The Montanian’s second attempt at a first class story about Turner Mountain
By Tracy McNew
Libby is home to the cheapest ski area lift ticket in the state of Montana. Turner Mountain Ski Area also offers close to home, family-friendly fun with rentals, a ski and snowboard instruc-tor, a full-service snack bar, no lift lines, 22 named runs and over 2,000 feet of verti-cal drop. According to Ski Magazine it “might offer the best lift-assisted powder skiing in the U.S.”
The Montanian visited Turner Mountain on Satur-day morning, Jan. 20 to meet their unofficial operations manager, Bill Frazey.
Frazey is a volunteer, and according to fellow volunteer Tony Petrusha, “He manages the ski area’s four paid em-ployees. He gets the road plowed, the propane and fuel delivered, he is the guy that worries about all of the little items that if not managed will impact the operation.”
Frazey has been volun-teering on the mountain since the 1980s and he esti-mates that he works about 100 to 150 days per year. “We’re open for three months and we work the other nine months to keep things going.” he said.
Bruce Zwang, another volunteer disagreed with Frazey’s estimate. “He’s there way more than the 100 or even 150 days per year that he told you,” Zwang said.
“He opens the place in the morning and closes it down at night too,” said Zwang.
Frazey was not only hum-ble, but also quick to point out that he’s not the only dedicated volunteer at Turner Mountain.
The Mountain is open to the public about 60 days per year and on any given day there will be 15 to 20 volun-teers and three or four paid employees working. Frazey estimated that altogether, there are about 200 volun-teers who contribute in some way to keep Turner Moun-tain running during the three winter months.
A ratio of about 50 volun-teers for every employee involved is impressive for any organization.
Dave Anderson, another volunteer that has always been involved at Turner agreed. He said, “This is probably one of the only places in the country that operates like this. We’ve had generations of volunteers and great talent over the years. That’s what makes this place tick.”
Zwang said “conservatively, it takes 10,000 volunteer hours to make that place operate eve-ry year.”
Other volunteers, he said, cut brush from the runs, per-form lift, building and equip-ment maintenance, work ski patrol, operate groomers, plan and implement im-provements, do accounting and other paperwork, and make sure the ski area meets federal regulations.
Zwang is board president of the non-profit organiza-tion that manages and main-tains Turner Mountain. It is called the Kootenai Winter Sports Ski Education Founda-tion, Inc. The organization has been a 501c3 since 2000-2001, said Zwang, and prior to that it was a community corporation. The group de-cided to become a non-profit to qualify for grants and en-courage tax deductible dona-tions.
Zwang said, “It’s definitely not about making money, it’s about keeping great skiing close to home. “It would be hard to image Libby without Turner Mountain.”
Dave Anderson agrees. Dave’s father, Elmer Ander-son was one of the founding members that helped con-ceive and build the ski area.
Turner Mountain began operating in 1960 after a group of motivated volun-teers got together aiming to build a bigger better ski hill. Prior to 1960, Ski Dale, the sledding hill near Libby Ele-mentary School was used for skiing.
Above: A group of volunteers pose with a chair in celebration of a job well done after the lift was installed in 2001. Back: Kurt Spencer, Jeff Zwang, Mitch Mickelson, unknown, Dave Zwang and Gene Driggers. Front: Bill Frazey, Tim Scharnon and Bruce Zwang.
In March of 1960 the vol-unteer group organized as Kootenai Winter Sports and sold stocks for $10 per share. Other members of the group included Dick Hennessey, Gene Buti, and Jerry Rawles who was also involved with a ski area in Great Falls before moving to Libby.
The mountain was chosen, according to Frazey, because “it was accessible, road-wise and there weren’t any trees back then.” Fires in 1910 and 1940 had cleared much of the timber from the moun-tain making it an ideal loca-tion for skiing.
The group also considered Blue Mountain, Quartz Moun-tain and Hemlock Creek, An-derson recalled.
The name Turner moun-tain was already established, Zwang said. The name may have come from a man in the Civilian Conservation Corps who lived in a cabin near the base of the mountain in the 1930s. According to Frazey, a look out tower remained on the top of Turner Mountain until 1961.
Even at it’s beginning Turner Mountain relied on volunteers. St. Regis Paper Company paid $1 to the state of Montana for an easement to construct the access road to the base of the mountain. Fuzzy Spencer, a local logger volunteered to cut the access and according to Anderson, “It’s been a volunteer led endeavor ever since.”
The USFS issued a special use permit, and then adults and high school students helped clear the access road, parking lot and lift line areas. The Neils family, of J. Neils Lumber Company provided critical support with equip-ment and manpower to help the cause.
In the fall of 1960, volun-teers installed a 1,200 foot rope tow. They built a 20 by 40 foot warming lodge, and Turner Mountain began. Barb Anderson, Dave’s wife recalled “you could go through a pair of gloves a day on that old rope tow.”
After just one season, the Libby community raised $70,000 to purchase and install a mile long Constam T-bar. Upon it’s completion Libby had the longest T-bar in North America. Volunteers did all of the work including the construction of 17 towers in a ten month period.
According to research done by Brad Mohr, over 400 people attended the opening ceremony held on Feb. 11, 1962, but Turner Mountain officially opened to the public on Jan. 13 of that year.
Above: Numerous volunteers pitch in during construction of the chair lift. Photo cour-tesy of Dave and Barb Anderson.
