As the Little Ski Hill closes in on its 80th season, it’s easy to wonder why the tiny mountain has persisted for so long. It’s sandwiched between two destination resorts: Brundage and Tamarack. But therein lies one of the marvels of the tiny mountain -- people love it because it's not like any other resort.
There is no chairlift here. At the bottom of the mountain, skiers and snowboarders shuffle into the path of an aging t-bar.
The ancient piece of machinery services the mountain's whopping six runs and 405-foot vertical. By comparison, nearby Brundage has nearby 2,000 vertical feet of skiable terrain. (And several chairlifts.)
Little Ski Hill manager Colby Nielsen says after 80 years, the mountain is looking to improve what infrastructure it can.
"We're always trying to invest what we can to make improvements here," Nielsen says. “Some of the big goals we have are to try to light up the rest of the hill for night skiing. And maybe putting in a new t-bar that’s a little easier to ride.”
A chairlift isn't out of the question either, he adds.
The not-for-profit ski area cobbles together a modest budget using the mountain's own revenue, grants and a never-ending calendar of fundraisers.
Despite its tiny size, the Little Ski Hill boasts a handful of perks the bigger mountains don't: night skiing, a killer terrain park and a kid-first set-up that families flock there for.
All over the mountain, sounds of whooping and high-pitched laughter let you know kids are everywhere.
On a north-facing run, about 20 kids from the McCall Winter Sports Club mill around a huge 30-meter Nordic jump. They're packing the take-off and landing by stomping their skis into it, trying to get all the air out of the snow.
Trying to harness all this wild kid-energy is the club's alpine program director, Matt Sylvester. He yells at the kids to spread out.
If it sounds like hard work, that's because it is. The jump is too steep for grooming machinery, so kids are doing it the old-fashioned way.
Sylvester says they got started on this project about six weeks ago.
“The reason this kind of came to fruition was misbehavior from our athletes," he says.
We're talking t-bar etiquette, to be specific -- things like riding three kids at once, swerving in and out of the t-bar tracks and other kid mischief.
"So, (the kids) lost their t-bar privileges for a week," Sylvester says. "We came out here in the snow with 20 kids and just started boot-packing."
That is, they had to walk up the hill if they wanted to ski. And that's when the old Nordic jump caught their attention.
The Little Ski Hill originally had two Nordic jumps -- 50 and 30 meters. The 50-meter jump was toppled by wind in the 90s. The smaller one, however, was just neglected.
"I think you ask these kids now, and you don't have to coax them into packing this. You just say, 'We're going to pack the jump!' and they say, 'AWESOME,'" Sylvester says.
The kids started jumping three weeks ago.
Just to be clear, this is a Nordic jump -- not like what you see in the terrain park. The goal here is go fast and far.
And the kids love it.
Eight-year-old Cooper Heavey is one of the kids packing the jump. And he is sold on this whole jumping thing.
“For my first one I got to, like, right where the flat was," Cooper says. "But then I got better and started landing down . . . farther.”
He says it feels like flying.
Nordic jumping was a big part of what put the Little Ski Hill on the map in its early days. McCall was a mill town before it was a ski town. And back then, the Little Ski Hill was the place for mill families to have fun.
Between the Nordic jumps and a burgeoning ski racing community, the Little Ski Hill became an incubator for great ski talent. Six winter Olympians cut their teeth here.
And that legacy continues today.
Four days a week, buses shuttle kids from five local schools to the mountain, where they’re taught how to ski and snowboard.
After-school program director Jennifer Dummar says they have nearly 150 kids enrolled this winter. The sheer mileage these kids get on the hill is astounding.
“It definitely breeds big talent. And I think it’s just that the kids, when they’re in school and they can come and ski multiple days per week, they just progress so much faster.”
Today the Little Ski Hill operates as a nonprofit on Forest Service land. Getting kids on the hill is at the core of the Little Ski Hill’s mission to serve the community.
"It takes a lot of volunteer hours to make this program run -- and this hill run. I've always seen it as by the community, for the community," Dummar says. "I think that's why after 80 years of it being sort of a small hill a lot of people feel like they could outgrow . . . it just thrives."
Plus, she adds, the Little Ski Hill is practically a Disneyland for kids on skis.
Over at the ski jump, the packing is over and the jumping is on.
Ten-year-old Walker Heavey agrees to attach a radio recorder to his ski pants for a run over the jump.
When it’s his turn, Walker points his skis downhill and accelerates over the take-off until he’s airborne. Sixty feet later, a loud "SMACK" welcomes him back to planet earth. He speeds down the run-out of the jump.
"That was awesome," he says. "Oh my gosh that was so much fun! Whoo, that was awesome!"
The tone of his voice says it all.
By continuing to reinvent itself -- whether it’s resurrecting an old Nordic jump or putting new rails in the terrain park -- the Little Ski Hill is making sure an old mountain stays fresh.
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