Winter in the mountains, it turns out, is long and cold and dark. But before the advent of commuter jets, heated sidewalks, and timeshares, it was even longer and colder and darker.

While the calendar fixed its icy grip on mountain towns, denizens had two options: Find something to do outside, or wither away next to the fireplace. Being thoughtful and generally averse to bed sores, the townsfolk opted for the former and took up skiing.

The guy at the ticket window was friendly and knew everyone's name. PHOTO: Dave Heath

The snow-covered hill just outside of town afforded the perfect pitch, and with a simple rope rigged to the engine of a neighbor's tractor, they had a swift, if cumbersome, mode of transport all the way to the top. The way down, well, that was a thrill better than any kind of drug and nearly as much fun as making whoopee.

The people eventually gave their hill a name—something like Howelson, or Snow King, or Magic—but everyone still called it the Town Hill. Because you couldn't have the hill without the town, and you couldn't have the town without the backbone that the hill provided during those long cold months. Throughout the season, there were birthday parties, engagements, anniversaries, and weddings, where the newlyweds would rip a line post-vows while trailing long ribbons of colorful confetti. The children—oh, the children—they simply couldn't get enough of the schuss, and so their parents founded a ski club. Many of the kids were so fast they began to compete against clubs from the next Town Hill. Rivalries developed, and a lifelong love of skiing was born. Beer leagues formed, romances ensued, and innocence was lost in the summit lift shack.

Pretty soon, winter didn't feel so long and cold and dark anymore. At the Town Hill, it just felt like fun. The guy at the ticket window was friendly and knew everyone's name. Lift tickets were cheap, parking was free, and nobody ever got tossed for eating a sack lunch. The ski patrol was made up of volunteers—because it was the kind of place where people liked to help out—and the mountain manager went so far as to stand upon the wind-swept summit to personally warn his customers about the looming rocks.

But unfortunately, goodwill wasn't good enough. As time went by, the Town Hill lost its luster. The paint on the lift shack peeled off, the slow lifts became unacceptable, and Ore-Ida fries had no place in the new truffle-fried world. More worrisome was the warming planet, which meant the Town Hill struggled for adequate snowfall.

Like a grandpa with a bad hip and crooked spine, the old ski area watched as his children left town seeking the Destination Resort. That's where they found high-speed lifts and advanced snowmaking plugged deep into the aquifer to guarantee a Thanksgiving opening. As irony would have it, sushi bars, indoor waterparks, and fur-coat boutiques offered something to do besides skiing. The little Town Hill couldn't compete. It looked more like a relic from a long-lost civilization, and yet it still provided a vital role, for both the town and skiing at large.

Without the Town Hill, how would kids get introduced to skiing? How could a family ever afford to ski? Where would the Destination Resort get its skiers if the Town Hill wasn't there to provide a steady crop of people who actually loved the sport for how it made them feel, not for what it enabled them to buy?

So the people returned to ensure the survival of their Town Hill. Everyone pitched in to maintain the club and the beer leagues and the cheap lift tickets. Because like their ancestors before them, they knew that what was good for the hill was good for the town. And if nothing else, it made those winters not to so long and cold and dark.

This story appeared in the February (42.6) issue of POWDER.

Elsewhere on the Endangered Species List: Lifties, Soul, Tele Skiers, and “No Service”.