Nearly 40 years later another volunteer-led effort replaced the T-bar with a chair lift. The business and construction plan for the lift was started in the mid to late 1990s, Zwang recalled. “Seven people got together to purchase the used chair lift and then raise money for redesign and reconstruc-tion,” he said. The lift came from the Snoqualmie resort near Seattle and was bought during the summer of 1999.
The chair lift was pur-chased over a year before the money was raised to install it. This time, Anderson said, chairs were sold for $500 and towers for $1,000 to raise matching grant funds. Money was also raised through fundraisers like the ski swap, Turner’s fun night, by individual donations, and with a low interest economic development loan. Barb An-derson remembers that some Canadians donated to the cause. Even though they don’t live here, she said, “They understand that we’ve got a gem here.”
The lift was built be-tween the 2000-01 and 2001-02 ski seasons. Zwang said, “We had 6-8 months, and the project was massive.” It required 58 truck loads of concrete, and each load had to be tested to make sure it met standards for strength. Two crews were working at once, one was at the old mill site refinishing, grinding, priming and repairing tow-ers and chairs. The other was on the mountain prepping the site. “Many of us had jobs and we were working there during our evenings and weekends for months,” he said. The towers were put up in July, and a lot of people took time off of work to make it happen.
Putting the cable for the chair lift up was a significant challenge. The $50,000 cable was 11,000 feet long and weighed 42,000 pounds. It was on a single spool. Mon-tana Machine loaned them a large steel shaft and they put a tag line into all of the tow-ers first. Volunteers hooked into the tag line and pulled the cable up by machines. It was scary, Zwang said, “If we’d have lost that, it would have been back to the bot-tom and taken out all of the towers with it. We were sweating bullets on that pro-ject, but luckily we had Pat Hanley who just happened to have the right equipment and volunteered to help.”
Jeff Zwang, Bruce’s son had to jump six feet off of the chairs into the snow 126 times over when it was time to hang the chairs, Zwang shared.
“When opening day final-ly arrived on Jan. 4, 2002 there were mass amounts of kids skipping school,” Zwang said.
Volunteers don’t just make Turner Mountain func-tion, they make the Turner experience what it is.
Volunteer Scott Kirschen-mann explained that Turner Mountain is different be-cause it isn’t about the highly marketed experience of ski-ing, it’s about the skiing or snowboarding experience itself. He calls it “steep, deep and cheap” and he even car-ries business cards that say so.
His wife Hope, explained that Turner feels like a big family because volunteers are always there to help. She and Barb Anderson agreed that raising their kids at Turner Mountain was a posi-tive experience because they felt safe having not just fami-ly but nearly everybody on the mountain watching over them.
Petrusha echoed these sentiments of uniqueness when he shared that “Frazey is a friendly, laughing person that personifies Turner Mountain and the family-oriented, fun establishment. Is he the heart—no, is he the reason it works—no, there are many good people who work hard to make it work; but Bill’s approach is unique, and his efforts help to make Turner Mountain a very unique ski area.”
Another volunteer that helped to make Turner Mountain unique was Art Purdy. There were 126 chairs to sand and repaint when the lift was being in-stalled, said Zwang. One day, they realized 125 of the chairs had been painted green and one was red white and blue. Nobody knew why. It was Art who painted the red white and blue chair which became the “American chair” and number one on the lift.
About four years later, Zwang said, volunteers add-ed a Canadian chair. “The Canadians just loved it when we added that chair, they thought it was the nicest thing we could do for them.”
Byron Phillips later painted the Bobcats chair. When asked why there is no Grizzlies chair, Zwang said, “I’m a Griz too, we’d proba-bly be open to a Griz chair, but not too many more. It’s really tough to keep up on repainting them.”
Every volunteer inter-viewed by The Montanian naturally named other volun-teers that make significant contributions to the ski area. Larry Hilderman, a volunteer on ski patrol for the past five or six years was quick to point out the work of a num-ber of others including John Head, Mike Giesey, Bill Pep-per, David Neuman, Dave Blackburn and Steve Bryant. “These people,” Larry said, “have put more time into this hill than anyone on patrol, and then there are all of the other volunteers here too.”
We have a lot of great people, Frazey agreed. “Willie Schikora, for example, will turn 80 this year and has worked hundreds and hun-dreds of hours out here,” said Frazey.
Zwang pointed out that “Scott (Kirschenmann) and Tony (Petrusha) are invalua-ble.” Scott is an electrician who was busy fixing a sink in the kitchen when we arrived on Saturday morning.
“Tony and Scott,” he said, “just jumped in with both feet. You’ve got to be sharp to do that and these guys bring expertise that we need and just couldn’t pay for.”
He continued, “We’re lucky in that way. It seems like somebody always shows up. It’s always been people who care about the hill and just want to see it keep go-ing. I know I do,” Zwang said.
Dave Anderson agreed. He said “It’s kind of a passion for a lot of us. It’s in my blood and I’m lucky to have the winters off so I can be here.” He’d been working ski patrol for four straight days because the mountain had been rented during the week we visited.
Zwang said, “There are a lot of volunteers I don’t know what we’d do without.”
Brad Mohr summed it up perfectly. He wrote, “Turner has survived forty years be-cause of community volun-teers. It would be impossible to name all the people who have helped over the years, yet Turner Mountain is a unique place with a feeling of family and tradition.”
The unique small-town tradition continues at Turner Mountain, and locals are always encouraged to spend time there.
Frazey said, “We want to generate public interest, and we want public participa-tion.”
Zwang agreed and said, “What’s built Turner and kept it going is the dedica-tion and quality of the volun-teers. Our focus is to keep affordable skiing here in Libby for everyone to enjoy.”