Big Mountain saw different kind of skiing in the 30s

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Early skiers on Big Mountain.

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.

Reprinted from The Big Mountain Ptarmigan Tracks, March 23, 1984

Original Hellroaring Ski Club pioneers Big Mountain skiing (Installment No. 2)

They never cut any ski trails until years later. There were plenty of open areas to ski where sheepherders had formerly grazed their bands of sheep. (This reminded Mully and Lyle of the incident with the sheepherder who was attacked by a grizzly. As the story goes, the sheepherder picked up his rifle to shoot, but the bear bit the barrel and bent it. Then the man shoved one arm down the throat of the bear while stabbing him with a knife with his free hand. The herder must haw won the battle because the skin of the grizzly was displayed in town and the doctor verified the wounds of the sheepherder were caused by a bear.)

Skiing wasn’t quite what it is now, back then. In the ‘30s they had a blacksmith make their bindings before the commercial plate-type was available. At that time, those were considered a real advancement, giving skiers lots of lateral control and allowing them to make a long radius change in direction. In the open areas of the mountains, the style of skiing was a semi-snowplow-wide-stance in a generally straight direction.

From the cabins, skiers went down on an old sheep trail through the timber to the parking area at the road. “We’d clatter on down, go pitching into the woods… fall 20-30-40 times — pick ourselves up and do it again,” Mully describes.

Thinking back on those times, Lyle couldn’t help but chuckle. “They left me up there once — with a broken ankle — at the top of that big mountain. The others had skied on, then coaxed Lyle on down until they finally reached the cabin. There they nailed his skis together to make a sled for carrying the victim. Mully remembers another time it took him 12 hours to ski down from the top with an injured Ole Dalen.

Ole Dalen was hired caretaker of the cabins for $40 a month. There were even ads in the big Montana cities advertising “Stay at ski cabins free — bedroll and food!” Why they even had night skiing by the light of Coleman lanterns. “We played lots of poker up there,” Lyle reported, “penny ante, that was.” He told a story of how a group of Missoula skiers who stayed at the cabins accused the Whitefish locals of syndicating the poker games — and never did come back.

Visitors to the cabins were expected to pact in their own food the two-plus miles from the parking area. But it happened that stays were extended and rations became short. “Why I remember eating spuds for a week,” said Lyle. “And there was another time that we completely ran out of food and had to go down. But we ran into some skiers at the bottom who were just headed up, loaded down with packs full of grub. So we took their packs, turned right around and carried them all the way back up in exchange for food.’’

It was kind of an unwritten rule at the cabins for skiers to keep up the supply of firewood. “Once these two guys who were staying up there were too lazy to go out during a storm to cut wood for the fire. So they just cut up all the furniture made of logs and burned it. The next time we went up, there was no more furniture,” Mully and Lyle recall.

To be continued next week...

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