When someone does, the money comes in handy. Turner's annual operating budget, garnered mainly from ticket sales, is $20,000. One third is used to pay insurance premiums, the other two thirds for upkeep. "If anything major happens," says Buti, "like if the lift breaks—we're still using the original cable from '61—the area is out of business. We're dead." A running joke in Libby is that whoever wins the lottery must buy the ski area a new chairlift, and it is, in fact, seeking to raise money for a new lift.
That T bar, though, is what separates Turner from every other ski hill in the country. Turner's ancient lift yanks you out of the base shack with a back-wrenching jolt, then proceeds to bounce irritably up the hill. By the time you reach Turner's 5,950-foot summit 15 minutes later, your legs are weary. And you haven't even begun to ski.
The slopes, especially on a Saturday, when the snow that has fallen all week lies deep and untracked, are better than those at most resorts. Turner was built on the site of a large burn, eliminating the need to cut down many trees and producing runs that are wide-open and very fast. The snow at Turner has a tendency to fall lightly. When your ski tips slice through it, great swirls of powder circle you, like billowing curtains. And with so few skiers, there is little danger of running into someone else. The only real hazards are the so-called moose holes, craters in the snow where moose have spent the night.
While the U.S. Forest Service actually owns Turner, construction of the area was a grassroots affair: The capital, a total of $100,000, was provided by the J. Neils Lumber Company and other local businesses, and much of the labor was done by the citizens of Libby. A holding company called Kootenai Winter Sports was formed, and everyone who contributed to building the ski area was given shares of stock.
"We've lost track of who the shareholders are, but that doesn't really matter," says Jerry Rawles, 65, who served as president of Kootenai Winter Sports during Turner's construction. "Turner Mountain has never turned a profit and probably never will."
There was a time, though, when people thought Turner was going to be a boon to Libby's economy. It snows an average of 20 feet a year on the hill, and the evergreen-covered mountains of the Northern Rockies are spectacularly beautiful. Why wouldn't tourists pay to ski in such a setting? It turns out that droves of people do pay to ski in the region, but not at Turner. Soon after the mountain was opened, multimillion-dollar expansions were undertaken at resorts on either side of the ski area: at Schweitzer Mountain in Sandpoint, Idaho, 90 miles to the west of it, and at Big Mountain in Whitefish, Mont., 105 miles to the east.
"Schweitzer and Big Mountain smashed any plans we had of Turner making money," says Rawles, who now lives near Seattle but occasionally returns to Turner. "So we simply let it all stay the same, a sort of living monument to the past. The biggest change in the last three decades was replacing the outhouses with port-a-potties."
And although recent increases in the price of lift tickets at both Schweitzer and Big Mountain have resulted in more people visiting Turner, its skiers remain resolutely old-fashioned. You'll never hear anyone at Turner complain of the cold or the lack of amenities or even the absence of easy terrain. "The place was built by ski addicts and is still home to ski addicts," says Rawles. "And as far as Turner skiers are concerned, we have all the luxuries we'll ever need: a good mountain, good skiers and good snow."