by Leanne M. Kurtz
Remember when winter in Helena meant snow?
I don't mean a squall here and there. I'm talking that week-long, waist-high, school-closing, traffic-stopping, tie-a-rope-around-your-waist-so-you-don't-get-lost-on-the-way-to-the-barn kind of snow for which Montana is notorious.
While many locals welcome the balmy temperatures and clear streets that have become the winter norm for the past few years, hearty winter recreation enthusiasts are no doubt mourning those frosty seasons of yesteryear when a good pair of hickory skis cost $12 and Chaucer Street provided members of the Mount Helena Ski Club some vertical drop and enough snow to practice their turns.
Although Helenans were quick to pick up on the relatively new sport of skiing, consensus is that Anaconda witnessed the dawn of organized skiing in Montana. In the early 1930s, Anaconda's Chamber of Commerce brought to town Casper Oeman, a Norwegian ski jumper, in an effort to attract visitors. Oeman provided jumping demonstrations in Sheeps Gulch behind the Anaconda courthouse and within a few years, enthusiasm for sliding down a mountain on wooden boards had infected Helena area thrill-seekers.
Spearheaded by Turner Clack, a local ski devotee, recreationalists organized themselves in January of 1937, forming the Mount Helena Ski Club. The mountain for which the club was named became a popular haunt, as did Mount Ascension, MacDonald Pass, Unionville, McClellan Creek, Blossburg, and the snow-blanketed streets of town. In its first year, members undertook the clearing of trails on Mount Ascension and Mount Helena, installed lights at the foot of Ascension, and sponsored ski trains to a run at Blossburg, a railroad siding on Mullan Pass Road. With membership dues, the club provided the Helena area with its first ski tow and a chalet at Mason's Basin, just west of the top of MacDonald Pass, a welcome relief to those who preferred gliding downhill to hiking uphill. The Rimini Mine contributed materials for the 1,000 foot tow, which ran on a Buick motor and pulled five people per minute to the top of the course.
In 1941, the motor-powered tow on MacDonald Pass was replaced by an overhead electric tow, the ski run was lighted, and the chalet equipped with a telephone and furniture, all for a little over $1,000. Carpenters donated their time and much of the equipment needed for the improvements came without cost to the club. When the National Ski Association president visited the Helena club, he remarked that members were among the most enthusiastic he had encountered in the country. Perhaps due in part to members' passion for the sport, the Mount Helena Ski Club was made host of the 1942 Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Races.
The MacDonald Pass course was not long enough or steep enough to adequately challenge the caliber of racers who would be arriving for the tournament. Club members set out in the spring of 1940 to locate the perfect arena for the event. After a strenuous tour of the sizable mountains in the area (Elkhorn, Baldy, Red Mountain, Edith, and Belmont), club members decided upon Mount Belmont as the site for the upcoming tournament, citing its 1,700 foot vertical drop, its accessibility, and the deep snow, which had lasted until May the previous year.
Mount Belmont, known to Marysville miners as Mount Pleasant, had occasionally been trod upon by skiers, as roads in the area were usually hard packed by horses and equipment servicing the mines. Unemployed miners helped clear the trails and the mountain assumed the name of one of the numerous adits that dotted the area. The run established for the tournament began at the top of Mount Belmont and ended a quarter of a mile from the end of Marysville's main street. Residents of Marysville welcomed the new industry to their town, and predicted that with the incursion of skiers, their little burg might soon be transformed from a mining community into a destination ski resort.
Not surprisingly, America's involvement in World War II sharply curtailed skiing, as it did most recreational pursuits. Gas was at a premium and many of the young people who participated in the sport were defending their country across the Atlantic. The Mount Helena Ski Club's focus turned from recreation to assisting in the war effort. Members advised the army in its formation of mountain troops; a branch to be "equipped and drilled to battle in rugged areas where operations are difficult for average troops." The army asked ski clubs all over the country for assistance in training soldiers and ensuring that experienced guides would be available should mountain warfare in the States become a reality.
Fortunately, the local alpine guides were not needed, and in the winter of 1946, skiers were again ready to take to the hills. As a Forest Service official told a reporter in the Fall of 1946, "We believe this season, the first post-war period when everyone will have full opportunity to revel in winter sports, will find more persons availing themselves of the area's incomparable advantages than ever before." Skiers returned to Mount Belmont, where they were greeted by two rope tows and a lodge. Patrons were welcome to spend the night at the lodge, provided they were equipped with blankets and sleeping bags.
Ski clothing and the necessary gear have certainly come a long way in the last 60 years. Before the days of lightweight Patagonia underwear, waterproof anoraks, quick release bindings and high-tech Dynastars, there were hickory and maple skis, cable bindings, heavy wool parkas, leather boots and gabardine "trousers." As is true today, however, high-performance fashion was considered vital to the overall experience. White Stag advertised that all of their "togs" were "ski tested by `Skier Stylists'" the year before they hit the stores. A White Stag advertisement in the Helena Record-Herald reads "The Smartest Ski Outfits on the Marysville Run Reflects all the `know' of the White Stag Skier Stylist; has the lines, the details, the color appeal!" The picture features a larger-than-life woman gripping her skis, gazing boldly into the distance, sporting her White Stag "Logger Jack" ensemble.
In the midst of a series of warm, open winters in Helena, it is looking like cold, snowy, rugged Montana winters have gone the way of the $18 Sears ski package, the $9 parka, and use of the word "togs". Although Marysville never did become that destination resort, local skiers can still get their fix on Mount Belmont, at the area now known as Great Divide Snowsports.
Five chair lifts, the first of which, the Mount Belmont Lift, was installed in 1986, haul skiers all over the old mining territory, offering numerous opportunities, as a reporter put it in 1946, for "breaking one's neck on a pair of slats." Powerful snowmaking equipment now reliably extends the season from November through March, and the mountain seems to catch the snow that does arrive in the area for plenty of fun on natures gift. The lower part of the mountain is lighted for night skiing.
Although you can't spend the night on the floor of the lodge anymore, at least you don't have to hike to the top in gabardine wool trousers. Helena area skiers have a great heritage to enjoy and build on.
©2000 Leanne M. Kurtz, used by permission. A version of this piece first appeared in the Helena Independent Record as a part of the series of historical articles, From the Quarries of Last Chance Gulch and in the compilation More from the Quarries of Last Chance Gulch, edited by Richard B. Roeder and Dave Walter, The Independent Record, Helena, Montana1995.