Whitefish Mountain Resort guests know Toni Matt as the name of a fast, scenic run down the front side of Big Mountain. But Toni Matt the person was even more impressive.
A world-famous ski racer from the Austrian Alps, Matt was a protégé of Hannes Schneider, who is recognized today as the father of modern skiing. In 1938, shortly before World War II broke out, Matt moved to the United States to teach Schneider’s skiing technique, known as the Arlberg method.
Matt also set about shattering course records. At 19, he earned the title of U.S. national downhill champion and won a death-defying race known as the Inferno, which featured a rapid descent down Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. He finished nearly a full minute ahead of the second-place finisher, the great Olympian Dick Durrance.
Esquire magazine described the feat this way: “Other skiers in the 1939 Inferno raced down the sensible way, zig-zagging, not exceeding 40-50 mph. But Toni Matt, deciding to take it straight, rocketed down at 60, then 70, then 80! Apparently losing control, he headed for a tree. But as cheers chilled the silence, he lunged, missed by inches, flew across the finish line. Nobody has even tried the Inferno since!”
After serving with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, an experimental infantry unit that traveled and fought on skis, Matt spent time teaching in New Hampshire and Idaho’s Sun Valley before he was lured away to run the ski school on Big Mountain.
According to the book “Hellroaring: Fifty Years on The Big Mountain,” Whitefish Mountain Resort founders Ed Schenk and George Prentice “attracted Matt away from the star-studded Sun Valley by first asking him to design their new downhill race course. The world-famous Matt was a coup for the young ski area in 1948. Equipped with a racing résumé longer than his 220 cm skis, Matt would be the drawing card that Schenck and Prentice needed.”
Matt’s extraordinary racing career came to an abrupt end in 1953, when he broke his leg during the famed Harriman Cup in Sun Valley. After months on crutches and two surgeries, he and his family settled in Pawling, New York, where he died in 1989.
Matt left an enduring legacy as a skiing champion who lent his fame to Whitefish and the Big Mountain. He was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1967.