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Terry Peak: A South Dakota Skiing Tradition
Mar 8, 2012
Terry Peak is a special mountain. It is where South Dakotans, and a whole lot of other Midwesterners, go to cut their teeth on skiing. Terry Peak’s 1150 feet of vertical are the most between the Rockies and the Alleghenies, but there’s a lot more magic going on there than just the high speed quads and over 100 days of skiing per year. With annual snowfall of over 180 inches and a ski season that runs until the end of March, this mountain has creds. But you can read Ski Magazine until your AARP application arrives and you’ll find no mention of this Black Hills gem, which is ok with the Midwesterners that occupy these slopes. There’s no Gucci on this mountain — this is denim and Carhartt country.
Terry Peak is designed for casual fun. The ranchers you meet on the slopes may well own a set of Rossies or a Burton board, but they’re just as likely to be newbies with rentals having a great time with their kids. There are a lot more vans, pickups and Suburbans than Beamers or Escalades at the Stewart Lodge parking lot, and you won’t need to float a bank loan for a family three-day ski trip. In fact, if you buy your season pass before October 31, they give it to you for half price — and kids under 5 get free passes.
Terry Peak is in the Northern Black Hills, just up the road from Lead, South Dakota, and the famous but dormant Homestake Open Pit Mine. From the top of Terry your inspiring views include a look down on Bear Butte, which is pretty skyline-dominating in its own right from the flatland perspective.
At Terry Peak, and at the Dark Horse, everybody was family...
After law school, while interning at a Rapid City law firm, I took up snow skiing — South Dakota style. With friends from home that were more likely to be dressed in snowmobile suits or just blue jeans than the latest rage in après-ski, we turned and burned from first run until last call. When you only had a couple of days to try and break all your bones, you needed to get after it.
In the old days, Terry Peak’s ambiance was driven by the Dark House Lounge, which was kind of a converted, over-blown fish shack. It had a bar, with about 4 seats and 6 drinkers at it at all times. The center of the Dark Horse was occupied by a pot-belly stove, surrounded by the prized seats — converted, removed bus seats. At Terry Peak, and at the Dark Horse, everybody on that piece of South Dakota was family, and your best friend.
When gold mining of the heap-leach variety found the Black Hills, and specifically the base of the red chair at Terry, things changed. Golden Reward made the smart political move of buying into the always financially struggling operation, and infusing real cash. The chair lifts were replaced (except the red chair) with high speed quads, and fancy new base lodges were built. One sad aspect to the domestication of Terry is that the Dark Horse — the real one — was torn down (which probably took about 5 minutes and one good push).
As Terry Peak was transforming, so was our life. My wife really disliked skiing while pregnant — there’s just some of this stuff that is hard for a guy to wrap his head around. Ski trips became the annual Iron Man Ski Day, which was a 350-mile drive after work, one night of sleep, one night of skiing and 350 miles home. The group included some configuration of a priest, a doctor, a lawyer, a soldier and patrolman. That sounds like the set up for a good joke, but that’s how young guys with young families feed a skiing addiction out on the prairie. One of those years the temperature was fifty below wind-chill, but when you’re doing the iron man deal, it’s no wimps allowed and you keep turning and burning. One year we even let a group of similarly situated buddies from Sisseton join us, but if you’ve ever socialized with those “hill folks” from the Coteau you can appreciate why once is enough — unless the opportunity to post bail at the Lawrence County jail excites you.
Boarders are to skiing what penance is to Lent — a sadly predictable and necessary part of the experience.
Finally, when our youngest child was four, we headed back to the slopes like so many Midwestern families. The parent pattern on the slopes is amazingly predictable. First, put the little tyke in a ski school, ostensibly to learn to ski. But, for two hours mom and dad get to ski together — snuggling on the chair lift with your snow bunny. After ski school, mom and dad pull the split shift routine. One skis the bunny hill at a half hour a run, while the other takes the older kids to more challenging runs on the rest of the mountain. In hindsight, either shift is a good gig.
At some point the kids get good enough to leave the skis behind and migrate to the devil’s spawn — the dreaded snowboard. Every good skier can recount the agony of watching the “boarders” riding those things sideways down the slope — scrapping and mounding all the snow they encounter. Boarders are to skiing what penance is to Lent — a sadly predictable and necessary part of the experience.
Terry has two base areas. Since all the rentals and the bunny slope are at the Stewart Lodge, this is ground zero for family camping. The Occupy folk got nuth’n on the families and groups that roll into this Lodge. Parents move onto tables laden with coolers of trail mix, fruit drinks and the most passable healthy looking food they feel has some chance of being consumed by the kids. These treats will of course be going head to head against the local fare of nachos soaked in cheese and chili, chicken noodle soup, assorted power drinks – and of course, hot chocolate. The chances that parents on a health kick are going to prevail during this trip are pretty much nil. Ski breaks at Terry are a kid’s party at a surprisingly affordable price — for a ski area.
The family encampment program is fun to watch. The key is to get there early and dump as many bags as possible on a corner table, which makes it look like somebody would have to be very rude to move your gear or camp over it. Many groups come equipped with a “Lodge Mom”. The Lodge Mom (dads can do this too — my friend Mitch does) is invaluable. They read their book while saving the encampment. As chilled little ones come in, they blow noses, find change for hot chocolate, and bundle and unbundle youngsters heading for the facilities.
Ski breaks at Terry are a kid's party at a surprisingly affordable price.
At Terry Peak, parents never feel like their kids are going to be nabbed by some ne’er-do-well. This is a safe place designed for kids to rule. It’s Midwestern friendly. Whether they brought one or not, any kid in the lodge in need of a couple of parenting hands will likely find them available. How can you not be smiling and friendly when the newbie antics are your panoramic view all day out the massive slope-side windows of Stewart Lodge?
For many years a collection of families from Watertown, loosely organized under the title of Snow Drifters, spent spring break at Terry Peak. When about 20 or 25 families converge on a mountain for three days, a lifetime of friendships and memories are created. One non-skier, Jan, raised a couple of Junior Miss South Dakotans and a US Naval Academy grad, but will still remain most famous for her work as the “Lodge Mom” to several hundred kids through those years. Those families would like to think our experience was unique, but the church busses in the parking lot are a testimony to groups creating those experiences all season long.
Terry Peak is a South Dakota reunion. Unless your visit to Terry was your first time out of a cloistered community, if you are a South Dakotan, you have friends at Terry Peak. Personally, since I’ve been wearing the same bright red ski pants, with a purple windbreaker for a shell, for 25 years, I have an easy time being recognized by my friends. My kids claim that the uniqueness of the attire lacks any redeeming social value, and that fashion has moved past me in the last few decades. I think they are jealous, and that eventually bright red and purple will make a comeback.
Lee Schoenbeck grew up in Webster, practices law in Watertown, and is a freelance writer for the South Dakota Magazine website.