Congregated as we were at the top of a banked slalom race course, a bunch of snowboarders exchanging gentle barbs and friendly banter, I thought my friend Kevin was making one of those lame maternal-insult jokes when he pointed over my shoulder and said, “Hey man, there’s your mom!”
When I turned to look uphill, however, there was my mom, indeed, rocketing down the mountain in a red rescue toboggan, riding on the heels of a ski patroller.
Under normal circumstances this would be cause for alarm, as these sleds are reserved for the injured and infirm. But these weren’t normal circumstances, and mom was sitting bolt upright in the sled, her head thrown back in child-like laughter.
It was the 20th running of the Nate Chute Classic, a two-day snowboarding contest designed to shine light on the epidemic of suicide. Mom, a non-skier with a vested interest in the event, was in town for a special visit, and the good folks with Whitefish Mountain Resort Ski Patrol made last-minute accommodations to ferry her down the mountain to the course so she could watch her son compete.
Now, I use the word “compete” in a very liberal sense.
Even though I’m hyper-competitive by nature, I don’t race snowboards with a podium placement in mind. Winning my age group at the local turkey trot, sure. But sliding sideways at breakneck speeds down a banked slalom course featuring butt-puckering berms of hard-packed snow and ice, not so much.
Yet there I was at the starting gate, my heart racing as I reminded myself to breathe, envisioning every twisting turn in this hand-built helix.
Anyone who’s participated in the Nate Chute Classic will tell you that it’s less a snowboarding contest than a celebration of a community.
The Nate Chute Classic is named after Nate Chute, a 1999 Whitefish High School graduate who died by suicide that same year, and every year for two decades snowboarders have raised tens of thousands of dollars to support the cause.
Like snowboarding, the spirit of this event has lifted me through dark times, and I wanted to share that with mom.
As I positioned myself at the start of this year’s course, I took one last deep breath and listened to the always-harrowing countdown — “Racer ready. 5-4-3-2-1.”
My lungs were working like a bellow as I pumped through the course, gaining confidence with every turn. And then I crashed. Hard.
Picking myself up, I plodded slowly through the final stretch, dejected.
“Hi buddy!” my mom exclaimed. “Great job!”
Lingering at the finish, snowboarders noshed brats and exchanged course beta as the final competitors came through the chute, my mom dishing out hugs to the finishers. My spirits were immediately buoyed.
The next day we were back at Big Mountain, not to compete, but to take part in what in my mind is the weekend’s grand prize — the Lap for the Lost.
After the lifts stop spinning, a couple hundred snowboarders and skiers gather at the summit to share their experiences with life and loss before heading down the hill together.
It’s a powerful moment, and I’d stationed my mom on the deck of Hellroaring Saloon to witness this spectacle of unity. She came into view just as I crested the last prominence overlooking the Flathead Valley.
She was cheering, her head thrown back in childlike delight.