The first time Shane Moulder and Nate Chute entered a snowboard competition, they were barely into their teenage years. It was a loosely organized race in their hometown, Whitefish, and put on by a local ski and snowboard shop called Snow Frog. The shop’s owners, in a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Flathead Valley’s brutally long winters, called the banked slalom and boardercross the Hawaiian Classic.
Three years later, Chute died by suicide, not long after graduating from Whitefish High School. Six months after that, in March 2000, Moulder and dozens of other friends, family and loved ones, reeling from grief and unsure what to do with it, gathered on Big Mountain to put on a race of their own. They called it the Nate Chute Hawaiian Classic.
This March, Moulder and dozens of others will reunite for the 20th annual Nate Chute Classic — the name was shortened a few years ago — to continue what has become the second-longest running banked slalom in the United States, one that draws competitors from throughout the Northwest and offers a $4,000 purse. But they will also gather for Chute, and the Nate Chute Foundation, and to shine light on the epidemic of suicide that still plagues Montana nearly 20 years later.
“I try to make a big deal out of it not being a snowboard contest,” Moulder said. “Before we get to the snowboard contest we talk about why we’re here and what we’re doing it for. There’s a million snowboard contests you could do but this one is about a little bit more.”
Montana has among the highest suicide rates in the nation, and suicide is the leading cause of preventable death of Montanans between age 10 and 14, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Kacy Howard, a friend of Chute’s and fellow Whitefish High School graduate who has been a part of every Nate Chute Classic, now heads up the Nate Chute Foundation as executive director. Howard came to the foundation after a career working in education and mental health, and has worked to expand the foundation’s offerings, which include educational programs and outreach in every Flathead Valley high school and most middle schools.
But for as much passion and energy she has devoted to combating Montana’s suicide epidemic and preventing others from experiencing the kind of loss she and her friends did almost 20 years ago, when the Classic rolls around it takes her into the past.
“The contest is really a unique time for me,” Howard said. “It’s the opportunity for me to make it personal again that weekend, and connect with the faces and the people that were part of that experience 20 years ago now. It’s really cathartic. It’s gone from a place of grief to a place of gratitude, and it’s a really cool transformation.”
Moulder can still remember the days before that transformation.
“The first one was like a wake,” he said. “And it serves today as a platform to bring people together. It was a lot more centered around mourning the passing of our friend back then.”
By Moulder’s estimate, somewhere between 30 and 50 people took part in the first Nate Chute Classic, and a fair chunk of those people still come back year after year, no matter where life takes them. Moulder now lives in Portland, Oregon, and, despite that and other obstacles that have been thrown in his way, has never missed one.
This year’s Nate Chute Classic is scheduled for March 16 and 17, and in homage to the first Classic will begin with a luau at Bonsai Brewing on March 15. Entry into the competition is $80 for both the boardercross and banked slalom or $40 per event, although any competitor who raises at least $300 for the Nate Chute Foundation through its Crowdrise campaign will have their entry fee waived.
While the Classic can bring out some top snowboarders, and the winners of the men’s and women’s open division races will qualify for next year’s Mount Baker Legendary Banked Slalom, the trip down the mountain that resonates most with Moulder and Howard is the Lap for the Lost, which takes place at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
The lap was born out of another tragedy, the death of snowboarder Aaron Robinson on a Chilean mountain in 2011. Robinson, 24 at his death, grew up in Whitefish and had competed in the Nate Chute Classic as a youngster, routinely winning the unsanctioned, event-ending Chinese downhill before his passing. The following year, racers gathered and passed around a megaphone, sharing the names of people they had lost and opening up about their own personal struggles. That sharing still happens today and is followed by a moment of silence, then a moment of loudness, and a trip down to the Hellroaring Basin.
It’s an extraordinarily vulnerable and emotional moment for those who participate, and one that most closely honors both Chute’s legacy and the years-long effort to encourage the sharing of intimate, sometimes difficult feelings. It is no coincidence that the Lap for the Lost is the final on-mountain activity of the weekend and comes at the conclusion of two days of bonding and socializing between friends new and old.
“A lot of times when we’re going through something we tend to internalize it,” Moulder said. “With everyone sharing the problems they’re going through, and that other people are experiencing similar feelings, whether it’s loss or adversity, for me it’s truly become the most rewarding part of the weekend.”
Moulder called his annual trip home to Whitefish for this event a “pilgrimage,” and while Howard still lives in the Flathead Valley the weekend is no less meaningful, she and others have even noticed another annual tradition, one she jokes shouldn’t be a problem during this currently brutal winter: It snows during every Nate Chute Classic.
“Nate’s presence shows up every year, which is neat, and the same faces that were there the first year are still here,” Howard said. “Through that experience, we became a family. We were kids dealing with something really tragic and complicated and difficult to understand. The greatest gift of all is the relationships.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24-hours a day, seven days a week by calling (800) 273-8255, and the National Crisis Text Line is available by texting 741-741. Both resources are free and confidential.