Lookout Pass is not big: Its 195 skiable acres boast exactly one ropetow and one chairlift. It is not pretend-swanky: The most popular beer on tap in its warmly rustic 60-year-old day lodge is something called Moose Drool, and corn-battered french fries are the favored hot snack. And though the slopes lie only a few hundred yards from the rush of 18-wheelers on east-west Interstate 90, skiing at Lookout Pass is all about being transported back to a simpler, more leisurely alpine age. The chairlift is an old-style two-seater with a center pole; the early-bird season pass costs a paltry 125 bucks; and if you want to ski Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, well, you're simply out of luck. What is truly exceptional about Lookout Pass, however, is this: Not one person who skis or boards there would have it any other way¿not the septuagenarians warming their toes in the lodge; not their sons and daughters, who arrange shifts at the local mines so they can get first crack at every Thursday's bounty of untracked snow; and certainly not their grandchildren, who frolic blithely on Lookout's wide-open trails during every Saturday's Free Ski School.
Founded in 1936 by a group of local ski enthusiasts, Lookout Pass is one of the oldest continuously operating ski areas in the United States. Perched on the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains in northern Idaho's panhandle, straddling the Idaho/Montana state line, the ski area is near nothing in particular except a few towns that were healthy and prosperous when silver mining was healthy and prosperous (that is, until the early Nineties). Veritable tumbleweeds blow through the Silver Valley's once thriving towns, which now are principally the domain of retirees, the occasional crystal-meth manufacturer, summer tourists and miners who work when they can. Nearby Wallace (a designated historic district complete with a Carnegie Library, dozens of turn-of-the-century buildings and full-on Wild West charm) is riddled with empty storefronts. Kellog, just down the road, is even more desolate. Mullan, nearest the ski area, has only one store¿a minimart.
Lookout Pass, however, continues to thrive. It's not only a good place to ski¿with drier and more abundant snow than neighboring Silver Mountain and a more affordable family atmosphere than Schweitzer¿but has served as the local community's social epicenter for generations. Lookout Pass is¿quite simply¿beloved.
It also happens to be owned by my dad.
Let me explain: My dad, Hans Reifer, has been a diehard ski fanatic his entire life. He came to the States from Austria as a little boy and quickly took his schussing to a snow-covered knoll in New York's Central Park. He's skied at plenty of big-time places since then, like Aspen, Alta and Stowe, but what he really loves is a small, friendly ski hill. He has taught skiing, in fact, at small, friendly ski hills on every weekend of every winter for more than 40 years. By now¿at age 70¿it takes quite the opposite of vertical rise, brawn and popularity to impress Hans. "If this is what skiing was like when I started skiing," he said a few years ago at Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C., gesturing with furrowed brow at the high-speed quads and the expensively outfitted throngs, "I would not have become a skier." The year after visiting my hometown hill of Whistler, he and three friends bought Lookout Pass.
I had to experience it myself to understand the reasons why. On a typical Saturday, Lookout Pass is crawling with hundreds of kids, ages 6 to 17, who've come for the once-weekly Free Ski School (FSS). They sit and scramble over every conceivable surface in the two-story day lodge. They sing on the chairlift. They shout with glee as they make turns down Lookout's wide-open cruising runs (a straightforward array of 14 runs that fan out from the summit, each flanked by thick stands of lodgepole pine). And they look very serious when it's time for their ski-school testt. When they pass, they hold tightly to their achievement medals¿then forget about them entirely as they drag their parents back outside: "Let's ski in Idaho this time," they say. "Let's ski in Montana! Come on, Mom, let's go!"
Founded 56 years ago by a passionate local skier named Art Audett (who taught all the kids himself), the FSS is the heartbeat of the Lookout ski community. "It used to be like a big family here," remembers Dolores Field, whose husband worked for the Bunker Hill Mine and whose children learned to ski at Lookout in the Fifties. "At one time we had 800 kids in the ski school. Those kids lined up for lessons, and it was just like a bunch of ants on the hill. It was really unreal. A lot of us helped. Of course, we all knew each other. We'd have a few beers and a few laughs afterward and tell some jokes. There's still some of us left."
Field and her friend Evelyn Hopkins are now circling 70, but still have season passes and hit the slopes several times a week. "Here I can ski by myself and feel comfortable," says Hopkins. "The snow is always good, and there's always somebody that I know."
For the Drews family, people they bump into at Lookout are likely to be kin. Elaine Drews grew up in nearby Silverton, Idaho, and rode the free ski bus (which still runs on Saturdays) to take the free lessons in 1948 when she was 13. "It was 50 cents to ski," she remembers. By high school, the hill had become the place to be on weekends. Small surprise that Elaine's husband was a Lookout Pass skier, too. Their son Mark learned in the FSS, and was Lookout's race coach for a few years in the Eighties. Now in his 40s and a miner at the Stillwater Mine in Montana, Mark is just as likely to spot his mother when he's sipping Moose Drool in Lookout's Borderline Lounge as one of his five kids¿who also learned to ski in the FSS.
But FSS alums are far from the only faithful at this tiny hill. Lookout Pass lures two-thirds of its visitors from as far west down the I-90 corridor as Spokane, Coeur d'Alene and Haydn Lake¿skiers who could just as easily go to Schweitzer or Silver Mountain. "It's cheaper and friendlier here, with far better snow," explains a physical therapist from Spokane. "People here aren't so uptight," chimes in her friend. "That's why we keep coming back."
Lookout Pass was not the first ski area my father dreamed of buying. He used to call me when he saw ads for small ski areas for sale in the back of SKI Magazine. "Did you see the ad for Cuchara Valley?" he'd ask. "How 'bout the one for Hoodoo Ski Bowl? What do you think, Sus? Wouldn't that be so neat?" In the end, though, Lookout Pass was my father's perfect match. Maybe it was because his share cost less than a second home in most ski towns in the West. But as I take another lap up Lookout's lone lift, I realize it was something more.
Mark Drews and his youngest son, Clancy, head toward Lookout's terrain park. An old geezer who looks like Father Time glides stiffly down the center of the slope. A little girl I rode the chair with earlier waves gaily at me before taking off down the hill with her dad. And suddenly I understand. What my father values most about skiing is a place where the vibe is pure unpretention and everyone, even a newcomer, feels at ease. But what really hits home about Lookout Pass is its multigenerational legacy. After all, mine is a multigenerational ski family, too. Nowadays I'd rather seek out the steep and deep than modest ski spots like Lookout Pass. But in the end, this particular hometown hill and everything it stands for are going to be one of my father's most enduring legacies to me. And somehow that seems just right.