Small Time

There are those who say skiing is for the rich, and to a degree they’re right. When you look at the iconic resorts across the west – Vail, Jackson Hole, Telluride, Park City, Sun Valley – you can expect $200 or more just for a one-day lift ticket. That’s right, no hotel, food, or equipment rental included. What’s worse is that over the past 10-20 years the ski industry has been cannibalizing itself and as you would expect when the big get bigger, it’s all about the Benjamins (do people still say that?). Vail Corporation, perhaps the largest of the large has been scooping up resorts across the country and looking for ways to squeeze more dollars out of an already pricey experience. Aside from inflated lift tickets, the strategy typically involves more development in the form of half-occupied condos and high-end faux western shopping. So yeh, I get it when people think skiing is a rich man’s (and woman’s) game.

My first experiences of skiing were not week-long family vacations to destination resorts, but day trips in high school to the “mountains” of eastern Pennsylvania. Fixed gripped doubles and tow ropes carried denim and camo clad patrons to the top of stadium lit slopes. The snow was terrible, but cruising around with friends and warming up with hot chocolate and hot dogs in stove warmed lodges is a fond memory. Thankfully, despite the trend towards the 1% there remains a network of independent home-town hills that provide communities across the country the same joy-filled experience of skiing that I remember. Even better is that you can still find these experiences thanks to the Indypass, a collective style season pass that provides access to 120+ independent ski resorts across North America from North Carolina to Alaska. For the last three seasons this has been our preferred ski pass, and one that Dana and I used to not only enjoy familiar regional resorts, but to explore new places across the northwest. 

A ski area that embodies that local roots experience that I remember is Pomerelle Mountain Resort in the Albion mountains of southern Idaho. Located 30 miles northeast from the state border with Nevada and Utah, Pomerelle for all intensive purpose is out there. The nearest town to the resort is Albion, home for some 250 residents. 50 minutes away is Burley, Idaho with a modest population of 11,000 residents. Yet this 500-acre family-owned resort has been turning chairs for over 60 years. The original operations started in 1940, with a cabin and tow rope built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. After World War Two, a group of ski enthusiast relocated the resort “up the canyon” to its present-day location. In 1973 the resort was purchased by Woody and Sandy Anderson and has remained family owned ever since.

Standing at the base area, directly behind the log-cabin lodge you can take in most of the resort. Two chairlifts take skiers to a summit of a surprising 8,762 feet, making it the second highest ski hill in Idaho (Sun Valley’s Mt Baldy is the highest at an elevation of 9,150 feet). Most of the runs are modest, at a vertical drop of about 1,000 feet and many, if not all of the actual runs could be classified as intermediate. The statistics may not make you jump out of your chair and grab your ski boots, but don’t be fooled Pomerelle receives an annual average of 500 inches of snow and as their motto affectionately states “What the hell, ski Pomerelle”.

So Dana and I decided to take the resort up on its claims and made a weekend trip of it. We even managed to sell a few friends on the idea of a destination ski trip…wait where is this place? Our friends Kris and Paula decided to join us for some back-lot camping, others opted for the one and only hotel in Albion, which as with the rest of the trip was a pleasant surprise. 

What wasn’t so pleasant was discovering that we had forgotten to turn the camper on, a necessary pre-trip step should you want to have enough battery life to power the heater at night when temperatures dip below 20. Thankfully we were able to phone John who was coming the next day and brought our power cord and his portable battery bank saving our soon to be frozen bacon.

Despite the frigid night, we woke with high spirits to see what Pomelle had in store. Several storm systems had passed through the Albion mountains throughout the week and the forecast called for more over the course of the weekend. While we waited for our friends to arrive we headed to the lodge for coffee and to warm our feet by the wood stove fire. Normally I’m pealing layers off in the lodge, but I kept my jacket zipped and winter hat on while my core temperature clawed its way back from frozen. 

Our friends finally arrived and after a short exchange of good mornings we headed out to catch the “summit” chair. With the all-to-familiar fixed-grip knee slap we settled in for the first chair ride of the day. We scanned the runs below getting a lay of the land and scouting out stashes of untracked snow. At the top as folks strapped into boards and adjusted boot buckles, we debated where to begin. With little visibility and no experienced Pomerellians, I shrugged my shoulders and pointed to a blue run ahead of us. Goggled heads bobbed in seeming agreement and away we went. The snow felt good on the wide cruising run. I stopped midway to look back and found we literally had the whole run to ourselves, a common theme we’d experience most of the morning.

As we became more familiar with the mountain, we began to spend the chair rides scanning the tree lines. The snow looked pretty good and the tree spacing manageable. Off the chair we headed back to an outer perimeter run where the snow seemed to pile up on the shoulder. As I made my first turn I felt that joyful, playful feeling that you only get from your skis floating in powder. I heard “woops” and “weees” as friends cut similar lines around me ducking in and out of trees. Soon we were chasing each other through the woods like a winter version of Marco-Polo. As we popped out at the bottom of the run, all smiles we looked around and took a head count- all present. We pushed off back to the chair to see what other hidden gems we could find.

At mid-day we stopped for a parking lot tailgate and impromptu dance party. Another advantage of smaller resorts is that your car is never that far away, so you can bring a chair, share some food and should the mood and music strike, do a little mid-day dance to keep the legs loose. And since you didn’t drop two paychecks (at least for me) to ski, there is a lot less pressure to see it all and ski it all, so you don’t feel guilty spending time relaxing mid-day. 

After a few more hours and heavy legs, we decided best to call it a day. All too happy to wrench off ski boots, we cheered a beer before John, Duane, and Michael started the trek back to Boise. About the same time the snow started to fly and the wind kicked up sending us retreating to our mobile accommodations. In the evening Kris and Paula came over to Roadhouse for some evening cocktails and hilarious card games. By the time we were ready for bed, our cheeks were just as sore from laughing as our legs were from skiing.

In the morning I poked my head out of the camper to find it had snowed several inches overnight, though it was hard to tell how much given the wind. After gathering our gear we said our goodbyes to our parking lot companions who were off to ski another Indy resort Soldier Mountain. In their place we would meet up with Emily and Luke, but not before checking out the lodge’s breakfast burritos and a second cup of coffee.

Riding our first chair of the day we scanned the mountain and found that much of the snow from the previous night blew into the trees and bowls we’d explored the day before. Excited with the refreshed conditions we headed off to a few choice tree runs we’d found the day prior. The powdery runs brought smiles to our faces, but our tired legs seemed to grimace. At lunch we met up with Emily and Luke who had unexpectedly brought Jello-shots. Why not? Boozy sugar consumed we were happy to show our new ski companions our favorite runs. 

With each turn of the chair my reaction time seemed to get a little slower, making skiing in the trees a bit harder and a bit more hazardous. Thankfully the rest of the group was experiencing the same thing and we collectively decided it best to call it a wrap. In the parking lot, we packed up vehicles, reminisced on the weekend’s highlights, and said our goodbyes. I gave one last look at the log cabin lodge and smiled. Pomerelle might not make the destination list for most people, but with its hidden tree runs, hometown feel, and parking lot camping, it is definitely on mine.

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