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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jan 2019
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    127

    Cottonwood Butte

    Cottonwood Butte Trip Report
    Cottonwood, ID
    February 2019

    Just before the start of the 18/19 ski season my wife and I relocated to Idaho. Our motives were (1). A rare job opportunity for myself and (2). An attempt to escape the increasing challenges of living in a major ski town.

    I had a great job opportunity in a location offering the things we had appreciated. The attitude had been changing in our Colorado ski town. Crowds were increasing. Each year seemed busier than the last. Even the mud season which offered reprieve from the onslaught of tourists seemed to be busier. I know its cliché to complain about the topic of crowds and tourists. It’s a topic which has been beaten to death, discussed in lift lines, city newspapers, skin tracks, online forums etc., etc. This year seemed different though. The Kook pass was making its debut to our mountain the upcoming season. We didn’t own real estate and I couldn’t find a permanent position in my field of work… The writing was on the wall.

    Luckily, I landed a nice job in Idaho. The housing market, while expensive was nowhere near the circus that housing in the Colorado high country had become. The local ski hill offered 1900’ vertical and was regionally known for good snow and small crowds. There were a number of communities to pick from with access to our jobs, skiing and public lands which would host various recreational activities. It was the type of place which ends up in chamber of commerce fueled pissing contests, the ones with names like “The Next Great Ski Towns”. Our life plans were starting to really come together. Light at the end of the tunnel.

    Things began to go sideways pretty fast though. For the holidays someone decided to give me and my coworkers an impromptu 35-day unpaid (at the time) vacation. I didn’t mind too much at first since we had just come out of a storm cycle and the skiing was decent. We were living pretty frugally, as always. Ski passes were paid for, the rent was very cheap. I did miss out on purchasing a certain ski I wanted at the time.

    The season was pretty dry with the exception of February. Worse, we had underestimated the effect that the PNW winter would have on our psyches. Perhaps they had been softened by one too many bluebird days at 11’000 in the southern Rockies. December had a few storms, and a skiable base began to form. It didn’t snow much in January. I started slipping into depression for the first time in my adult life. I’d drop my wife off at the job which she was beginning to hate. From there I’d dick around town until the hill opened. When I felt like it, I would skin up to take a lap before the chairs would spin. Some days, after gearing up in the parking lot I’d make two left turns. Left to the lodge and another left to the cafeteria where they sold beer at 9:00 in the a.m. First chair.

    I’d drink a few beers before skiing. I would then sample the mountain in search of soft snow or sunshine. I was having a hard time finding enough of either to be satisfied. From the summit there was a run at skiers left which went straight down the fall line for probably 1000’ verticle. A good run. Seemed like no one was ever on it. I’d point my 189 cm Volkl’s to the bottom and see how far I could make it without a turn. For the first time in my life skiing was actually feeling boring. A chore? an addiction? It was something I felt I had to do. But I didn’t feel happy doing it.

    In February it snowed. A lot, almost every day. The resort skiing was consistently among the best I’d ever done. Instead of just going skiing, I began to look forward to skiing again. Familiar feelings returned. The excitement of hearing the county grader firing up at 3:30 am to open roads. Scoring first chair. The panicked frenzy of the first run on a powder day. Competing with 100 + other people for a blank canvas. Balancing the enjoyment of the first run with a race to the bottom for the second. Skating farther down the ridge than everyone else for a clean line. Hiking up before open and selfishly laying your best turns down the middle of the buried piste. Standing in line pissed off while the mountains promo film crew and ski patrol take lap after lap. What time is the lift supposed to open?

    Many different approaches to a powder day. After the first lap of the day the skiers would spread out over the mountain. I’d lap powder stashes by myself, farming my turns until I was so tired I’d leave for the day. Sometimes days it was really deep. You would never find the bottom in some turns. The ski hill pimped it out over social media as “Februburied”.

    The storms weren’t enough to save it though, my wife was having a rough time. Her work environment was toxic. She was the only non-Mormon employee at her office…She’s a skier for Ullr’s sake, brainwashed years ago by the quest for untracked powder turns straight down the fucking fall line. I’d spend the week in the white room while my wife worked away. Her brief turn to ski each weekend seemed to be marked by the arrival of out of towners and breaks in the storm cycle.

    Well during one of these weekend breaks in the storm cycle my wife and I decided to stock up on weed. My jobs have always had policies against using marijuana (I’ve never had a job that didn’t). I had pretty much ceased smoking in my early twenties, right before the wave of legalization began. My wife still enjoyed it from time to time and we usually had some around the house. At this time however, we didn’t. And besides skiing there wasn’t much to do in our old town of 500 or so.

    We planned a road trip to Washington state. Word was that the dispensaries in Eastern Washington were better than the ones in Eastern Oregon. Mostly it was an excuse to get out of town and see some new locations. But man, backwards fucking Idaho. We actually thought we might need a cover for our yuppie wagon of a truck which still had Colorado plates at the time. Throw our skis in the back and make it a ski trip. It seemed like it’d work just fine. After all, Cottonwood Butte ski area was along our route. From there it’d be smooth sailing. I can talk my way out of any situation after I’ve made some turns.

