On Dec. 14, 1947, a legion of wool-clad skiers arrived for the inaugural opening day on Big Mountain and marveled at the ski area’s limitless potential, even as an old logging rope and a Model-T wheel sheave towed them one-by-one to the top of the hill.
Seventy-five years later, that potential is still being realized as Whitefish Mountain Resort puts the finishing touches on its new high-speed six-pack chairlift and furnishes guests with modern luxuries impossible to imagine back in those early years.
Despite the passage of time and the seismic advances in technology (and technical fabrics), skiers today still marvel at the miracle of winter just as they did three-quarters-of-a-century ago, peering at the slope of the mountain through fog-rimed goggles and gauging their trajectory down the hill.
“Skiing’s still skiing,” Cliff Persons, 85, a former ski patroller, groomer and mountain manager, said as Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain prepared to open for its 75th winter season. “Back in the ‘60s there were times when there weren’t more than 40 people up here. You don’t see that anymore, but we’re still having a really good time.”
Indeed, some modern visitors to the Big Mountain might be surprised to encounter skiers of Persons’ vintage on its slopes, particularly as fiberglass boots have replaced the flimsy calf-skin varietals of skiing’s salad days, while 8-foot hickory planks have been relegated to the lumberyard in favor of parabolic wunder-skis.
But Persons’ attitude is timeless, as is the community-wide kinship forged in the crucible of skiing during those pioneering years on Big Mountain. And despite the relentless march of progress, the ski area still pays tribute to its rich tradition and humble origin story, much to the delight of its longtime stewards.
“The magic of it hasn’t changed,” explains Pat Muri, who’s been skiing Big Mountain long enough to remember dropping into routes like Evans’ Heaven alongside the iconic run’s namesake, former ski patrol chief Gene Evans, as well as Banana Chutes, way before they had designated names.
“My good old days aren’t any different than someone else’s good old days being made on this mountain right now,” Muri said. “The spirit of adventure is the same.”
In celebration of that “spirit of adventure” and to commemorate its 75th anniversary, the brain trust behind Big Mountain’s operations has spent much of the off-season blazing the trail for a new chairlift line — the Snow Ghost Express, or Chair 4.
As the ski area’s first six-pack chairlift, the Snow Ghost Express will run from the Base Lodge to the top of Inspiration Ridge, ferrying skiers over 2,200 feet of vertical terrain in just seven minutes. In doing so, it eliminates the tiresome need to change lifts in order to access the mountain’s upper reaches, and it aims to reduce congestion by more evenly distributing skiers across the mountain.
Unfortunately, one of the signs of these modern times (supply-chain disruptions) means the chairlift won’t be ready for opening day, according to a Dec. 5 announcement by the resort; however, six other chairlifts will be primed and ready on Dec. 8 and the Snow Ghost Express shouldn’t be far behind.
“It’s not the news we wanted to share, but unfortunately progress on Chair 4 has been slowed by supply chain gremlins,” Chad Sokol, public relations manager at Whitefish Mountain Resort, said. “The good news is it will open soon, hopefully in mid-December.”
Meanwhile, the steady beat of snowstorms has blanketed the mountain in a veil of winter white, and even as the Snow Ghost Express warms the bench, the starting lineup of opening-day lifts promises to be formidable, including: Chairs 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 11, as well as the Bigfoot T-Bar. Sokol said the backside of the mountain is “100 percent ready to go” while the snow coverage on the frontside of the mountain is substantial enough that skiers should be able to descend via Big Ravine, eliminating the need to “download” on the Big Mountain Express chairlift, which frequently leads to long waits on opening weekend.
But the Snow Ghost Express stands out as the bell of the ball this winter. It is the latest in a multi-year string of incremental investments and improvements on the mountain that have led to a gradual transformation, accommodating record-breaking numbers of skiers without compromising its small-town feel and character, Sokol said.
Indeed, since Whitefish Mountain Resort celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2017, those improvements have included multi-million-dollar remodels of the Summit House, Bierstube and Ed and Mully’s; expansions of the Base Lodge and Bike Park; the relocation of Chair 5, now called East Rim, and the reconfiguration of Chair 8, which transports skiers out of the Hellroaring Basin. That reconfiguration included moving the lower lift terminal up to Grand Junction, allowing the basin to open earlier, and relocating the upper terminal to near the intersection of Toni Matt and Big Ravine.
According to Sokol, the improvements to Chair 8 not only allow Big Mountain to open Hellroaring Basin earlier in the season (perhaps as early as mid-December), but they also give skiers more options for accessing its runs. For example, the upper reaches of the old lift didn’t feature any clear trails back into the basin, and most skiers and riders were steered back onto the front side of the mountain.
For many locals, it’s hard to believe that it’s already been eight years since crews installed the Flower Point chairlift, a project that had been whispered about since the ‘90s, providing access to an additional 200 acres of lift-served terrain.
And yet, even as the ski area welcomes an increasing number of visitors each winter, its projects have helped accommodate the growing crowds by improving skier distribution and expanding services without displacing the cherished traditions or the skiers who helped give rise to them.
To preserve the rich history for future generations, Tim Hinderman, executive director of the Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation, has worked to establish the Ski Heritage Center on Wisconsin Avenue, which features a replica vignette of the original Hellroaring Ski Cabin, built in 1935, including replica bunk beds that Persons built. The museum’s walls are adorned with historic photos of Big Mountain and its founders, including Karl Hinderman, Tim’s father, one of the ski area’s early pioneers, who also served as the longtime director of the Big Mountain Ski School.
Another museum exhibit pays tribute to local members of the 10th Mountain Division, which was deployed to Europe to help liberate Italy in the final months of World War II, and in which Hinderman’s father served.
For locals like Hinderman, the legacy of Big Mountain is sacrosanct, and the efforts to preserve it are as important as an epic powder day.
“We’re still not mainstream even as we grow. We’re unique, still just a little ways off-the-beaten path, a little bit hard to get to,” Hinderman said. “We’re just small enough to not be big.”
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