Whitefish Whiteout Prepares to Crown King and Queen of the Hill

Skimo racers from across the state and country will descend on Whitefish Mountain Resort for the premier ski mountaineering event

By Micah Drew
Travis Brown, right, leads racers up NBC during the Whitefish Whiteout at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Jan. 16, 2016. Beacon file photo

As the lifts at Whitefish Mountain Resort (WMR) whirred to life on Thursday morning ferrying skiers and snowboarders up and around the mountain’s terrain, Joel Shehan was taking a decidedly more difficult route to the summit.

With his skis stuck standing in the snow 50 feet below him, Shehan booted up a narrow gully on the mountain’s North Bowl. The skier ascended slowly, kicking steps into the icy chute, at times pulling a handsaw from his backpack to cut a triangle of ice from the face when his ski boots no longer made a dent.

This carefully selected ascent (“This way looks more aesthetic than the other way,” was a common refrain throughout the morning) will be one of three bootpacks along the course of Saturday’s Whitefish Whiteout, the premier ski mountaineering (skimo) race WMR has hosted for the last 16 years.

Joel Shehan cuts a boot pack into a North Bowl gully in preparation for the Whitefish Whiteout. Micah Drew | Flathead Beacon

Shehan is a pillar of the local skimo community, having spent more than a decade shepherding the sport into the near-mainstream in Whitefish, along with a cadre of like-minded friends. He’s a multi-time Whitefish Whiteout champion — having once shared the podium in a four-way tie — and has raced around the globe.

And while it’s not often you see an elite athlete, and former event champion, taking a day off from their job as a physical therapist to volunteer their time to mark out a race route, it’s par for the course among the local contingent of uphill enthusiasts.

“The thing I love about our uphill community in Whitefish is there isn’t a single athlete who has an ego,” said Bear Barinowski, who has been hiking up the mountain on his skis for two decades. “Every single athlete, especially the top ones, are kind, caring and giving. They’re the ones to stop and give competitors encouragement or extra gear in a race, and they’re the ones helping get this course ready each year.”

Shehan was joined by several friends on his Thursday trek, and Barinowski led another group out on Wednesday to mark various sections of the course, lay down a skin track and ladder-step a bootpack for racers to follow. If there’s overnight snow on Friday, Barinowski will be out again during the predawn hours on Saturday to make sure the route is ready to go.        

“The uphill culture is so prevalent in Whitefish, and at its core is a community that is always willing to chip in to make everyone’s experience better,” Shehan said as he finished sawing out the last step. “Now let’s go tromp around in the snow some more and see if I can figure out where we’re going to go on Saturday.”

Joel Shehan skins up Big Mountain on Feb. 20, 2019. Beacon file photo

Whitefish Mountain Resort has long maintained a generous “Uphill Policy,” which permits skiers and splitboarders to don climbing skins and ascend the mountain between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m., either via the East Route or the Benny Up route.           

The resort also hosts a Wednesday night skimo league that draws between 50-100 racers each week, and in 2008 debuted the Whitefish Whiteout, a European Randonee-style all-mountain race.

The Whiteout usually sees around 150 hypoxia-induced participants each year, making it one of the larger events the mountain organizes.  

“In terms of actual terrain it covers, it’s by far the biggest event we put on,” said Hillary Howell, WMR’s Events and Recreation Coordinator. “It takes multiple departments on the mountain all working together to put on an event that touches every corner of the mountain. It’s such a feel-good event to put on, too. It’s an all-smiles, all-the-time kind of day.”

The Whiteout has been held on myriad courses since its inception, but the current iteration has remained the same in recent years. Competitors can choose between four race options — a single ascent, or a short, medium and long course — all of which begin by directing skiers straight up the main face of Big Moutain.

The Benny Up route, which sends skiers from the Lift Plaza up 2,052 vertical feet to the mountain’s summit, is named for Ben Parsons, another local skimo pillar who was killed in an avalanche in 2017. Parsons pioneered the local ski area’s nascent Wednesday night race league and helped establish Big Mountain as a top-tier skimo training ground.

“Benny Up is our local climb and is extremely meaningful to many members of our community,” said Shehan, a close friend to Parsons. “To be able to integrate it into the Whiteout course makes this event really special to the locals.”

The initial climb culminates just past the terminal of the Snow Ghost Express chair. The current Whiteout ascent record is 24 minutes, 52 seconds, a scorching time held by Missoula’s Mike Foote, a former long-course champion, who previously held the 24-hour vertical skiing world record, which he set at WMR.         