    The drive was great. I always love seeing a new area for the first time, whatever the mode of travel. On the way to Washington, we passed the turn off for Cottonwood Butte. It looked cool to me. The surrounding Camas prairie was golden and windswept. Rolling hills climbed higher and higher towards the rim of the Salmon River canyon to the south. They weren’t huge, but they reminded me of the rolling hills and valleys where I learned to ski. The ski area was nestled within these hills next to a former Air Force radar station which had been converted into a minimum-security prison.

    We arrived in Clarkston, Washington mid-morning. I think we had timed it out based on what time the dispensary we wanted to visit would open, while also leaving time in the day to ski Cottonwood. We got what we came for, picked up some lunch supplies for our ski later in the day and got out of Clarkston. Clarkston sits across the Snake river from Lewiston, Idaho. Lewiston, not exactly a utopia I will point out, had a few billboards stating the negative impacts of marijuana. We had a laugh at the billboards, the two cities, and also at the expense of the stoner “budtender” we had just visited. We accelerated southeast along 95 leaving all that behind as we headed back through the reservation and to the Butte.

    Up through the Nez-Perce reservation and back to the prairie. As we were turning off of 95 towards the ski area the sun came out. It stayed until snow squalls snuffed it out in the late afternoon. As we got closer to the ski area the road got narrower and the snowbanks grew taller. The elevation increased just enough that the prairie had given way to forest. This area could hold a snowpack and therefore support a ski area.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jan 2019
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    127
    We parked and scoped out the base area while we ate lunch and put our ski boots on. A genuine ski area with a beginners rope tow and a T-bar which climbs 845’ feet or so. Looked pretty great. Snow everywhere, no heated sidewalks, no B.S… no B.S. This was skiing. Half of visitors to any Ikon or Epic resort wouldn’t be able to make it to the ticket window! The groomer was a DIY model fabricated out of a corrugated steel culvert. I hadn’t seen it when we first arrived, but I could tell right away from the groom that it wasn’t typical. I should have taken pictures of it. We got our $16 lift tickets and headed up the T-bar. Smiles all around. There were still timber towers from a previous incarnation of the lift, in use to hold lights if I remember correctly. Some kids in carhartts and cowboy hats were racing down the lift line, right towards us. They jumped out from the lift line onto a run at skiers left just as they were reaching us.

    We headed right from the summit and started sampling the groomers, Helicopter 1 & 2 and Main Street. We spent the next hour or two seeking out powder turns in between the groomed runs. There were plenty of open areas where you could squeeze out a few turns with minimal effort. Lots of cool rock outcrops to ski around too. We were dorking around, hucking off the rocks (to flat usually) and sneaking in a turn or two where we could down the short steep snow-covered pitches. There were also a few fun tight runs through the forest which felt like classic east coast skiing. Back on the main run to the base area I’d open it up carving big tele turns on my clapped out 189cm Volkl 108’s. The sun was shining, wife was happy, and I felt good.

    It was around this time that we are confronted by Ski Patrol and a couple locals. They greet us at the T-bar loading area and invite us to ski with them. “Where are you guys from?” They laugh when we tell them where we live, they know its 15 minutes down the road from 1900’ of lift accessed skiing. “Why did you come here to ski?” They want to know “Oh, just passing through.” Would have liked to tell them, but why? It didn’t matter, the sun was out and we were all on snow. They took us on a tour of some of their other stashes. The patroller told us a bit about the area and its history. Sounded like the season was shorter than it used to be. The usual story these days. Winter starts later, ends sooner, storms aren’t what they used to be and its harder to keep the place staffed. He said they hike the hill for a month or so after it shuts down in March, April? I can’t remember. We spent the rest of the day skiing with our new friends. Closing time came fast. As we slid into the lift line for one more run the lifty calmly says to my wife and I
    “Sorry, Lifts closed.”
    “Actually, they are gonna help with the sweep.” Says our new patroller friend.
    Well, I’m not going to argue with ski patrol. We oblige and are lined out with our task upon reaching the summit. I take in the view of the prairie below once more while skating towards our assigned run. One last meandering run down Hidden Valley. Milked every turn as the sun was sinking over our shoulders.

    It was snowing as we left Cottonwood Butte. We passed Highway Patrol halfway through the Camas Prairie. On cue he flipped a u-turn and followed us all the way back to Grangeville where we went our separate ways.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Sep 2001
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    594
    Thanks for posting that up. I've always been intrigued by that place.

  4. #4
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    Oct 2005
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    Idaho
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    9,379
    I first skied there my first time when I was two or three. That’s where I grew up. Went for a visit a couple years ago to spread some of my pop’s ashes at the top. He used to volunteer with a lot of the old farmers doing lift and cat maintenance and keeping the burger grill going in the winter to keep the lights on. A group of us built the top lift shack with our dads for shop class. I can’t remember where the metal towers came from but one of my buddy’s dads hauled them back on a flat bed semi. It was the scraps from a replaced lift from CO or CA. I want to say the timber frames for the T were decommissioned around 8th grade.

