the cargo. On our second day at Turner, when we had to share the mountain with two dozen or so commoners, the folks running the mountain pushed snow at the summit into a three-metre-high ring and let us carve out a sunpit. At their best, sunpits look like Roman amphitheatres, with friends stacked thick and high on the bleachers, a fire burning in the centre, and beer chilling in the snow. Think of them as forts for adults. The 1.6-kilometre-long chairlift, which thankfully replaced Turner's old T-bar, shut down before we left the sunpit Friday (a rule violation at any other mountain). Don, who brought diesel fuel and firewood to power our party, eventually herded our rat pack down the mountain on mellow terrain. "Be careful," he said. The warning, delivered with a laugh yet without jest, was fair. Careful is not among our guiding principles.
We may act like ski bums, but we have real jobs, with geologists, pharmacists, an acupuncturist and a chief executive officer among us. Just goes to show you, anyone can rent a mountain.