MSC’s Ullr skiers and ‘boarders headed for Montana’s Big Mountain, only four miles north of Whitefish and 21 miles north of Kalispell, will be experiencing one of skiing’s and ‘boarding’s most enriching winter sports adventures this coming season, in my opinion. Obviously, many Ullr skiers and ‘boarders may have visited The Big Mountain frequently, but for those who haven’t, perhaps the following bit of nostalgia will provide motivation to “sign up” even more rapidly.
My first encounter with The Big Mountain was in the early years of my local broadcasting career, as an announcer and director at Kalispell’s then-identified KULR-TV. The year was 1958, eleven years after Winter Sports, Inc. – formed 71 years ago in 1947 as a public company of community shareholders – opened The Big Mountain that December 14th. The fledgling perpendicular playground, just two years after opening, hosted the U.S. Alpine Championships in early March, 1949, where future Olympic champion Andrea Mead of Vermont won all three women’s titles at age sixteen. The mountain originally had a single T-bar, which was replaced by chairlifts installed in 1960 and 1968.
After sixty years, The Big Mountain was renamed Whitefish Mountain Resort, in June, 2007. The ski area had, by then, expanded to include ten chairlifts.
Other facts illustrating that the area was never second-rate include knowing Olympic champion Tommy Moe learned to ski and race at the mountain, where his father was on the ski patrol. Moe won the gold medal in the Downhill and silver Super-G at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
The Big Mountain again hosted the U.S. Alpine Championships in 2001. That event is remembered for the failed comeback attempt and life-altering crash of 1984 Olympic downhill champion Bill Johnson. Johnson, in today’s vernacular, was a “Rock Star”.
Speaking of stars, some of Hollywood’s elite call The Big Mountain’s environs “home” for at least part of each year. Among them are Carol Burnett and John Lithgow. The late Jim Nabors was a neighbor to Carol Burnett near the mountain.
One of the pleasures of The Big Mountain is getting there, especially from Saint Paul. Taking AMTRAK’s Empire Builder is one of America’s great train rides. The trip from Saint Paul to Whitefish is a 24-hour journey. Sadly, gone are the days of white linen tablecloths in the diner with snappily-attired waiters and those who seat one, but at least there’s food!
The best way to travel on The Empire Builder is to have a bedroom, or as was the case when my wife, children and I took the trip in the 1970s, have adjoining bedrooms. Very spacious and relaxing are they. Of course, the alternative is to book a sleeping compartment for either one or two people. One word of caution, however, wisely told me by a conductor during our most recent “Builder” trip about eight years ago: Try to not travel in the spring, as the roadbeds have been adversely affected by the nuances of winter temperatures, thus making the ride a bit “rocky” toward the Rockies.
The best scenery on the trip to The Big Mountain from the east occurs while passing through the south end of Glacier National Park, but that is done mostly at night. Regardless, even arriving at Whitefish late at night provides some nostalgic memories of “yesteryear”, when trains filled with skiers were about to embark on a “real” adventure, not filled with texting.
What Whitefish Mountain Resort (“The Big Mountain” still, to some us) IS filled with is the following, enough to satisfy ANY skier’s or ‘boarder’s desires or needs: nine lodging areas with condos, hotels and lodges; countless restaurants and bars; live entertainment and some of North America’s very best runs on both the north and south sides of the mountain, comprising 3,000 skiable acres with an average 300 inches of snow each season. No crowded lift lines, either!
For complete and voluminous information about this truly great ski and snowboard destination, visit www.skiwhitefish.com.
Ski you next time!
Editor’s note: You can reach Barry at [email protected]. He welcomes ideas for future columns and is available as a speaker at club functions