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A ski hill in southern Idaho is run entirely by volunteers

A snow-covered hill at Blizzard Mountain near Arco with a Poma lift and white building on the right side of the photo.
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
Blizzard Mountain near Arco, Idaho

It’s a bright, sunny Saturday morning and Chad Cheyney is getting ready to open Blizzard Mountain. He arrives at 10 a.m, about an hour before starting up the lift, and has a long to-do list.

“Take the sled and the ladder and stuff out of here. Put the kill switch on the engine. Make sure the heat’s on," he said.

Blizzard Mountain is a community ski hill about 20 miles west of Arco. There’s one wide, groomed run. The season is usually a few Saturdays in February, depending on the snowfall.

Blizzard is on leased private land and it's completely run by volunteers and the local Lions Club, which is an international service-oriented non-profit. They want to keep skiing here accessible and just ask visitors to make a $10 donation. There’s no website, just a Facebook page that Cheyney runs.

Cheyney is 71. He has friendly blue eyes and he’s wearing a checkered button-down shirt. His snow pants are held up by a leather belt with a gold buckle, plus suspenders.

Chad Cheyney in front of the ski hill at Blizzard Mountain
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
Chad Cheyney is one of the main volunteers who runs Blizzard Mountain

He moved to Arco about 35 years ago to be the University of Idaho’s agricultural extension educator for Butte County. He can tell you all about a stubborn weed called leafy spurge or how to manage your cattle herd to accelerate the growth of grass. He’s now retired but said running Blizzard is kind of like having a job.

“We need about five or six people in to order to operate so that ... the guy down here doesn’t have to stand here for six hours. He can actually go to the restroom, or eat his lunch or whatever," he said.

Like most of the infrastructure on the mountain, the 1974 snow cat, or groomer, had a life of its own before arriving at Blizzard.

“It served at at least two other resorts," Cheyney said. "These things require lot of maintenance and repairs when they’re new and even more when they get older.”

The lodge is an old one-room schoolhouse from 50 miles up the road and the lift is powered by a reconfigured Chevy engine that takes liquid propane.

The lift itself is not a chairlift, but a "Poma lift." Skiers stand and straddle a small disk that’s connected to the chain above by a long pole, which tugs them up the hill.

“My grandpa and some of his friends went down to Logan Canyon and took this apart and then hauled it up here and put it together," said Jake Reynolds, who brought his kids to ski at Blizzard Mountain.

His grandpa was Eldon Reynolds. He and two friends took their families skiing at Sun Valley around 1960. They thought it was too expensive, so they drove around scouting out hills in the high desert where they could teach their kids the sport. They landed on one northeastern face across from the snow-covered lava fields at Craters of the Moon.

The view at Blizzard Mountain Ski Area looks over Craters of the Moon National Monument
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
Skiers at Blizzard Mountain look over the lava fields at Craters of the Moon National Monument

When they saw Beaver Mountain near Logan, Utah, was selling its Poma lift, they jumped on it for $2,000 and brought it back on a truck.

"My dad spent every weekend up here working on this and trying to keep it running," Reynolds said.

Reynolds learned to ski at Blizzard. In the 60s and 70s, the Lions Club ran a ski school and brought kids from town on a bus. He still lives in Arco, but this is his first day at the hill since he was nine or 10.

“[It's] kind of nostalgic," he said. "I remember stealing bubble gum from my grandma — she used to work in the cook shack. My dad used to be up there on the top a lot. And we would go up there. It was kind of scary for us back then.”

Blizzard Mountain operated until the mid-1970s, when there was a severe drought, and members of the original crew had gotten sick or moved away. After that, the lifts stayed off for almost 20 years.

That was until an Arco fireman named Chip Wood rallied some community members and the Lions Club to bring it back.

“Chip and his friends replaced almost all towers with steel towers," Cheyney said. "They did a lot of work and in 1994 they were ready to open it and they solicited people to be on ski patrol.”

Patrollers from nearby resorts came to train about 15 locals. Cheyney was one of them. He and a few others ended up joining the patrol at Grand Targhee Resort, too, just across the Idaho-Wyoming border.

Some members of that group that was trained at Blizzard in the mid-90s come out to help every now and then. But Cheyney’s the only one that’s there every weekend. He says it's more difficult to get consistent volunteers, in general.

“If you ask people they almost always say, Oh, yeah, I’ll help, and then you call them up the weekend that you need them and they so, oh, my wife says I have to do this this week. Or, I’m taking my kids to Soldier.”

He said he and his fellow lead volunteer, Robin Pearson, need to get some younger people to take over for them.

"We’re in pretty good shape," he said. "But we’re not going to be in great shape forever."

Chad Cheyney moves a snow sled outside.
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
Chad Cheyney moves a ski patrol snow sled out of the lodge at Blizzard Mountain.

One new addition to the volunteer crew is Cheri Pearson, a local EMT. She’s there in case anyone gets injured.

“Kids will get off-kilter or someone will fall and it will pull it so it will pull the cable off. And so you’re kind of monitoring that and just helping kids get on and off," Pearson said.

One of those kids is her youngest child, Peyton, who’s 8. This is his first day learning to ski.

"Like french fries, right? French fries and pizza," Pearson coaches Peyton.

He makes it partially up then hill on the Poma lift when Cheyney flips a light switch to shut the lift off.

“Can you see tower 8?" Cheyney asks into his radio. "Yeah, it looks okay," another volunteer responds.

Pearson said that skiing at Blizzard is a bit of a test of patience.

“We probably start and stop once an hour. Just something happens and gotta be patient and get it fixed," she said.

This scenario repeats itself a few more times. Cheyney and volunteers stop the lift to get the cable back on track. Skiers stand waiting or peel off the lift line and start swaying down the course.

This is Pearson’s second Saturday volunteering, and she's already sold it's a great thing for her community.

“Some people will bring out hot chocolate or soup to share or whatever and other times you just bring your own lunch, and it’s definitely small town, but really fun,” she said.

About 65 people came to ski or hang out at Blizzard that day, Cheyney said.

Mid-way through the next week he’s already looking ahead to the following Saturday. When asked why he keeps coming back to run the mountain each year, he said, “I’m not really sure, it must be I’m just crazy.”

But, really, he said, he enjoys watching people from the valley learning to ski and snowboard for the first time.

“Some of those folks probably really couldn’t afford to do it somewhere else or drive every weekend someplace else to do it,” he said.

Then, there's the snow. Sometimes a lack of it means Blizzard can only open for a few days in a year. But when it’s good, Cheyney said, you can stand at the base, spread your arms out, and ski everywhere in between.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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