    The corduroy is diagonal because of the corrugated roller for a groomer. Farmers are resourceful.

    They let a bunch of us high schoolers loose with chainsaws in the summer to clear trail and work off punch cards. No season passes. Just cards. Some of us took OEC at the youngest age allowed so we could be part of NSP-the hill needed patrollers. My dad was doing the lift stuff so my mom took OEC too and chaperoned us. Not great skiing but a great community helping kids ski.

    We all dreamed of growing up at the Bird or Vail. Looking back, I doubt I would change a thing.
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  5. #5
    Join Date
    Nov 2002
    Posts
    6,743
    Thanks for that. The brain of a skier is a strange place. It certainly is an addiction. Is it healthy? I'm better with it than without it that's for sure.

    Make Skiing Fun Again

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Sep 2001
    Posts
    594
    been in it, have you ever checked out taco night at the LSH? Mellow vibe and good times.

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  7. #7
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    Sep 2009
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    PNW
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    6,074
    thanks for the story. good stuff.
    life ain't guaranteed, love your people while you can

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jan 2019
    Posts
    127
    Nice pic MT. Unfortunately not, I think my wife would work a late shift on the nights they held that. I'd cook dinner or we'd head to the Intersection for BBQ

    For the next season we had planned to get LSH passes and really step it up on the touring...A lot out there if you're willing to work for it, or have a sled.

    But we ended up bailing out of the area before the snow flew. It's all good now though, we settled in a cool spot. Still, I'm looking forward to visiting the area again someday.

    Thanks for sharing Conundrum, those are awesome experiences. If you grew up in vail or snowbird you probably would've quit skiing by now haha. I had a pic from the t bar too, can't find it now.

    My head was in a weird place that winter. Wanted to share it. I'm glad y'all liked it.

    Next TR will be even better

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Sep 2008
    Posts
    585
    Thanks for sharing. That's a good read, although I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I thought there might be a visit from the Gobbler during the sweep after the lift stopped turning.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Jan 2019
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    127
    Quote Originally Posted by jerlane View Post
    Thanks for sharing. That's a good read, although I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I thought there might be a visit from the Gobbler during the sweep after the lift stopped turning.
    Haha! I've met some weirdos in my travels...and I've been spooked a time or two. But while I've had plenty of experiences I think are worthy of sharing, nothing comes close to that story...Which I'm ok with.

    Fun fact maybe??? I grew up skiing at Bmills's namesake hill.

  11. #11
    Join Date
    Apr 2006
    Location
    Spokane/Schweitzer
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    6,259
    Wow, funny to see this. We did this video for them as part of our deal with Idaho Ski Area Association a few years ago. It's a fun little hill and I love going to places like this where the Soul of Skiing (ISAA tag line..and true) is alive. All volunteer, grass roots skiing to keep the farmers and their kids out of the nearby prison. Have a great time there.


  12. #12
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
    Location
    Idaho
    Posts
    9,379
    Gold, Mike and Lu Crea were good friends of my folks I went to school with their boys. Fun fact-they had an indoor hot tub in a carpeted room on their pig farm. We watched a lot of ski movies from that hot tub. Every time I smell wet musky carpet, I think of skiing.

  13. #13
    Join Date
    Sep 2009
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    437
    We've skied Cottonwood Butte several times, always fun.

    If you get a chance, Snowhaven is not bad for a few hours, though it seems they are not operating this year. It's in Grangeville.

    Bald Mountain, near Orofino, gets better snow and seems to operate a little more consistently.

  14. #14
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
    Location
    Idaho
    Posts
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    Ah, Snowhaven, south of Grangeville on Mt. Idaho. I've heard they are dealing with low snow and C1niner politics to open.

    Speaking of Gobblers, the road to.

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    Lift lines...

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    Pro tip for high schoolers riding T bars for night skiing. Only one kid carries beer in the back pack. Lead rider sets them on the T track for his buddies to pick up and chug before the top.

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    Small hill views.

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    Always cheep burgers and plan to bring your own beer for lodges like these.

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  15. #15
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    Oct 2005
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    Idaho
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    Growing up near the Butte has it's advantages like knowing where to camp to get out of winter for the night.

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    And where to get the best water around.

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    You can see the diagonal cord a little here.

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    Being touristy on a visit to the homeland. Yes, I'm a giant.

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    Escape... funny, the first time I was arrested was just up this road near the prison even though it had nothing to do with the prison.

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  16. #16
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    Apr 2006
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    Spokane/Schweitzer
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    Yep, hit Snowhaven, too. Here's the video we shot for them.


  17. #17
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    Jan 2021
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    Nice.

    Solid report, thanks!

  18. #18
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    Jan 2019
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    pulled pics from the trip off the book
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  19. #19
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    Quote Originally Posted by DSSK Jr. View Post
    pulled pics from the trip off the book
    Ha! I grew up and graduated HS with the guy in the white helmet in the first pic. His name is Neil.

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