For a ski area with its share of secret relics, Big Mountain’s deepest archive of history is hidden in plain view.
The rich history of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s evolution isn’t written in the forest-obscured liftee shacks or the ancient survival cabins, and it’s not scrawled on the rim of a Model T wheel lashed to a giant larch, which once served as a rope-tow sheave to ferry the ski area’s earliest visitors up the slopes. It’s not drifting among the musty rafters at the Bierstube or even buried alongside a closing-day keg.
Instead, Big Mountain’s past — and present — is best charted inside Ebb Schuele’s classic three-story chalet, which remains a centerpiece on Big Mountain with a passionate following. The buffalo-brown building, built by Schuele in 1949 when Whitefish’s ski resort was barely two years old, has evolved from the first base lodge and the Rocky Mountain Chalet to its longstanding identity as Hellroaring Saloon and Eatery.
Seven decades later, the old chalet is going strong, even after flirting with mortality and finding a new lease on life.
“We are the oldest building on the mountain,” owner Patrice LaTourelle said on a recent pre-season afternoon, prepping her Hellroaring Saloon for a winter’s worth of visitors. “That comes with some baggage. We’ve been through thick and thin and there was some uncertainty about its future. But it got to the point where there was enough community support and we found a way to pull through. This place holds a lot of history for the old-school valley folks.”
Through the years, harsh winters have battered the slope-side building, situated prominently between Chairs 1 and 2, and cast a shadow over the treasured mainstay that has been forever tied to the character and history of Big Mountain.
Sections of the chalet’s foundation had weakened while plumbing and electrical problems stacked up, requiring more than a little massaging. The roof needed repairs and the exterior was pleading for a facelift.
Despite Hellroaring’s popularity, the resort in the last decade considered bulldozing the entire chalet and relocating the saloon because of the building’s declining conditions. Public support rallied together to encourage the resort to preserve the chalet, which it did. But the resort opted not to invest in the expensive upkeep; it needed owners who would take on that task.
The oldest structure on Big Mountain once had an uncertain future, indeed, but a trio of angels rescued Hellroaring from its precarious perch.
In 2012 Whitefish Mountain Resort officials and the owners of Hellroaring Saloon partnered together to ensure its preservation, with the resort agreeing to lease the land and hand over ownership of the building to the saloon’s three owners — LaTourelle, Bob Riso and Riso’s son, Luke. The lease is for 25 years, with two additional five-year extensions available.
The new ownership meant LaTourelle and the Risos had an asset they could invest in, and that’s exactly what they did. They strengthened the chalet’s foundation with concrete and completed structural renovations, including upgrading the windows, siding and roof and repainting the outside, according to LaTourelle.
“It changed our focus a little bit more,” she said. “Now we have an asset and it’s something we own and really care about.”
“We think we’re a really nice complement to the mountain,” she said.
It also carries on the legacy of LaTourelle’s late husband, Jon Bos. In the fall of 1975, Bos opened Hellroaring Saloon on Wisconsin Avenue in Whitefish. The business was relocated to the chalet in 1983 and for one winter was called “Schuele’s Copper Bar.” But after that it was renamed Hellroaring Saloon, “and it just took off from there,” LaTourelle said.
Bos passed away in 2002 and LaTourelle sold Hellroaring. But after a few years the new owners were close to shutting it down, and LaTourelle emerged to retake ownership with the Risos, who were longtime family friends.
“For me Hellroaring is his legacy,” LaTourelle said of her late husband.
The chalet has undergone a few changes over the years, including the creation of 36 locker rooms for rent on the second and third floors.
But the inside of Hellroaring Saloon today appears much like it has for decades. The wooden walls display antique alpine skis, newspaper and magazine clippings showcasing the local ski culture and old pictures of familiar faces. There are personalized autographed photos from Drew Bledsoe, Tommy Moe and Tanner Hall.
A framed piece features Kalispell pro kayaker Brad Ludden on the cover of Outside magazine and a letter that Ludden wrote long ago, calling Hellroaring “the best saloon on the planet.” A banner from 1996 hangs from the rafters, reading, “Skiing Magazine’s Best Slopeside Bar in Ski Country.”
“I think it just blends in really well with Whitefish and the culture that we have here,” Dan Graves, the CEO of Whitefish Mountain Resort, said of Hellroaring and the chalet.
The building itself is now surrounded by the expanding Whitefish Mountain Resort. Customers eager for a lunch break can ski right up to the door and walk in to enjoy the famous mountainous nachos.
“It’s a unique location,” Graves said. “There’s not very many buildings like that in the middle of ski slopes with that kind of historical value around the U.S. anymore.”
This winter is on pace to be a banner season for Whitefish Mountain Resort, and that success will be visible at Hellroaring on a daily basis. Even on weekdays, the saloon regularly fills to near capacity within a half-hour of opening, and its stable of regular customers assemble like clockwork.
The Curmudgeon Club, for example, has converged on Hellroaring Saloon every winter Wednesday since the 1980s and is populated with skiers like Carl Coletti, who will celebrate his 80th birthday this ski season at his beloved saloon. Meanwhile, the Curmudgeons In Training (CIT) gather on Thursdays, keeping a wary eye on their forefathers, who don’t seem to age even as the CIT faithful grow longer in the tooth.
Karl Schenck, son of the late Ed Schenck, Big Mountain’s co-founder and its first general manager, has been frequenting these ski slopes since before he could walk, and remembers the chalet’s early days fondly.
“Growing up in Whitefish I lived by the lake and went to the mountain every day I could. I learned how to ski the same time I learned how to walk,” he said. “I would go up every morning with my dad and he would tell someone on the ski patrol to keep an eye on me. And then I’d go skiing. Around noon they had a PA system to broadcast the ski patrol report and they would say, ‘Would Karl Schenck please report to the Chalet for his nap.’”
When it’s busy at Hellroaring Saloon, and it often is, LaTourelle barely has a few minutes to break away from the action and share stories of the saloon and the old chalet with her customers.
“I get stories from people who say they were engaged here in 1952,” she said. “A lot of people still come back and talk about this place. We love it here. We’re happy that we’re staying put.”
Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the winteredition for free on newsstands across the valley, or check it out online at flatheadliving.com.
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