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Skiing Apres-Apocalypse at Tamarack Resort

Private winter wonderland sits idle this winter

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From 6,000 feet up, shin deep in decent, mid-mountain powder, Tamarack Resort could be any old ski hill after the apocalypse. Not a soul is around. The wooden signposts that once named the resort's runs stand blank, staving off insurance claims from lost or injured poachers. The Tyvek-wrapped and abandoned $105 million Village Plaza project--what was to be the heart of this billion-dollar central Idaho resort--rises above scenic Lake Cascade. A cold, immobilized crane rises even higher above the scenery, which arguably rivals any ski-to-lake viewshed anywhere.

It was too early to get in many turns, but about a few dozen people made the haul up here on a recent weekend, lounging in front of the fireplaces in brand-spanking-new ski chalets, pumping up the still gleaming stereos and flat screen TVs, soaking in the ubiquitous hot tubs (without fear of voyeurs), wandering into the Lodge at Osprey Meadows in search of signs that some of the human race has survived.

Dean Holmes, a former Tamarack employee who now works for Tamarack homeowners maintaining the public areas of the lodge, said it was surprisingly busy during the golf season. But he admits the resort needs a winter salvation.

"There's nothing without the skiing," Holmes said.

Holmes and many of the people who bought homes at Tamarack or depend on the resort for income in Valley County are optimistic that a buyer will schuss in and save the six-year-young project.

"There's too much infrastructure to just let it sit," Holmes told me as I warmed up in the lodge with my party of six, munching on canned nuts that we had packed in.

But for now, with control of the resort--and the fate of scores of creditors--dependent on a recent involuntary bankruptcy filing or a March foreclosure hearing, even a sensible cat-skiing plan for the hill, on which many boosters were depending, is now in doubt.

Mac Mackaben, a veteran powder guide and professional bird hunter from Jackson, Wyo., has been in McCall tuning up Tamarack's three snowcats and waiting for snow. His plan was to run a shuttle from the base of Tamarack to the top to give a limited number of people a "controlled backcountry experience."

"It might be some goodwill for people because people have been stung real bad," Mackaben said.

Mackaben planned to charge $18 to $20 per run, and said he'd be able to farm out the powder so that skiers would get freshies on most runs. He also wants to run a snow-tubing concession. But now his plan has hit some snags with insurance and licensing and remains tentative.

Still, Tamarack is a convenient pile of snow, close to Boise with tons of skiable terrain and cheap deals on places to stay--call them cabins if you like--right at the base. The problem is the mountain is technically private property, though most of it sits on state endowment land. Tamarack is current on its $250,000 state land lease payments, according to George Bacon, director of the Idaho Department of Lands, though another payment is due in January.

So what can you do at Tamarack? You could hike up, but the management (what's left of it) frowns upon that. However, one "official" told me he would not be chasing skiers up the mountain, even though hiking up could be considered trespassing.

Another option is to go in from the Poison Creek drainage south of the resort. Tamarack had a permit from the Boise National Forest to conduct guided backcountry ski operations on some 5,000 acres there, but the permit has been abandoned, according to Carol McCoy Brown, district ranger in Cascade.

McCoy Brown said the area is now open to snowmobilers or skiers who want to skin up. The drainage will take you to the top of West Mountain, where there is plenty of National Forest land to access if you take proper avalanche and winter travel precautions.

Of course, even that plan depends on more snow rather than the dry cold of 16 below that Long Valley experienced last week.

"What the winter is going to be like is the great big unknown," said Cyndi Bonetti, who manages 81 homes at Tamarack, including many rentals. "If Mother Nature blesses us with snow, they will come."

Bonetti, who rented us a fully loaded three-story duplex at the base of the mountain for $100 a night (plus a steep cleaning fee), is ready to wheel and deal for rentals, even on craigslist, if need be.

"When Tamarack closed last March, the big scare was, there won't be anything to do," said Bonetti. She was the resort's seventh employee in 2003 but got out a few years before Tamarack declared bankruptcy and closed last spring.

But Bonetti said that everyone who stays here enjoys the peace and tranquility, though many wish for a restaurant. (I'd settle for a mere bar; hell, they're allowed a dozen liquor licenses or something.)

Doug Dvorak, an international humorous motivational speaker from Chicago who built a house at Tamarack in 2005, still plans to spend the winter here and is expecting a few limited winter amenities.

"It's just going to be a really different way for people to enjoy the mountain," he said. "If I need a downhill fix with a lift, I just go to Brundage."