When I was little, there weren't a lot of child care problems—at least in the winter. Once a thick layer of snow had covered our mountain home, my parents always had the option of just dropping me off at the small local ski hill, where I could spend hours whizzing down the slopes, along with all the other kids whose parents had dropped them at the base.
We would conquer the mountain via the rope tow. Later, when a single chairlift was installed, no one could hold us back. We were a pint-sized gang on tiny skis. We ruled the slopes, hurling ourselves downhill with reckless abandon, brushing off the occasional tumble with laughs and recuperating in the small lodge with a cup of hot chocolate and a frosted donut. That mountain was nothing short of glorious freedom.
It was more than a decade later before I learned my "freedom" was actually being closely monitored by every employee on the mountain, who radioed my goings-on to my father. See, at the time, my grandparents owned the little hill--Summit Ski Area on Mt. Hood in Oregon. For a short time, that chairlift was actually named after me, and every morning, my grandmother made those donuts we devoured.
The ski business was my family's business long before even my father was born, but I wasn't the only one who felt at home on the handful of runs at Summit. It was the local ski hill, not the iconic Timberline just up the road, or even Mt. Hood Ski Bowl, where flocks of skiers from Portland would head every evening after work for night skiing--and one in which my family also had an interest.
But when it comes to mom-and-pop ski areas, the sense of community ownership often outweighs legal ownership. In other words, Mom and Pop don't actually have to own the ski area to feel possessive about it.
It's a feeling shared by nearly every skier and snowboarder, most of whom learned the sport on the slopes of a small ski area close to home rather than the big resorts with names known around the world.
Idaho is filled with small ski hills, places where "high-speed quad" refers to four fast skiers, and equipment comes in two varieties: used and new-to-them.
"We have a very strong sense of ownership among community members," said Mary Reichman, general manager of Pebble Creek Ski Area, south of Pocatello. "This is their hill."
And while their glitzier neighbors get more of the attention, it's the small areas that are the backbone of the ski and snowboard industry.
In fact, 269 of the 473 operating ski areas in the United States are considered small areas, according to Troy Hawks, communications manager for the National Ski Areas Association.
NSAA measures capacity by how many vertical feet per hour a ski area can move visitors (via chairlift, rope tow or other method of conveyance). The majority move skiers and riders 2,999 feet or less, and an additional 85 move them less than 5,999 feet per hour. Only 60 resorts have the capacity to move visitors more than 12,000 feet per hour.
"Clearly, there's a lot of smaller ski areas," Hawks said.
Many of these smaller areas are privately owned, nonprofits or owned by municipalities, although several are part of larger corporations. But the common characteristic remains a connection to the community not seen in the big resorts.
"There's a certain quaintness to them that cannot be artificially replicated," Hawks said, recalling the small ski area where he learned to ski in Wisconsin. " A lot of resorts try, but they can't do it."
A case study can be found just north of Boise at Tamarack Resort, where developers tried to plop down a ready-made ski resort rather than letting one grow organically from the support of a community and skiers. And while Tamarack's much-publicized financial woes make a 2009-2010 season doubtful at best, its neighbor, the Little Ski Hill in McCall, continues to chug away after more than 70 years.
The hill--which features just 400 vertical feet, a single T-bar, five runs and night skiing--opened in 1937 as a private ski area for employees of the Brown Tie and Lumber Company and their families. When the company left, the ski hill continued and is now under the stewardship of the nonprofit Payette Lake Ski Club.
On any given winter day, between four and five employees can run the hill, with only the lift operators and the manager drawing a salary. The rest is done on a volunteer basis.
"It's a labor of love," said Colby Nielsen, the Little Ski Hill's program director. Nielsen, who moved back to McCall just a few years ago, learned to ski on those same slopes.
The area depends heavily on donations, grants and the proceeds from an assortment of fundraisers held throughout the year. The limited funds mean the budget for upgrades is minimal, but thanks to the work of volunteers, the hill runs a large after-school program for students in the area.
"The advantage for us is where we are, and what we do, caters to the kids and the community and getting them out to learn to ski and snowboard," Nielsen said.
Up to 90 kids a day will turn out to take advantage of lessons and a ski pass, and considering an adult day pass is only $11, locals are apt to turn out whenever they have the time.
There are no rentals, and the area is closed on Sunday and Monday, but still, locals stay true to the Little Ski Hill.
