Axel Peterson. PHOTO: Tal Roberts
Axel Peterson. PHOTO: Tal Roberts

The Long-Lost Land of the Under $50 Lift Ticket

A quest through Idaho, where it's still possible to ski on the cheap

PHOTOS: Tal Roberts

When we walked into the Blue Moon Bar & Grill in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, a palpable fog of stale nicotine smog hung in the air. My eyes burned as I strained to see in a room lit by strands of colored Christmas lights and neon bar signs. It was five o'clock on a weekday and our group of five had just doubled the patron count.

A slender woman in her 40s wearing a black tank top, her long blonde hair held back with a scrunchie, dealt us a hand of cocktail napkins and five pints of Blue Bitch Lager.

"It tastes like Bud Light, but sweet," she said.

Photographer Tal Roberts, siblings McKenna, Axel, and Dylan Peterson from Sun Valley, and I were on a weeklong ski trip through southern Idaho. Despite being less than 30 miles from Pebble Creek Ski Area, there was no indication we were near anything skiable. This was not a ski town. In search of places to ski for less than $50 a day, we had ventured well off the beaten path.

The average lift ticket in North America cost $113 last winter. Vail set a record with its $189 day pass. Skiing, by any measurement, is more expensive than it has ever been. But if you know where to look, it's still possible to find great, affordable skiing and lift tickets for $50 or less.

With 114 named mountain ranges topping out at almost 13,000 feet, the Gem State is fertile hunting ground.

Divey, dirty, and surrounded by a vast sagebrush sea, Idaho skiing is home to rugged individualism.

Skier: McKenna Peterson

More than 50 inches of snow fell on Sun Valley the week before we started our quest from Ketchum. The night before we left, we took advantage of a rule that allows skiers to skin up the resort's trails after hours and ski for free. After blowing our first day's budget of $50 on fondue at the mid-mountain Roundhouse, we flew down squeaky corduroy under the light of a February full moon.

The next morning, the sun was scarcely up when Roberts and I loaded into his white pickup truck. McKenna, Axel, and Dylan piled into their mom's Subaru, and we charged 145 miles south toward Pomerelle Mountain Resort.

Twelve miles outside the barely-there town of Albion, population 269, Pomerelle sits at 8,000 feet in the Sawtooth National Forest, where it recieves 500 inches of snow annually.

We pulled into a dirt parking lot and bought a stack of $45 passes at a rickety ticket office window. Zack Alexander, the mountain manager, met us there, dressed in Gore-Tex pants, a gray hooded sweatshirt, and a black beanie.

Alexander is 32 years old and has been running Pomerelle for the past three years. His shoulders fall back and his chest lifts with pride when he talks about the place where he grew up skiing. He's known since kindergarten he wanted to run this place and was hired as the assistant mountain manager when he was 21. "You can find better terrain; you can maybe find better snow--maybe," he says. "But you can ski and have as much fun as I've ever had at any mountain right here at this little place."

In Pomerelle's 54 years, it has evolved from a single rope tow powered by a Ford motor to a 500-acre operation including two chairlifts and a base lodge--but little else has changed. Our crew lapped low-angle glades and shaded powder stashes under an uninterrupted blue sky that stretched from the plateau summit to the Clarkston Range in the south. Skiing at Pomerelle is wholesome, but within an hour we'd gotten the lay of the place.

Eager to show us the sidecountry, Alexander introduced us to Ben Orton. Six feet tall and lanky, the 28-year-old's shoulder-length dreads and signature Pit Viper shades make him easy to recognize. We met Orton and his wife, Kylie, on a fire access road where they towed the five of us above treeline to a horseshoe bowl of steep, granite couloirs flanked by tight evergreen forests that funneled into a frozen lake.

Axel picked the first line: a tight, wind-loaded drop into three feet of light powder hiding in the shadows of the fir trees. His sisters followed, then me, navigating the forest until we shot into the open, tucking across the apron below our tracks. The runs were quick, but steep and void of any other skiers.

On the opposite side of the horseshoe bowl, we followed Orton to the entrance of a narrow V-shaped couloir named for a lady's nether regions. Wind had whipped a hard cornice over the edge, blocking the line from view. Orton shuffled higher to get speed for the approach, then dropped in fast enough to ski up onto the sidewall, where he planted a single 10-foot wooden staff into the crust and propelled himself up and over it, like a pole-vaulter on skis. Using the pole as a rudder, he arced his line through the narrow passage.

"Life's pretty simple here, and I like that," says Kylie. "Ski, yoga, sleep, eat, waterski, rock climb. We ski this zone a shit ton--actually a f— ton--every Monday we're out here riding. We were blessed with a good winter."

Back in the parking lot, we offered to buy beers for our new friends. Instead, they asked us to help kill a keg of hard cider leftover from a holiday party. We filled our cups on their deck and watched the sun dip from the sky.

A pitcher of Blue Bitch lager requires a thorough cleanse. This'll do.
Skier: Axel Peterson
Location: Bogus Basin

One hundred miles to the northeast, we sped past frozen cow pastures flooded with melted runoff heading for Pebble Creek. A lift ticket at the 68-year-old ski hill with 2,200 feet of vertical runs $47. A can of beer at the lodge is $2, and you can stack French fries as high as you're able for $3.75. The base area sits at 6,360 feet, and with miles of Caribou National Forest backcountry accessible off the backside, we quickly realized we'd hit the high point of our trip.

