Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Big Vertical Competition – A Competitor’s View
To most skiers in the Flathead valley, skiing the Big Mountain as often as you can is reward enough. But to a handful of regulars, Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Big Vertical competition is a way of life–the competition providing structure and purpose for the best four months of the year. *
When I set out to “try to compete a few seasons ago,” I did not anticipate the consequences and benefits which would ensue from my decision. I knew it would be a “marathon” of sorts and the only way to do it was one run at a time, one day at a time. You couldn’t win the competition in a day……but on any given day, an unforeseen mishap could occur and your chances could end abruptly. If you stayed healthy, stayed focused, and got a little bit lucky, you might have a shot. I knew I had to try. I was born to it……or at least experientially conditioned to “go for” it. This tale tells how I came about “giving it a run,” how I felt along the way, and how enriching the experience has been for me. I am both a better skier and a better person for having done this.
My fascination with the vertical program began in its first season on Big Mountain. It was the season of 2003-2004. While visiting Whitefish on leave from Korea that season, at dinner here in town, I distinctly remember a discussion among the restaurant staff and patrons regarding Chris Chapman’s (commonly known as “Chappy”) incredible tally to that point—which would eventually end up being well over 5 million vertical feet skied. I also remember thinking to myself, “if I ever have the means and opportunity, I would love to give it a run.” But with a war ongoing in Iraq, who knew if or when that opportunity might come…..so no point in mentioning it. I just listened and filed away the thought.
A few years later, I retired from the active-duty Army in Colorado Springs. Later that year, in 2006, after selling my homes elsewhere, I came to Whitefish, moving closer to enabling that opportunity. But as the fall of that year shaped up, I was beset by a host of physically debilitating symptoms associated with an abcessed tooth. As ski season began, I was still trying to figure out the source of the symptoms. So, I skied as I felt like it……and that wasn’t much or very often.
Just before Christmas, I went in for a semi-annual dental check-up. During this visit, the severely abscessed tooth was discovered. Obviously, the infection in my tooth had pervaded my body, manifesting itself in an array of bizarre symptoms. By the time the antibiotics had run its course and my body began to grow stronger, ski season was half over.
In February 2007, feeling better and getting stronger, I began to ski more and more. I skied with purpose and energy and began a surge. When I first noticed and began paying attention to my ranking in the Vertical standings, I was just under 400th. In six weeks of hard skiing, I joined the ranks of the “One Million” (vertical feet skied) club and ended up finishing in the Top 40 in the rankings. The surge was mostly not noticeable since I never cracked the ranks of the top 15 by category (adult, senior, college, etc) which are posted prominently on the Big Mountain website. To me and a few friends though, it was a noteworthy sample of what I might be able to accomplish, if given an entire season of good health. If nothing else, it gave me confidence. If I could start the 2007-2008 ski season like I had finished the previous one, I might be a contender.
Anyone who has followed the Big Vertical Program over the years knows that there are iconic figures who reside at the top of the rankings. The ski habits and accomplishments of these mountain icons are discussed, embellished, and occasionally marveled at by the folks paying attention to the Vert Program. At the forefront of the group is Fred Frost, the “New York Yankees” of Big Mountain vertical, and a remarkable character in his own right. He has finished in the top 3 in every season of the program. Everyone else who has won has had to match and beat Fred’s pace setting.
I knew going into this season, that if I wanted to win, I must compete with Fred. I had met him at the end of the previous season, while skiing with a mutual friend, Mr. Doug Ober, of Coaldale, Alberta, Canada. While skiing with Doug and Fred, I couldn’t help notice Fred’s effortless skiing. He made it look easy, never seemed to stumble, never caught an edge, or lost his balance. He was clearly an expert and arguably one of the safest skiers on the mountain. And he is remarkably consistent. After the first week and excluding holidays, he had not skied a day under 37,000’. No other skier can say that.
So, I began the season knowing that Fred would be in his usual place—-on the mountain. I didn’t know who else might compete……but knew that other driven, purposeful, and very skilled skiers and riders were capable of competing. Chappy still skis. He could do it again if and when he decided to. John Gibson, the previous year’s winner, exhibited extraordinary grit and determination that year—by riding injured, in a sling, over the last few weeks of the season—beating Fred by a small but comfortable cushion. John is also smooth and fast down the mountain……and seeing him ride convinced me that if he decided to compete, he could repeat.