"[The area is] cool because of the history in the community," Nielsen said. "There are so many people who have gone through over the years who have run and kept it going."
That sense of nostalgia often brings skiers and boarders back to the hills where they first learned. Even after years of building up to the bigger mountains, it's often those little hills where they return as they get older, like the ski version of spawning salmon.
Such is the case at Kelly Canyon Ski Resort in Ririe, near Idaho Falls, where mountain manager Danny Harris learned to ski on the same hill where his grandchildren are now taking up the sport.
Kelly Canyon was founded in 1957 by a group of farmers who decided they wanted their own ski hill after visiting Sun Valley.
"They just wanted to ski," Harris said.
They already owned the land, so, come winter, they would put a tractor at the top of the hill and attach a cable that would haul up a makeshift sled full of skiers standing sideways in their skis. Usually, this worked just fine, but occasionally, a group of would-be skiers took an unexpected sledding adventure. The area's first two lifts were made in a farmer's shed in 1960.
Now, with the addition of land leased from the U.S. Forest Service, Kelly Canyon has four lifts, roughly 950 vertical feet and night skiing. The ski area is still privately owned and still depends on the loyalty of the community.
Like the Little Ski Hill, Kelly Canyon runs a large after-school ski education program for regional schools, but the crowds come at night. Harris said on an average night, between 400 and 500 skiers and boarders will be on the slopes, many of them making the easy 25-mile drive from Idaho Falls after work.
The vast majority of clients are locals, and most of those are families who want to take advantage of an intermediate hill. A full 80 percent of people on the hill are usually snowboarders, and Kelly Canyon has created a terrain park with at least 10 features to draw the high-school crowd.
And while Kelly Canyon is larger than the Little Ski Hill, with a 1,000-foot elevation drop, 26 runs, four lifts and two rope tows spread across 640 acres of mostly beginner and intermediate terrain, it still puts its focus on being the community ski hill.
"It's more of a hometown feeling," Harris said. "People come up all the time, and all the employees know them.
"Those who return, we see them years and years and years," he said. "That's one thing that's nice; as they get older, they come back."
Keeping those skiers coming back is key not only to individual resorts, but to the industry as a whole.
Even the biggest ski areas see the importance of the small hills as a way to create the next generation of skiers.
"You learn at a smaller area, and as you progress, you hope to go visit the larger [resorts]. But the smaller [area] is the first-time experience for skiers and boarders in the U.S.," Hawks said. "It adds to the health and longevity of the industry."
"I've had many mangers at bigger hills say it's their farm team," said Cliff Tacke, former director at Cottonwood Butte Ski Area.
While every ski area is competing for limited discretionary dollars, most of the small guys don't see it as a matter of competing against each other, or even against the larger resorts.
"Even though, technically, we're competitors, for the most part, we're family with other resorts," Pebble Creek's Reichman said. "If anyone makes a new skier somewhere, it benefits all of us."
Pebble Creek is doing its part to get skiers on the hill, creating numerous specials designed to keep people skiing, despite tight budgets.
"We realize that within the community we have people who might want to ski, that have been laid off or have different income levels," Reichman said. "We feel very strongly about giving back to the community."
Those specials include major discounts for tickets bought with advertising partners or free skiing for kids after 3 p.m. following the switch to daylight savings time.
"Because we're small, we can do things like that," Reichman said.
In its 60th year, Pebble Creek has grown from a rope tow-only resort started by a private group of skiers, to a hill with three triple chairlifts, 2,200 vertical feet of drop, 54 named runs and a reputation for backcountry glade skiing.
Still, community remains the focus with an expansive after-school program and specials for families.
"With being a small area, we are able to get to know our guests and specially design programming for our community," she said. "We have a lot of kids that, over the last 20 years, learned to ski in after-school programs that are coming back with their small kids."
That's exactly what Tacke did at Cottonwood Butte Ski Area, north of Grangeville in North Central Idaho.
Tacke started skiing on the small hill when he was in the eighth grade, later returning with his own children and eventually joining the ski area's the board of directors.
The hill was started in the 1960s by a group of locals who secured lease agreements on private land. The group bought Bogus Basin Mountain Resort's old T-bar, hired someone to log the runs and built a small lodge. The private corporation was replaced in 1990 by a nonprofit, which continues to run Cottonwood.
