Every morning since Whitefish Mountain Resort opened for its winter season on Dec. 7, Susan Armstrong has been the first to arrive at the pod of lockers she shares with a dedicated squad of skiers on Big Mountain.
Most mornings, she’s the last out the door, running the clock down to the final minutes before the chairs start spinning while she deliberates over her scattered gear. As Armstrong fastidiously (and slowly) picks through a winter’s worth of accessories, a familiar cast of characters begin filing into the room — dedicated fellow skiers who squirrel away their equipment in the tall wooden lockers beneath Ed and Mully’s and, with metronomic regularity, ride the chairlifts from bell to bell.
This year, however, no one is enjoying the epic ski season quite like Armstrong.
At 59, the retired U.S. Air Force equipment specialist has been living back in the Flathead Valley with her husband for the past four years. After graduating from Whitefish High School the couple left the area to pursue military careers and, upon retiring, were eager to leave the base in Ogden, Utah and return home.
For Armstrong, a 5-foot dynamo of athleticism and good cheer, the homecoming was an opportunity to resume her lifelong passion for skiing.
“I just love being outside,” Armstrong said on a recent weekday morning on Big Mountain after loading Chair 2 at 9 a.m. sharp, a routine that ensures she’ll be ferried to the lift terminal at the earliest opportunity in order to attain her goal.
To be sure, Armstrong’s dedication to the sport has become something of a local curiosity as she bombs down the mountain before riding the lifts back up, only pausing for bathroom breaks and an occasional lunch.
The liftees know her by name, while Big Mountain habitués recognize Armstrong by her height and signature bright-orange helmet emblazoned with a sticker that says, “Got Fog?”
As the lift transports her through a miasmic fogbank for another run, it becomes increasingly clear that Armstrong is not one to shy away from ambitious goals like the one she’s set for herself this ski season — she’s about to become the first woman to win the Big Mountain “vert competition,” a feat she’ll accomplish by logging more vertical feet of skiing than any other season pass holder.
The resort’s vertical program tracks season passes at each chairlift and lists the mileage online as a fun source for families and friends to follow their ski distance throughout the season. In some ski circles, the endeavor is downright cutthroat.
Armstrong is trying to notch more than 4 million feet before the end of the season on April 8, which is perfectly attainable so long as she maintains her pace, taking up to 35 runs per day. Like last year, Armstrong hasn’t missed a single day this ski season, which will top out at 123 days.
“Sue also skied all 124 days last year, which in many respects is even harder than accumulating all that vert,” wrote perennial vert contender Jay Foster and four-time vertical king on his blog, Northern Rockies View, an encyclopedic compendium of statistics from the vert-tracker program. “Sue was exceptional on all accounts.”
Launched before the 2003-04 ski season, the vertical program has posted plenty of records through the years, and last year set a new record for total pass holder vertical after tallying 2,029,385,269 feet.
Foster and Fred Frost are tied for the number of times they’ve been crowned “vert king” at four times each, while Ken Jones holds the official vertical record with 8,058,144 feet, set during the 2015-16 season, beating Tony Cooper’s previous record of 5,612,746 feet set in 2012-13.
Armstrong is fast approaching her goal of 4 million feet, which she hopes to set prior to closing weekend so she can “relax and take it easy.”
Last year, Armstrong logged 3,638,796 feet, which earned her a podium finish in third. The previous year, she set the women’s record for vertical feet, posting 3,906,305. The year she moved back home, she logged 2,439,246.
Until this year, however, Armstrong had never set her sights on breaking records. Rather, she simply enjoyed skiing laps with friends and seeking out diverse terrain. Instead of lapping runs like Toni Matt and Ptarmigan Bowl, which stretch 2,084 feet, she skied the trees and tried to avoid repeating runs.
But after a spate of skiers died by suffocating in tree wells at ski areas across the Pacific Northwest this winter, Armstrong’s husband urged her to avoid the trees. She and a few other skier friends bought matching bright-orange helmets after they helped wrest a fallen skier from a tree well.
The only piece of gear visible on the buried skier? A bright-orange helmet.
And that’s when Armstrong’s quest to be crowned vertical queen began in earnest.
“That’s when I decided I would go for it,” she said. “Now all I have to do is not get injured.”
All of the top-five vert contenders store their gear in the same locker room as Armstrong, and while the competition is fierce but playful, everyone is cheering her on.
“She’s a great skier and she’s up here every single day,” Jim Petersen, a retired minister currently ranked in fourth place, said. “She deserves it and we’re all rooting for her. We think it’s cool that a woman is going to be number one.”
Upon completing her goal and celebrating her vertical victory, Armstrong will begin training for the Odgen Marathon on May 19, giving her less than six weeks of preparation for the 26.2-mile race. Although Armstrong figures she’s only run two or three times all winter, she trusts that her muscle memory will know what to do.
After all, she’s run 134 marathons in her lifetime, as well as competed in a 100-mile ultramarathon and a full Ironman.
So while Armstrong will have skied the equivalent of more than 760 miles at the end of this season, assuming she completes her goal, she has run more than 3,600 miles in marathons.
Back in the locker room, the mood is all good-natured fun as Fred Frost and Big Mountain’s other top vertical contenders tease Armstrong about the state of her locker, which is brimming with goggles, boots and all manner of sweat-wicking base layers and Gore-Tex shells.
“You see what I’ve got to put up with?” Armstrong laughs.
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