Skiers continuing on for the three longer courses will skin up to the radio towers north of the summit, ski down into Hellroaring Basin and boot pack up Pictures Chutes before returning to the summit transition area. The medium and long courses both feature additional bootpacks, each a little more technical than the last, as skiers snake up and down the North Bowl, Haskill slide area, and the East Rim.

For the second year in a row the Whiteout is a sanctioned race by the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association and top finishers will earn points on the U.S. Skimo National Cup series, with a shot at being named to the national team. There is a heightened emphasis on the competitive skimo world this season, as the sport will make its debut at the 2026 Olympic Games held in Milan-Cortina, Italy.

Last year two Bozeman-based U.S. Skimo team members swept the long course victories. Seventeen-year-old Griffin Briley won the men’s race in 1 hour, 41 minutes, while Emmiliese Von Avis took the women’s title in 2 hours 2 minutes.

Jeff Shehan adjusts his skins before transitioning to the uphill portion of a ski mountaineering race at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Jan. 18, 2017. Beacon file photo

No matter who shows up on Saturday from the regional, national, or international circles, there will still be deep competition from local skiers determined to prove their mettle on their home mountain.  

One athlete throwing his hat, or rather his helmet, into the ring for the Whitefish crew this year is Ryan Skotnicki, a longtime mountain endurance athlete but a skimo neophyte.

“I jumped into the Whiteout last year, it was my first time ever doing a skimo race,” Skotnicki said earlier this week. “It was really eye opening for me, realizing it wasn’t just about being fit for the uphill but all the technical aspects to a race like that.”

Opting for the full course last year, Skotnicki said he realized he was out of his depth by the first descent into Hellroaring Basin, but by that point he was already hooked.

“It’s just such a challenge and I love that,” he said. “When I dedicate myself to something, I want to be the best I can be. This is such a great sport to stay fit over the winter, and works hand in hand with running. I made the choice to dedicate pretty much all of last year to preparing for this year’s skimo season, and I’ve loved doing it.”

Hundreds of trail-running miles and thousands of vertical feet over the summer and fall brought Skotnicki into the winter with a high level of fitness and a work ethic that never ceased. His top training week on WMR included nearly 28,000 vertical feet of skiing — including record-setting ascents on both the East Route climb and the Benny Up route, both during January’s deep freeze.

Skotnicki is still working on the technical aspects of racing, something that long-time racers like Shehan and his brother, Jeff, have locked down into unconscious muscle memory. During the first two Wednesday night skimo races in January, Skotnicki lost sizable leads over Jeff Shehan due to equipment and transition challenges. He finally earned a win at the final race and hopes to carry that momentum into this weekend.

For a final tune-up workout on Monday, Skotnicki lapped Benny Up six times, knocking out 12,657 vertical feet in four hours, fueled by a few Big Macs and slices of Jersey Boys’ pizza.

“I’ve got a lot of fitness, so I think I’ll be in contention for the Whiteout this year,” he said. “Ultimately I just want to have fun because this is such a good, fun group of people to get to be competing with, and I’ve still got lots to learn. But we’ll see what happens.”

The Shehan brothers will put up stiff competition in the Whiteout, as should Polson’s Matt Seeley. On the women’s side, Stella Hobbs, Cassady Daley and Lizzy Muir all saw top finishes among locals last year.

Having four different course options makes the Whiteout an accessible event for anyone who wants to participate — which is fairly unique in the ski racing world. Newcomers looking to dip their toes in the sport can opt for a single ascent, without the hassle of a transition or bootpack, while more experienced racers can test themselves over 3.6-, 5.9-, or 8.1- mile-long courses.

“This event, and the overall attitude towards uphill, has been a real gift from the ski area, and the administration and events staff who make it such a positive atmosphere for us,” Barinoswki said. “This is a sacred activity for us, and it’s been really awesome to see how the sport has progressed and evolved on our hill here.”

Before the gun goes off Saturday morning however, several more hours of course marking, skin track setting and preparations have yet to unfold. By race time, dozens of people from every department at WMR, as well as competitors and volunteers from across the country, will have had a hand bringing the Whiteout to fruition once more.

“This event truly embodies the phrase ‘it takes a village,’” Howell said. “And we have the best village around.”

To learn more about the Whiteout and view the course for spectating purposes, visit WMR’s events page. Events staff are still seeking volunteers for Saturday’s event. Signup by emailing [email protected].

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