Flashback: Whitefish's original Chair 1 was 'big news' in young ski industry

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Whitefish Mountain Resort was founded in 1947. To celebrate our 75th ski season, we're taking a look through the archives with the help of Whitefish's Ski Heritage Center.

Nowadays, if you're in a hurry to grab lunch or meet friends at the summit of Big Mountain, you can board Chair 1 near the village and be at the top in 10 minutes or less. Or, if you want to do some exploring, you can take a more circuitous route linking Chairs 4, 5 and 7.

But it hasn't always been so easy to access the summit — or any of the other upper-elevation terrain that we take for granted today.

Members of the Hell-Roaring Ski Club began skinning to the summit in the early 1930s, and later the group installed its own rope tow that stretched a short distance up the south face. With the founding of the resort in 1947 came a new rope tow as well as a T-bar.

It wasn't until 1960 that the resort installed the original Chair 1, a fixed-grip two-seater lift that scooped up guests above the old chalet and shuttled them 2,000 vertical feet to the summit. At the time, it was one of longest lifts in the country.

"It was relatively big news in the burgeoning ski industry for a little place like Whitefish, Montana, to be building a lift on what they called 'the Big Mountain,' especially since the lift was to be one of the biggest in the U.S.," Norm Kurtz, a former resort general manager, said in an interview for the book "Hellroaring: Fifty Years on The Big Mountain."

Two of the resort's shareholders put up cash for the project, but Kurtz said the construction process was anything but smooth. After record snowfall in spring 1960, crews cleared the lift line using a D8 cat — a feat, he said, "paled only by the clearing of Logan Pass each spring," referring to the iconic stretch of Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

In the book, Kurtz recounted one humorous yet harrowing mishap involving a "hardworking, loyal ex-Marine" named J.D. Pike, who was on the crew of men stringing up the new lift's heavy steel haul cable.

At one point, the cable got caught on a tree branch. "Pike went to get it loose," Kurtz recalled, "and about the time he pulled it away from the snag, the cat pulled on the cable and up went Pike with the cable, more than 120 feet in the air."

Pike reportedly let out an expletive as he clung to the taut cable for several minutes, waiting to be lowered down. "That's why we called it 'B.S. Gulch,'" Kurtz said.

The original Chair 1 was a workhorse of a machine that kept spinning until it was replaced with a high-speed detachable quad, dubbed the Glacier Chaser, in 1989. The Glacier Chaser was shortened and relocated in 2007, becoming Chair 2, while the current Chair 1, the Big Mountain Express, took its place.

For more Whitefish skiing history, check out our history page and pay a visit to the Ski Heritage Center at 725 Wisconsin Ave.