WORDS: Kristopher Kaiyala
PHOTOS: Nate Abbott

"You brought those, here?" asked the perky sales clerk behind the rental car counter. It was the second time in 20 minutes I'd been asked that question (the first was on the shuttle bus that brought me from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport) and by the looks on the faces of my inquisitors you'd have thought I brought golf clubs to Mount Everest. Or scuba gear to the Gobi Desert. She typed quickly into her computer and mumbled "Mmm-hmm, okey-dokey," to herself, and soon a shiny black Dodge Magnum, long as a hearse and wide as a Cadillac, pulled into the closest parking spot.

"Where ya goin', anyway?" she asked, sliding my bag through the Magnum's open hatch and up and over the backseat. Indeed, this was the question I'd pondered since accepting this assignment. I grew up on the West Coast and wasn't sure what to expect on the frozen tundra of America's great northern plains. What I knew of the Midwest, and Wisconsin in particular, was mostly based on clichés. Cheeseheads. Badgers. Ice fishing. Dairy farms. Lutefisk. Beer helmets. Hunting lodges with grizzled men in red-and-black plaid wool jackets. I admit it wasn't much to go on, but like most clichés I figured there was some truth in them. And yet here I was, about to embark on one of the strangest road trips of my life.

In answer, I pointed vaguely towards Brett Favre. "I'm heading up north," I said, "to do some skiing."

If you were transported to Wisconsin from another planet—which was how I felt behind the wheel of the Magnum searching for anything, and I mean anything, resembling a mountain—you might wonder if skiers here are permanently brain damaged from Old Milwaukee. And yet, on wintry weekends, Wilmot Mountain boasts a palpable ski vibe. It's not unusual to see a line of cars with ski racks or buses full of excited kids heading west on Wisconsin Highway C, passing each other (and probably a few tractors) in hopes of scoring one of the few remaining spots in the crowded ski area parking lot.

It was late on a Saturday afternoon when I finally spotted the turnoff sign. As I steered the Magnum down the Wilmot Mountain access road, I fought the urge to pull over and catch my breath. For there, on a miniature hoagie roll of a hill, I beheld more chairlift towers and skiers than I ever thought possible crammed onto one stunted piste. It felt like a Dairy Queen commercial brought to life. The one with the chocolate Eiger and the whipped-cream glaciers and the diced peanuts and marshmallows that crash down into the butterscotch lake.

I inched forward, genuinely wondering what I'd gotten myself into. If there was one bright spot it was the snow. The slope was crystal white from a recent storm, standing in stark contrast to the brown foliage surrounding it. There were 20 or more people lined at the base of each lift. Lycra-clad racers sped down a well-rutted race course from summit to base, 10 gates at best. Music was blaring from somewhere near the boxy lodge. Skiers and snowboarders wearing everything from Packers and Badgers jerseys to one-pieces to baggy Oakley pants and parkas milled about in the 4 o'clock light. More than a few concerned-looking parents waited on the edge of the parking lot, scanning the hill for their overdue offspring.

I parked and dressed, fortifying my body with a few extra layers against the bitter cold night ahead. Grabbing my gear—although it was tempting to just go sledding—I headed for the hill but then stopped, suddenly seized by the image of another commercial: the 1970s Diehard battery ad set in Lambeau Field's dark, frozen lot where only one car has the juice to start. How far away was Green Bay, anyway? Wasn't the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald somewhere nearby? Panicking briefly, I patted the hood of the Magnum, hoping it was up to the task.

When I got to the lodge, there was 4FRNT Skis founder and one-time Wilmot local Matt Sterbenz waiting outside the Pizza Barn. He'd brought reinforcements—high school buddies, all now in their mid- to late-20s, reunited for the weekend to session the molehill of our youth. Following quick introductions, Matt pointed toward Exhibition, the steepest face on the hill with the biggest chairlift (about 10 towers, half of which didn't appear necessary), and said "You ready?" Halogen lights attached to poles faintly illuminated snow. "I dunno,
I feigned, "I might need a few warm-up runs first."

"Warm-up runs?" countered Matt, zipping up his collar and skating toward the base of "X" in the crisp arctic air. "Warming up is all we do around here."

Wilmot demands respect. Not because of any striking natural feature but because it exists at all. To understand Wilmot Mountain's history is to understand the Midwestern skier psyche and the concept of making the best out of what you have.