The main lift takes 11 minutes to reach the summit--plenty of time to watch Russell Davies, a decorated Army veteran and whitewater kayaker, double eject as he came painstakingly close to landing a backflip in the terrain park. It was only his 15th day on skis--ever--but it was Valentine's Day, and he had a girl with him.

The lifts are slow at Pebble Creek, but skiing is fast on a mountain this steep. The combination of the two has kept Tom Hale coming back every winter since he started skiing here in the 1970s--either on his way to or from jail. (He can't remember.)

"Gravity doesn't care who you are; this is a great sport for everyone," he told me as we unloaded the double chair past a liftie cooking bacon on a camp stove.

We spent the afternoon chasing local Sander Hadley, 24, through an out-of-bounds mini golf zone bouncing between granite outcroppings, threading tightly wooded traverses, and flying over frozen streams. Midway up the mountain, Hadley and his friend Bo Ferro led us to a hidden overlook marked by a branchless, twisting pine tree adorned with small plaques and signs commemorating local skiers who have died. "This place was always the old guy hangout, and as their friends started to pass, their names would go on the tree," says Hadley, whose father's name, Kirk, was added to the Wine Tree in 2014. "My dad and his friends used to hang out here, and it reminds us of our mortality and to remember to enjoy our time here together."

We stopped at least once, sometimes three times, nearly ever run: the Wine Tree, the woods, the warm rocks on the summit. "We take a lot of breaks on the hill," says Hadley, who recently moved back home to nearby Pocatello after spending six years in Salt Lake City. "We're trying to spend the whole day up here--hang out before the mountain opens, stay up here after--and it helps us not to be in such a rush trying to crush vert. I don't do that as much at other places, and it's good to slow down."

We took it easy and kept it fun--ripping down fast angular groomers until the air started to cool in the late afternoon. We ended our spring day with tallboys on the sundeck.

Skier: Sander Hadley

Skier: Axel Peterson.

Skier: Axel Peterson.

The drive from Pebble Creek to Boise is four hours. From there, it's 18 miles and another 3,000 feet in elevation gain to the base of Bogus Basin. Luckily, we weren't in a hurry. Night skiing at Bogus doesn't start until 4:30 p.m. For $25, you can ski until 9.

It was close to five o'clock when we loaded onto the Deer Point Express. Before we could reach the high point, a gray sky gave way to a light storm dropping snowflakes so small and delicate they floated down like ash. Within seconds, a squall moved in, blotting out the sun and wrapping the mountain in dim, milky fog. Roberts and I couldn't see the ground or the Petersons on the chair in front of us.

A flash of light appeared in the sky as a jagged streak of lightning struck an electrical tower on the ridge. Thunder clapped and the lift stopped spinning. We dangled in the void, hanging on a metal chair, icy gusts of wind and snow stinging our faces. Minutes later, when the lift started moving again, the operators cranked the speed. Everyone unloaded and raced back to the lodge where 500 night skiers waited out the storm.

Thinking that our night ski was a bust, we ordered whiskey gingers served in plastic cups from the bar. Lightning lit up the mountain, and we weren't allowed to leave the lodge for close to an hour--an Idaho-style interlodge. Then, as quickly as it appeared, the storm dissipated, revealing the beginning of a sunset and two inches of fresh snow on the slopes.

We headed for the eastern side of the mountain, took two lifts, and dropped into the steeps on Liberty. McKenna, Axel, and Dylan sidestepped to the pinnacle of a ridge that followed the fall line into a gully below. The surprise dusting softened an iced-over wind crust and made for creamy turns. The golden orb of sun dipped below the ceiling of clouds to the west and cast a familiar orange glow across the valley. Dusk gave way to a dark, navy sky dotted with stars.

The five of us had driven close to 600 miles since we started our quest under the same night sky a week earlier. We rolled through valleys of barley farms and cow pastures, stopping for gas in rural towns the Petersons had visited for grade school soccer games. We climbed the winding roads of snowy peaks where, more than once, we were swarmed by mobs of elementary kids in hand-me-down jackets who'd been bussed to the mountain for their weekly ski day. We found unassuming communities of skiers who weren't looking for high-speed quads, heated gondolas, or $14 chili bowls. Sometimes the skiing wasn't steep or the snow was sparse, but there was never a line and we were always welcomed.

As the night lights flicked on at Bogus Basin, I loaded the chair next to a young skier wearing a Thrasher T-shirt under an unzipped jacket and black bibs. Logan Leavitt, 16, taught himself to ski three years ago, catching the bus from Boise to the mountain at least three times a week. "I enjoy how winding it is on the road up there," he says. "It feels like I'm getting away to free my mind, go do my thing, and just ski." Two days later, Leavitt competed in a freestyle contest against high school students from the entire valley. He won.

That night he'd caught a ride with some older guys from church who wanted to see him throw a backflip. Under the sallow glow of the lights punctuating the slope, I watched as he went full speed off a kicker, fearless into the night sky.