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In Rushmore's Shadow

In Rushmore's Shadow

Travel
By Reade Bailey
posted: 10/17/2000

On the beginner slope at South Dakota's Terry Peak Ski Area, the Johnny Appleseed of Midwestern skiing wears sunglasses, a spiky hairdo and a name badge that reads Ski School Director. The seedlings on this day are 50 third-graders from Newcastle, Wyo., who have each paid $5 to learn to ski. "These kids are the future of the sport," says Ed Sewell, the ski school director, as he oversees the chaotic scene. "In the last dozen years, we've had nearly 50,000 students¿from as far away as 250 miles¿go through our school program. We're spreading the word of skiing and snowboarding here."

With its extensive learn-to-ski program and affordable prices, Terry Peak is the ultimate hometown hill. It draws skiers from all of South Dakota and slices of Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota. Midwesterners drive up to eight hours to sample the 1,052-foot vertical, new high-speed quad and bigger-mountain feel of Terry Peak. They are also drawn to the splendor of the Black Hills for countless other attractions, including snowmobiling, visiting nearby Mount Rushmore and gambling in historic Deadwood, just three miles from the ski area.

Since gambling was legalized a decade ago, more than $85 million has been spent restoring the Victorian architecture of Deadwood and opening some 80 hotels, restaurants, bars and casinos. This town, which boomed in the late 1800s with the discovery of gold and attracted such infamous Western characters as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, is thriving again. Deadwood's centerpiece is the Midnight Star, opened by actor Kevin Costner in 1991 after he fell in love with the area while filming Dances with Wolves. The three-story building houses a sports bar with a collection of Costner's movie memorabilia, a casino and arguably South Dakota's finest restaurant.

The revitalization of Deadwood has helped spur recent improvements at Terry Peak, which originally opened in the Thirties with a lone ropetow built by the Bald Mountain Ski Club. Chairlifts were first installed during the Fifties and snowmaking added in the Eighties. The most dramatic upgrade in Terry Peak's history came last season, with the installation of the Kussy Express high-speed quad. "We are showing the people of South Dakota that we are for real," says ski area General Manager Tom Marsing.

A native of Aspen, Colo., Marsing worked for years as director of operations at Sunrise Ski Area in Arizona. He was lured to South Dakota two years ago by Terry Peak's majority owner, the Golden Reward Mining Company, to help reinvigorate the ski area. Terry Peak's loyal skiers have been almost giddy over the new lift¿nearly 1,000 of them showed up in October 1999 just to watch a helicopter fly in the lift towers. When the season started a month later, some 6,000 people had bought season passes, most of them from within the 100-mile radius that includes Spearfish and Rapid City, S.D.

The Christensens of Rapid City are passholders and typical Terry Peak skiers. On a late-February day, Jim and Dawn Christensen are rewarding their 17-year-old son, Tyler, with a day off from school for his good grades. Making the hour drive from Rapid City and skiing at Terry Peak is a family tradition, says Jim, who learned to ski here 30 years ago at age 12. "There's nothing within 400 miles that's better," he says.

For a hometown hill, Terry Peak is the perfect size, with its five lifts and two dozen trails. "It's big enough for some variety, but small enough so parents feel comfortable unleashing their kids," says ski school director Sewell of the resort, which has averaged about 115,000 skier visits a year during the past decade. On the first morning of my visit to Terry Peak, the snow is still teeth-rattling firm on the Stewart Lodge side of the area, with its more northern exposure. At the suggestion of the Surprise Chair lift operator, I head for the sunnier trails off Empress Chair. On rolling, intermediate runs such as Homestake and Hoboo Queen, I find creamy, soft snow and make big, swooping turns on the wide-open runs, darting in and out of small glades.

Later in the day, I ride the Kussy Express with a couple of hardcore locals. Dave Akrop is a 53-year-old who owns the Deadwood Gravestone Company. "The ground is frozen during the winter, and you can't put gravestones in," he says. "So I ski." He sure does. Akrop puts in 70 days a season at Terry Peak and goes for maximum vertical, carrying a sandwich so he doesn't have to stop for lunch. His one-day record with the old lift was 39 runs; the new Kussy Express has helped him to top 60 runs in a day. Akrop is skiing today with Mark Sjomeling, a 41-year-old who works 12-hour shifts at a nearby gold mine so he has more time off to ski.

The pair takes me on an off-the-map adventure to Terry Peak's most challenging terrain. We traverse a long catwalk, past signs that warn of open mineshafts. I follow my guides through a narrow opening in the trees that drops off to our left. The trail is steep and narrow. This was the in-run to an old ski jump, Akrop says. Locals call the trail Avalanche. After less than 100 yards, we cut over to another steep face, which was once the landing for another ski jump. The natural snow-cover is sketchy and the run short, but the backcountry experience is an unexpected surprise.

The 7,076-foot summit of Terry Peak is the second highest in South Dakota, making for expansive views. If you can overlook the sad scar of an open-pit gold mine near the foot of Terry Peak, you see a wonderful tableau of mountains covered with the dark ponderosa pine forests that give the Black Hills their name. Looking out at the hills, with the sun's warmth on my face, I have new appreciation for an old Lakota Indian saying: "The Creator gave every part of the universe a song. Only in the Black Hills can the whole song be heard."

To be sure, Terry Peak's location is both a blessing and a curse. It can receive bountiful snowfall, only to see the snow quickly melted by warm, dry chinook winds. Nearby Spearfish has the dubious distinction of having the biggest, fastest temperature change ever recorded in the U.S. On a January day in 1943, the temperature soared from minus 4 degrees up to 45 in just two minutes.

Prior to my visit to Terry Peak in late February, a storm has dumped three feet of snow. The snow holds up at the ski area¿helped by a deep snowmaking base¿despite 60-degree temperatures. But down in the valleys, it melts so fast that the large snowmobile rental operations have to shut down.

On my last afternoon, I watch groups of young skiers on the hill. I know ski school director Sewell is there somewhere, spreading the word. A class skis down. The kids are in perfect wedges, flared out in a V-shape behind their instructor. They look like a flock of geese in formation. They're ready to take off.

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