Forty Years on the Slopes

Blacktail’s Steve Spencer is one of four inductees into the Flathead ski hall of fame

By Justin Franz
Steve Spencer, founder of Blacktail Mountain Ski Area, was recently inducted into the Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation’s hall of fame. He is pictured at Blacktail Mountain on March 9, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

On a recent Wednesday morning, Steve Spencer rushed around the lodge trying to outfit an entire busload of middle school students with gear for a day of skiing and riding atop Blacktail Mountain.

On most weekdays, Blacktail Mountain hosts students from around the valley for a day of skiing. Although it can result in some pretty hectic mornings for Spencer and his staff, getting the kids on the slopes is an important part of the mountain’s mission: ensuring skiing is always accessible for everyone, especially locals.

Twenty years ago, Spencer, who was a manager on Whitefish’s Big Mountain, worried that the hobby was becoming too expensive for some people. So he left his job in Whitefish and started looking for a suitable mountain for a small, regional ski area. Two decades later, Blacktail Mountain is going strong and because of that Spencer is being inducted into the Flathead Ski Heritage Center’s Hall of Fame on March 18 and 19. The induction ceremony is one of the highlights of the third annual Hellroaring Ski Heritage Days at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

“It took me by surprise,” Spencer said of being one of the four Hall of Fame inductees for 2016. “I guess if you avoid getting a real job long enough they’ll eventually give you an award like this.”

But even if Spencer likes to joke that his 40 years on the slopes hasn’t been a “real job” he has certainly worked hard every winter.

Spencer, now 66, grew up in Columbia Falls and started skiing in the fourth grade. Back then there were quite a few options for the young skier, including a few homegrown hills in Whitefish, South Kalispell and Creston. Spencer and his friends frequented a hill near Creston that was run by a farmer who had strung up two tractor-powered rope tows on his property.

A few years later, Spencer graduated to Big Mountain and in 1967 he began his career as a patroller there. The following year he moved to the patrol in Aspen, Colorado. His ski career was briefly interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served as a medic in Okinawa, Japan. After being discharged, he returned to the United States and spent summers fishing in Alaska and winters patrolling on Big Mountain. In 1974, he became patrol supervisor and in 1981 he was promoted to mountain operations manager.

By the mid-1990s, however, Spencer began to notice a change in the industry. As season pass prices continued to rise, some longtime skiers began to give up on the hobby. In 1995, Spencer left Big Mountain and began developing Blacktail Mountain Ski Area near Lakeside. The ski area opened in December 1998 and since then it has grown in popularity. Today, about 100 people work at the ski area and it hosts 45,000 skiers annually.

“I think regional size ski areas are very necessary to the industry because people learn how to ski on these small hills,” he said. “No one goes to Aspen or Vail on their first day.”

Tim Hinderman, executive director of the Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation (which runs the Flathead Ski Heritage Center) said Spencer’s contributions to promoting skiing in the south end of the Flathead Valley are why he’s being inducted into the hall of fame.

“Steve has done more than most for skiing in the Valley,” he said.

Spencer will be joining a dozen other members of the heritage center’s hall of fame. Other 2016 inductees include Jim Barrier, Tim Grattan and Bill Martin. Barrier moved to Kalispell as a teenager and became the first Montanan to join the U.S. Olympic ski team and competed at the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California. Grattan helped organize the Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation in the early 1970s. And Martin has been a longtime promoter of skiing in the valley first as one of the founding members of the Kalispell Ski Club and later president and chief executive officer of Winter Sports Inc. All four men are being inducted into the hall of fame on Friday, March 18 at Grouse Mountain Lodge. The induction ceremony kicks off a series of Ski Heritage Days events that will take place throughout the weekend. Visit www.fvsef.org for a full schedule of events.

Spencer said he is humbled to be included in the hall of fame. But just because he’s being honored for his life’s work does mean Spencer is about to slowdown.

“I’m sure there will come a time when I want to step aside,” he said. “But right now I still enjoy coming to work every day.”

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