Mike Muldown remembers it fondly: a muddy parking lot, wet clothes, and cold, miserable weather. Back in the rugged days of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the thought of ascending snow-covered mountainsides for fun was unconventional bordering on eccentric.
But that rush of adrenaline from whipping downhill atop narrow wooden skis, which would attract perplexed gazes in this modern age of gilded gear, made all those drawbacks and apprehension evaporate.
“It was fun,” Muldown said in the simplest yet truest sense.
What began as a wild pursuit in the forest overlooking Whitefish has evolved into a resort destination that is regularly praised on a national level and is inextricably tied to the community’s identity and passion.
This winter marks the 70th anniversary of Whitefish Mountain Resort. The local ski area is scheduled to open for the season Dec. 7. The 70th season celebrations will begin by commemorating the inaugural opening day — Dec. 14, 1947 — with an event recognizing the founders: Ed Schenck and George Prentice, along with the so-called father of skiing in Whitefish, Lloyd “Mully” Muldown, the father of Mike Muldown.
“Seventy is a big number — there are not a lot of resorts that have been around that long,” said Dan Graves, CEO of Whitefish Mountain Resort. “To be in that select list is an honor.”
Graves credits the support of the community dating back to the ski area’s inception as well as the growing lineup of visitors from across the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s one thing to be around for 70 years,” he said. “It’s another thing to be around for 70 years and continue to see skier visitation grow.”
Indeed, the ski resort is more popular and beloved than ever. Last winter, Whitefish Mountain Resort tallied more than 346,000 skier visits during the 2016-17 season, roughly 1,000 more than the previous record set in 2013-14. The record visitation emerged from one of the best winters on record, during which Big Mountain accumulated 407 inches of snow, the second-deepest snowpack in 20 years.
This fall, the towering mountain was named the 10th best ski resort in the West by SKI Magazine readers, marking the fifth time in the last six years that Whitefish Mountain Resort landed in the top 15.
The SKI Magazine rankings, which feature top reader-ranked resorts and ski amenities, includes a list of prominent resorts, such as Vail and Deer Valley, but the local mountain tucked in the northwestern corner of Montana still holds its own.
“There are some big players that have far more well-known names with bigger airports and metropolises nearby and more lifts and lodges,” Graves said. “When I look at the consistency of our rankings, I think it’s because we have made it a goal to attain a level of service and quality that our customers are responding to. And I think the word is getting out: You can have a great ski experience here and have 20-30 percent of the crowds that other big places will have.”
Graves said Whitefish Mountain Resort and its ownership embrace their role as an independent ski resort. The ski industry has seen an increasing number of consolidations in recent years, but Whitefish Mountain Resort has remained on its own. The wave of consolidations does create challenges for local resorts that have to compete against a network of mountains, but it can also create opportunities.
“We think our strength is not being part of them,” Graves said. “We offer something unique, and we prefer not to be packaged with an organization that might not be as unique and experience-minded as we are.”
This passion for being distinct is rooted in a deep tradition on Big Mountain.
When the ski area opened in the wake of World War II, it was with the strong support of local businesses and the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, which fundraised to help Schenck and Prentice, two businessmen from Great Falls with the skills to start a ski area. It was passionate advocates like Mully and others who cut an uncharted path, creating a local ski club that trudged uphill to ski downhill in Hellroaring Creek, laying the way for the future resort.
Mully’s son, Mike Muldown, a real estate associate in Whitefish, remembers the early days of the ski area. In fact, one of his earliest memories is sitting atop his fathers’ shoulders as Mully skied downhill.
In those early days, with a $2 lift ticket, skiers could ride a gas-powered T-Bar lift that had 39 carrying units. The lift, considered the longest in Montana at the time, traveled 3,200 feet up a strip of terrain that was cleared of timber and brush to the top of “Mully’s Mile.”
Back then, there were no grooming machines to smooth out the snow, so the slopes were often moguled out and choppy. The gear was in its infant stages, as were the abilities of those early generations of skiers.
A common phrase that became a code of conduct was, “Fill your Sitzmark,” which encouraged skiers who fell to fill in their body’s indentation in the snow.
“We had an old lodge with a big fireplace, and everybody stood in front of the fireplace and put their gloves and boots close to the fire to dry out,” Muldown said.
For particular excitement, skiers could pay 50 cents and grab a rope behind an old Tucker vehicle that dragged people farther up the mountain. It was a 45-minute drive but well worth the fresh, long lines, as Muldown remembers.
“Nowadays everybody takes it for granted,” he said. “We learned on bumpy hills how to turn and survive. And back then, very few people went out and skied powder. The equipment wasn’t conducive to it.”
Tim Hinderman, the son of Karl Hinderman, who owned the ski shop on the mountain in the early years, grew up in a cabin under the present Chair 3 and remembers the rugged excitement of the olden days. It wasn’t until 1960 when the mountain made a quantum leap in its evolution. The installation of a chairlift that traveled to the summit of Big Mountain was a milestone, doubling the vertical size of the ski area and quadrupling the skiable terrain.
“It was probably the single biggest breakthrough in the history of the mountain,” Hinderman said. “As soon as they built that lift to the top and you could look back at Glacier Park, it really changed everything. It was the single biggest change in the whole evolution of the place.”
The experience of riding up the entire mountain was unparalleled at the time for most locals who had never been to a major resort.
“For the locals to go all the way to the top of that mountain, it was huge — and it was exciting,” Hinderman said.
The chairlift, which has since expanded into the high-speed quad known as Big Mountain Express, coupled with the Alpinglow Inn, which began the growth of overnight lodging on the mountain, creating more of a resort setup that blossomed.
“That really made a big difference because it really moved the mountain to a place where people could come and stay,” Hinderman said.
Today, Hinderman, with the Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation, has been instrumental in the creation of the Ski Heritage Center in Whitefish, which is emerging as a museum paying homage to the local ski history. The museum is scheduled to debut a photograph exhibit this winter in conjunction with the resort’s 70th anniversary celebration.
Alongside the bright-white mountain of powder, the events will help illustrate a growing heritage that dates back to the passionate pioneers and community that built a rich wintertime tradition.
“It’s what the old guys were dreaming about,” Muldown said. “They’ve done an amazing job (with Whitefish Mountain Resort), and I think the old guys would be pretty impressed with the town and the mountain’s evolution.”
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