Wooly Buggers

When the going gets tough, Montanans go skiing.

Long before these days of “high-tech” fabrics and heated boots, there were rickety wooden skis, soaking-wet wool, and badass Montanans still itching to ski the steep and deep. Every season since the sport went mainstream, the resorts and gear improve by leaps and bounds. When Patagucci rolls out a new 3D-printed, breathable, Gore-Tex, thin-as-paper-yet-warmer-than-bear-fur baselayer, and Big Sky puts in a luxurious 12-person lift that serves you champagne and does your taxes, skiers rejoice, knowing their days will be dryer and less miserable. But with it, our threshold for self-induced torture diminishes, along with a piece of ski culture that is going the way of the buffalo.

According to the Bridger Ski Foundation, organized skiing in the Gallatin Valley dates back to 1935 with the construction of the first ski lift in Montana near Karst Camp in Gallatin Canyon. Eager thrill-seekers rushed to the rope-tow to whisk away their winter blues. By 1936, the Bozeman Ski Club was founded, and the first downhill race took place. Pretty soon, spectators and athletes were coming from far and wide for ski-jump competitions and wintertime camaraderie. The people were hooked.

Now, let’s put that into perspective. 1935 was the height of the Great Depression, and most Montanans were struggling to find work and feed their families. The old, young, mothers, fathers, and children across the state were doing everything they could to stay afloat and remain hopeful. What’s more, those formative years of Gallatin Valley skiing were made even more brutal by the fact that the 1935-36 winter was the worst of the 20th century. Following a freezing December and January, the average temperature across the state in February was 22 degrees below normal. Livestock perished, food and fuel were unseasonably scarce, schools closed, water pipes froze, and around a dozen people died from the cold. Not only was it a cold one, but a long one, with some locales reporting April temperatures at -20F.

So, in 1935, hungry, poor, and in the most brutal conditions, the people of the Bozeman area hit the slopes. With wet pants and frozen toes, they sought adventure in the cold smoke.

This season, when you check the temps, debate whether to stay in, skip a weekend because there’s no fresh snow, or scoff at slushy spring conditions, think about those tough sons-(and daughters-) of-a-guns in 1935, underfed and underdressed, braving frigid temps for another run down some hill. Remind yourself: when the going gets tough, Montanans go skiing.