There are smaller ski areas nearby. Villa Olivia in the Chicago suburbs has a quad and a vertical drop of 180 feet. Grand Geneva in southern Wisconsin has three double chairs on its 211 feet. The latter, the former location of the Playboy Club, even has a chi-chi name befitting a Colorado mega-destination: The Mountain Top at Grand Geneva Resort.

You'll find no such pretension at Wilmot Mountain. According to Charles C. Roberts in his book Matterhorn of the Midwest, one of Wilmot Mountain's earliest struggles was keeping farmer Charles Pagel's abundant cow pies off the slopes. That was in 1938, when Pagel agreed to lease a hillside section of his dairy ranch to an enterprising Chicago architect named Walter Stopa. Stopa, a Polish-born immigrant, then set up a single rope tow powered by a 1920s Fordson tractor. The tow was about a thousand feet long and rose 200 vertical feet to the top of an ancient glacial moraine. An existing structure with a coal-fired cook stove served as the tiny warming hut at the base. On opening day, some 300 skiers lined up for the lift. The following weekend, 500 skiers showed up. Wilmot Hills Ski Area, as it was called then, was an instant hit.

Several decades and many improvements later, Wilmot Mountain still has little problem drawing customers. Moreover, the same can be said of the nearly 100 ski areas spread over 10 Midwestern states. From the Dakotas to Michigan, Missouri to Minnesota, Iowa to Ohio and beyond (including some 30 downhill areas in Saslatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario), North America's northern flatlanders are way more ski savvy than they're given credit for.

"Warm-up runs?" countered Matt, zipping up his collar and skating toward the base of "X" in the crisp arctic air. "Warming up is all we do around here."

The Midwestern Ski Areas Association (MSAA) estimates that Midwestern resorts received nearly 7.5 million skier visits in 2006-07. Of those, 79 percent were day visits. A 2005-06 season study concluded that Midwesterners skied 68 percent of the time at areas in their backyards, while only 23.8 percent of their days were spent in the Rockies. A large part of the local patronage comes from the thriving after-school programs and youth racing leagues. And while the terrain isn't exactly staggering (the Midwest's tallest ski area, Lusten Mountains in Minnesota, rises 825 feet from base to summit), around here it's the thought that counts. "Obviously we don't compete with the big areas out West," says Chris Stoddard of the MSAA, "but we do compliment them. Our guests need to dream of skiing deep powder on big mountains."

As we ascended the Exhibition chair, Matt pointed down to a tiny lip above a mini headwall. "Kicker," he said, and within seconds we were standing above the lip as friends Kyle, Feezor, and Gabe used their skis to build a mound. It was a stealthy act, and it looked well practiced. "One time, when we were kids, the patrol did a sting operation and wrecked all kinds of little airs we had built up," Matt remarked. "They stole all the shovels we had hidden in the trees and everything. We said screw it and a few of my friends started skiing down naked."

I quickly got the feeling that the Wilmot Rat Pack had several such ski patrol run-ins over the years, and might get one tonight. Looking around, I realized it was mostly kids on the hill. Parents either retreated to the lodge or split to return later. The modest terrain park was crowded with prepubescent snow gangstas. Patrollers roamed the hill in packs of three or four. The lights of Wilmot and other small towns dotted the darkening countryside. A power plant belched steam way off in the distance near Lake Michigan. It was stunning how big the view was from the top of this little bump.

We spent the next few hours sampling the terrain off all eight chairlifts, with average descents taking approximately nine seconds. Kyle and Matt hit the kicker bigger and bigger with each run, and at some point during the night Feezor lost a bet and had to ski down with his shirt off. We traversed the long snow ribbon on Wilmot's "backside" only to emerge on a run that looked like all the others—short and flat.

With temperatures dipping into the single digits, we headed inside for some antifreeze at the bar. No longer a primitive warming hut, Wilmot Mountain's lodge is now a sprawling, multi-floor complex with several restaurants and bars, a rental shop, ski shop, video arcade (with a notably high quotient of hunting games), a huge fireplace, lockers, administrative offices, a mini ski-museum display, and much more. An entire wing beneath the Pizza Barn is dedicated to the 150-plus member ski patrol, who has won numerous national awards for ski safety training (and, oddly, for avalanche training in the '80s) over the decades, testaments to the operations enduring regional influence. The ski school is massive, too, and prestigious. Its former and longtime director, Helmut Teichner, is a member of the National Ski Hall of Fame. Teichner was instrumental in developing Wilmot Mountain from its infancy alongside Walter Stopa.

