The blowing snow that buffeted competitors who lined up for Saturday’s Whitefish Whiteout ski mountaineering race on Big Mountain was a fitting testament to the postman-like oath that ensures only the most frightful conditions could conspire to postpone this beloved annual event.
The visibility was not so poor as to obscure my view of the dozens of spandex-clad racers ahead of me, however — a cadre of elite “skimo” racers cutting whip-thin profiles against the steep vertical course, which sends participants over roughly eight miles of terrain as they gain more than a vertical mile of elevation.
Dressed in baggy snowboarding bibs and lashed to a pair of thick planks that, when assembled, form my “split board” snowboard, I looked more than a little out of place as I readied my kit for the long journey ahead.
And yet, I felt right at home.
I gained an early appreciation for both the difficulty of the Whitefish Whiteout and its air of inclusivity when I first moved to the Flathead Valley a decade ago and wrote about the race, interviewing the event’s proudest local ambassador and frequent champion, Ben Parsons.
As a perennial top contender with numerous Whiteout wins, Parsons occupied a rarefied tier of elite athlete, and yet his enthusiasm for outdoor adventure was so infectious and inviting that he broadened the appeal of a sport that could otherwise be a bit clique-y.
Due in large part to Whitefish Mountain Resort’s policy permitting uphill travel on designated routes, skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers of all abilities regularly ascend a well-worn path to the summit of Big Mountain for fun and fitness. Some do so as part of a targeted training regimen for “skimo” races like the Whiteout, while others simply enjoy the pre-dawn quiet of a summit ascent and relish the opportunity to make fresh turns before work, descending the Toni Matt ski run by headlamp.
For Parsons, the uphill policy captured the local community’s relationship to the ski area at its intimate best, and he never missed an opportunity to inscribe the slopes with a swift ascent in between shifts at the Whitefish Fire Department — or to encourage others to do the same.
“The unique thing about this valley is that, because the hill allows uphill travel, a lot of people go out and discover that it really pulls them through the long winters,” Parsons told me in 2012. “They find solace in hiking the hill before work or after work or in the middle of the day, and that’s created this buzz of, ‘Hey, how fast did you hike the hill?’ Everyone pushes themselves a little bit, and this race really tests those limits.”
The primary uphill route was renamed the “Benny Up” route following Parsons’ tragic death in an avalanche in January 2017, and his namesake skin track tests the resolve and animates the spirits of skiers every day during the winter season.
On Feb. 8, about 120 competitors ascended the Benny Up route to kick off this year’s Whitefish Whiteout, with the top men finishing the race in a breakneck pace of just over two hours, and the first four — close friends of Parsons’ — crossing the finish line in unison.
I shuffled across the finish a couple hours after those first-place finishers, exhausted and aching from the effort.
Still, there isn’t a whiteout in the world that could have hidden my smile.