Competition, terrain put mountain on the map

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At the 1955 Doug Smith Memorial, Joanne Askevold receives the first-place trophy from Arnold Hale. From the Whitefish Pilot’s “50 Years of Fun: The Big Mountain” December 1997.

This column is brought to you by the Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation and the Ski Heritage Center Museum of Skiing. Enjoy these fascinating stories about the rich and colorful history of skiing in the Flathead Valley.

That was Then…

World-Class competition and vast terrain put mountain on the map.

In 1950 in Whitefish, you could rent a two-bedroom cottage for $30 a month. Day passes on the T-bar dipped as low as $1.25. The Big Mountain could barely get a line of credit with most merchants in town.

Motorists in those days picked up hitch-hikers to have more help pushing the cars through especially difficult sections of the Big Mountain Road. Screws held metal edges to wooden skis, and if your skis flexed, you risked popping out the screws. Olney didn’t have electricity yet.

By 1955, Olney had power, Elvis was playing guitar and the Korean War was over. The Big Mountain boasted chairlift rides in the summer, ski instruction by Austrian world champion Toni Matt, and a statue of Jesus near the top of the T-bar.

The best young skiers in North America discovered Whitefish that winter as 150 boys and girls competed in the Junior Nationals. And Stumptown local Martin Hale didn’t let down the home crowd, winning the overall boys’ title.

East Coast skiers flew in for the event, most on their first-ever flight. They stayed on the mountain at hotels and “cabin camps” around the Flathead, according to the Whitefish Pilot of the day. Local parents chaperoned nightly social events.

The March event was blessed with fresh snow, and the downhill racers made the inaugural descents of a run opened specially for the event. The county even spruced up The Big Mountain Road in time for the showcase weekend.

Hale, 17, finished second in the downhill and slalom, and tied for first in the cross country, for a combined first-place finish. Ski-jumping, which locals such as Oystein Boveng has taken up, appeared in the Nationals for the first time.

In the 1950s, clubs from Kalispell, Polson, Missoula and beyond made the mountain a favorite weekend destination. Skiing at one of the nations mightiest hills, locals provided some of the stiffest competition in the west. Buddy Babcock, Jane and John Seeley, Kay Simons, Glay Tallman, Carol and Harry Maddox, Sharon Hileman and scores of others placed at and won competitions around the Rockies.

It began a tradition of world-class skiers from Whitefish, from Bill and Jim Barrier of the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team to Tommy Moe and the snowboarding Whitefish boys.

By the end of the decade, Whitefish had TV and its own telephone switchboard. The Big Mountain had powerlines from the valley, new runs, and an $8,000 Tucker Snocat that could drag a dozen skiers up the mountain.

The Big Mountain hired Norm Kurtz in l955 to help with managing and marketing. His efforts combined with those of the Great Northern Railroad to attract people from Minnesota, Wisconsin and the East Coast.

The Mountain was ready for the construction of the 6,800 foot-long, 2,000 foot-vertical Chair 1 — the precursor of the Glacier Chaser. The days of the Rope Tow and Poma Lift were numbered.

This is Now…

FVSEF will be presenting Showcase of the Chefs 2017 “Olympic Fever” at the Lodge at Whitefish Lake on Nov. 30 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets for the gourmet dinner, wine tasting and auction are $85 per person and can be purchased at Whitefish and Kalispell Sportsman Ski Haus stores, Great Northern Ski and Cycle, Whitefish Lake Lodge and on line at fvsef.org. This year’s auction items include cat-ski trip with three Olympians, an epic six-day Alaska summer adventure trip, a Colt Idol giclee “Unbroken Spirit,” a weekend stay in a luxury tree house at Whitefish Mountain Resort, a catered dinner for four in a fire lookout, guided fishing trips on the Flathead River and the Elk River near Fernie, British Columbia, weekend ski trips including Big Sky, Schweitzer and Fernie, British Columbia, and many more items great and small.

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