As a classic-rock cover band churned out hits in the corner of the crowded, smoky, bar, I began to understand a key component of Wilmot Mountain's success. While an outsider like myself might chuckle at the absurdity of downhill skiing on what once was Bessie the Cow's grazing grounds, people from around here don't see anything odd with it.

"We are addicts," shared patroller Rob Jarr. "We're drawn to the sport by some unexplainable need. We don't have powder days to look forward to. The best we can hope for is that the wind chill is above zero and the park isn't as hard as a rock. It's a place where kids ski everyday regardless of the conditions or temps."

Wilmot holds strange powers over its progeny, even after extended stays out West. "It's the simplicity," said Matt, who now runs his business out of Salt Lake City and travels the world to ski. "I love how back then we'd occupy ourselves 100 days a year with a mountain that was only 200 feet tall. No matter how bad it might be here, it's always a treat."

Kyle, who grew up about 20 minutes away in Fox Lake, Illinois, now lives in Truckee, California. He moved west after high school and eventually competed in the 1998 Winter X Games Big Air contest at Crested Butte. His mother currently lives 10 minutes from Wilmot Mountain, in a house he built for her, and he visits often. "Going west was definitely an eye-opener," he said. "But I still feel that Midwest kids Brant Moles, Gordy Peifer, James Pierre, Greg Tufflemire, and up-and-coming telemarker J.T. Robinson, who can count on two hands the number of family members who have worked at Wilmot Mountain over the years, to name but a few.

"Just look around," continued Matt. "I know for a fact that Midwest skiers are the passion drivers in each and every Western ski town. We're so jacked to have finally moved from hills like Wilmot to Baker or Squaw that it's electric. We couldn't care less if it's raining, snowing, sleeting, whatever." Matt watched as his friends laughed and joked as if it were the old days, as if nothing had changed, and the temperature outside wasn't solidifying battery acid and the snow wasn't as firm as Great Lakes Steel. "I mean, the worst day out West is like heaven on a bun back home."

Just before closing we headed out for a few more spread eagles off the kicker. It was well past midnight when we left the parking lot and thankfully the Magnum started right up. We slept in late the next morning and gathered for Sunday brunch at a nearby hunting lodge. When Matt started negotiating with the proprietor, we knew we were in some trouble. He came back to the table smiling. "Tomorrow," he said to Gabe, Nate, and me, "we go shooting."

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Later that night, under a gloomy-black overcast sky, we rode the same eight chairlifts and skied the same nine-second descents over and over again—for hours. As meat was repeatedly hucked over the "X" headwall, somehow Wilmot Mountain started to feel a little less cold and flat. But about half an hour before closing came the dreaded confrontation with Rat Pack's old nemesis, the Wilmot Mountain Ski Patrol.

At the top of Exhibition, a Chinese Downhill-like lineup formed as Feezor, Kyle, and Eddie egged on the reluctant group of redcoats. Some "Yeah, I remember you guys" sideways stares issued from the old guard, but it was 10 o'clock and the hill was empty. No one seemed worried about lawsuits or stolen-shovel retribution for the time being, and in a moment of relaxed protocol, the patrollers joined in.

The first of several challenges issued was a straightline sprint to the base of "X." Next came a can-can style sideways ski-off. It all culminated in a massively synchronized Wilmot wiggle—a spastic, sit-back, tail-turning, mock bump-off. For an encore, Kyle and Feezor took one last run to see who could ski from the summit all the way down and across the parking lot to the frozen pond on the other side.

We retired to the bar one last time, and soon our group was joined by others who knew Matt and his friends from the old days. Stories were swapped about parents, aunts, uncles, old girlfriends, former schoolmates turned convicted felons. Then the bartender busted out the "shot ski" and things started to get wild. A middle-aged man in snowmobile pants got up and danced to "Freebird." Patrollers and instructors drew from the same beer pitchers. Laughs and high fives and flash bulbs ensued.

As billed, we shot clay pigeons at the hunting lodge in the morning with an old guy named Elmer. Turns out I'm pretty good with a shotgun. But no one could compete with Matt's cousin Eric, a strapping local fireman, who went 10 for 10 on several rounds using Grandpa Sterbenz's old shotgun. Matt and Eric began reminiscing about their youths and Grandpa's poor diet in his final days, which got me thinking: Things like jobs, divorces, good health, global warming, playoff games, terrible snow years—these may come and go, but something tells me if Wilmot Mountain can outlast farmer Pagel's cow pies, it'll figure out the future, too. For all these guys who've come and gone and come back again, Wilmot is about family. It's about coming home.

This story was originally published in the December, 2007 (36.3) issue of POWDER.