When the original used T-bar finally wore out, the volunteer board of directors found two old T-bars at other small Idaho resorts and cobbled them together. Now, one T-bar (which happens to be 3,000-feet long) and a rope tow take local skiers up the 845 vertical feet to explore seven largely intermediate runs spread across the 260 acres of the area.
Of course, it's not the amenities that make Cottonwood interesting, it's the location. To reach the base, visitors drive along the outer fence of the North Idaho Correctional Institute--a minimum-security prison--and at the top of the butte lie the remains of a Cold War era radar station. Its unique location, along with some tongue-in-cheek humor, inspired the ski area's slogan of "Escape to Cottonwood Butte."
It's the same sort of individualistic attitude that has kept the ski area going on a limited budget.
"There's some pride of, not necessarily ownership, but pride of keeping it going and making it work," Tacke said. "[When I was on the board, we] took a lot of satisfaction in keeping it going and having it financially solvent."
Part of survival mode has been a willingness to scrounge hand-me-down equipment from the bigger areas for the hill and the rental program.
"Sometimes we get last year's new stuff," he said.
Cottonwood Butte is only open on Friday nights and weekends, but it has endeared itself to the community.
"The community has loyalty," Tacke said. "They know that they can go there and they'll be treated well, and your rig is really unlikely to be vandalized and, if it is, there will be hell to pay.
"[Parents] can drop their grade-school-aged kids off and be assured they'll be taken care of. If the kids misbehave, they're going to get a phone call," he added with a laugh, explaining the many advantages of life in a small town.
Of course, small towns also mean an end to night skiing once high school basketball gets going since there just aren't enough people around to turn on the lights for.
Getting enough people up the hill is not a problem Bogus Basin, Boise's own community ski hill, has had to deal with much in recent years. While Bogus seems too large to be considered a small ski area, with 1,800 feet of vertical drop, 54 runs, two quad lifts, one triple and four doubles, its staff still see it as a community hill.
"We're fond of saying we're the best local ski resort in the country," said Bogus spokeswoman Gretchen Anderson. "We're not a destination resort, we're the grandmama of mom-and-pop areas."
While skier visits were down by 5,000 last year compared to the 2008-2009 season, totaling roughly 334,000, the area was still able to finish a profitable year, and 2,200 season passes have already been sold for the 2009-2010 season, Anderson said.
Bogus has long been a nonprofit organization, which has been the starting place for many local skiers and snowboarders.
Anderson has a unique understanding of the realities of small ski areas. She grew up in the business and her parents own Pomerelle Mountain in Southeast Idaho.
"Everyone loves their own small, hometown hill," she said. "It's where you learned to ski or snowboard.
"People have a soft place in their hearts."
While Bogus Basin has no anticipated opening date, crews are readying the area to be able to open as soon as there's enough snow on the ground. In the meantime, the resort is still cutting locals a deal with discounted season passes through the end of November.
While being the small guy on the block can be challenging, as the economy turned last year, the little ski hills found themselves in an enviable situation.
"We found, last year, that smaller resorts were in a more ideal position," Hawks said, explaining that smaller size equates to smaller lift ticket price and a more family oriented experience.
Additionally, local ski hills are temptingly close, cutting the cost of transportation and eliminating sometimes costly lodging expenses.
"In this economy, we believe [our location] benefits us," Anderson said. "Our sales are down in terms of lessons and lease packages, but we know that our skiers and riders are going to stay close."
Nationally, skier visits were down roughly 5 percent last year in comparison to the previous season, but it still managed to be the sixth best season on record, Hawks said.
"In tough economic times, the ski industry holds up well," he said. "Skiers and riders have to go or they will go crazy and their heads will pop off."
Small ski areas around the country are doing what they can to prevent that kind of frustration-induced mass decapitation by giving skiers and boarders an inexpensive and nostalgic outlet for their winter needs.
As for my own winter needs, they have changed over the decades. These days, I'm far more likely to be found enjoying apres ski, or even pre-ski, than barreling down the slopes. When I am on snow, it's usually with my Nordic skis or snowshoes.
But I can't help but smile as I remember those early days on the mountain. I can almost hear my mother yelling at me to let go of the rope and roll out of the way as my prostrate form was being unceremoniously dragged uphill by the rope tow. The smell of fresh donuts still transports me back to childhood on the hill.
Who knows, maybe someday I'll return to the mountain where I took my first turns. Although, like with all things we experience as children, I'm a little worried the hill will look much smaller than it did when I was 3.