Investigating Whitefish

Big Mountain, Mont., has long since been a ski area with deep Western mountain culture roots. For years, its après-ski bar had a mechanical bull, beer was cheap, heels were free and the beards hung icy and long. But in 2007, after a corporate group took over majority ownership, the name was changed from Big Mountain to Whitefish Mountain Resort and a new base lodge and other amenities sprung up in the village.

If the modern corporatization of other ski resorts is any indication, one could guess that Whitefish might be falling into the hollow void of gentrification. On a recent trip to Whitefish, I decided to investigate. I wanted to see if the corporate purchase was ripping the heart straight out of Big Mountain.

As I loaded Chair 1, I kept my eyes scanning, looking for condo multiplexes and easily-offended families. "So what do you think of all the changes here?" I asked my chair partner. His 20-year-old Smith goggles and duct-taped pants screamed old-school local, so I knew he'd give me the dirt. "It's been quite nice," he said. "The new chairlift is nice. We really needed a new one." Not exactly the answer I expected. Guess I'd have to dig deeper.

Brian Schott

Cody Townsend testing the goods of the East Rim at Whitefish, Montana.

I took a few laps through surreal snow-ghost forests. Boot-top powder laced the spaces between the trees and I kept discovering powder stash after powder stash. It hadn't snowed in a week. Telemarkers seemed to outnumber alpine skiers and strings of randonee skiers skinned straight up the piste. "What's with the hikers?" I asked another local. "Oh they've been doing that for years," he casually responded. "I think this is one of the few resorts in the country that allows uphill traffic."

After a morning of skiing, I knew that all I needed to do to find the new corporate soul was head to the cafeteria. Fourteen dollar burgers and eight dollar beers are the call sign of any modern ski area, right? The Hellroaring Café at the foot of Chair 1 dropped me a heaping, steaming plate of chicken and dumplings and a cup of tea. The check came out to just over $10. Strangely cheap.

After lunch, I skied with Donnie Clapp, the resort's PR director. On one chair ride Clapp's resort radio crackled and a voice came over the airwaves, "Total resort visitors today: 983." Clapp gave a little, "Nice" as he heard the news. Really? Under a thousand people and the PR guy is stoked. I was shocked.

That afternoon a few long time locals showed me a 10-minute traverse to an out-of-bounds canyon that held untouched thigh-deep snow and stretched down for almost a thousand vertical feet.

Feeling almost defeated on my corporate hypothesis I knew there would be one last place to investigate: The legendary bar with the mechanical bull, the Bierstube. Any modern developer would immediately tear down the decrepit building that could never match the look of a modern mountain village.

I went inside and saw battered wooden floors and halved log benches. I looked for the mechanical bull. Aha! It wasn't there! I ordered a beer and asked the bartender, "What happened to the bull?" He responded, "Oh, we took it out because most people here are more into the skiing and we didn't want to block the screen for the ski movies. That'll be two bucks for the beer."

I admit defeat. The new owners hadn't pulled the heart out of Big Mountain. The long-lasting powder stashes remained, duct tape is still in fashion, the beards are still long and the beer is still really, really cheap.

Local photographer and writer Brian Schott answered my one last question. "So what's with the name change?" I asked. He responded, "You know what, it's really made the people and the town feel more connected to the mountain. They feel like it's theirs now."

Brian Schott

Cody Townsend at Whitefish in December.

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