The early part of the season combined limited available terrain with enthusiastic hordes of skiers and riders. The combination made for some of the most dangerous skiing of the season—with hundreds of folks competing for space on Russ’s Street—the only run open down the front side of the mountain. But the snow began to fall on day two of the season and continued to fall—seemingly for six weeks. Conditions got better and better on a daily basis……and by day three, Fred had assumed his rightful spot on top of the rankings. I told myself from the beginning that I wouldn’t overreact to initial rankings, and would wait for a full week to see where I might be. At the end of that first week, I had ascended to 2d—some 20,000 vertical feet behind Fred. I was thrilled to be there……but didn’t know if I could hang with him over the long term.
I clearly wasn’t in his class in powder or adverse conditions (fog, snow, ice, etc). I had to find safe and comfortable routes down the mountain in all manner of conditions. And every day seemed to be another round of adverse conditions for my groomer (groomed runs) centric ski style and ability. I was beating myself up, skiing the same runs (the only ones I could do) in the powder, in the fog. During this period, I developed a fair amount of respect for Fred’s durability and consistency regardless of the conditions.
About two weeks into the season, I found myself riding up the chair with a friendly snowboarder with speakers in his helmet. I asked him about his MP3 player and he explained his set up. Shortly before we finished the ride, he saw my season pass and said “You’re Jay. I’ve seen you on the Vert list.” It was John Gibson, the previous year’s vert winner. After this I learned to recognize John at a distance, and as we occasionally shared rides on the chairlifts, I solicited his knowledge and experience on how he beat Fred.
John told me, “You know you are competing with someone who skis six hours a day, six days a week. To beat him, you’ve got to do more than that.” He also went on to say that the real benefit of competing in the Big Vert program is that you end up riding better in all conditions. Watching him ride, you knew he was comfortable on his board. I also knew I had a long way to go.
Around this time frame, I met Pat King, another Big Vert veteran and outspoken mountain icon. Pat had established himself as a perennial Top 10 finisher too. He was wearing a “butt flap” that said Big Mountain Vert Winner 2006-2007 on it. I asked him, if the Resort had awarded the butt flaps as prizes last season. He told me no—-that Paul Badgley, another Top 10 finisher last season, had had them made. Over time, I came to know Pat and Paul by sight. Pat is usually seen skiing with Giles Hunt, a former, repeat Vert Top 10 skier himself. Over time, they became a support group of sorts for me—-urging me to keep skiing purposefully —pushing me to work harder on the hill and to not become complacent. Their message was clear—-Fred Frost is a formidable adversary, do not underestimate him, he is relentless, get busy, keep skiing. Pat and Giles are old friends of Fred’s but they apparently enjoyed seeing new blood in the Vert Competition too.
A week or so before Christmas, late in the afternoon while skiing the “Ant Hill” (Fill Slope-a high traffic, often bumpy, challenging section near the summit) in the fog, I hit a bump at the wrong angle and “tweaked” my reconstructed left knee. The sharp pain was an instant reminder of how quickly a season could end. I limped my way down Russ’s Street and called it a day. Ice and elevation were to be the nightly knee treatment, because rest was out of the question. I was skiing at my most determined pace and was not keeping pace with Fred. He was building a lead on me. And I didn’t know if I could keep skiing, much less hang with him.
Getting through this period, I developed a “How to Beat Fred Frost” set of rules on the mountain. They were:
- Ski the Day in Front of You – Fog, Snow, Ice Rime, whatever
- Ski an “Honest” Day – start early – finish late
- Avoid skiing the backside of the mountain – while fun and often offering the best conditions, it doesn’t offer the best vert payoff against time
- Ski Helloaring Basin no more than once every 3 days – Same note as the backside
- Ski efficiently – Toni Matt and Big Ravine are preferable to going anywhere east
- Ski quickly – hustle down the mountain—but always in control
Shortly before Christmas, Fred cut back on his skiing—obviously skiing with family. When he did, I was able to catch him and take the Vert lead for the first time. But it was to be short lived. After skiing the first 20 days of the season straight…..including several powder days in a row, my knee told me that I must take some time off. It was a few days after Christmas, the mountain was crowded, my knee was swollen, my quads, hamstrings, and calves were sore, and I was weary. I decided to take a day off. I got up the second day and still didn’t feel up to skiing. I ended up taking three consecutive days off before I felt ready to go back up to the mountain.
Upon resuming skiing, each morning I began a ritual of leg preparation that started with hot water from the shower wand, followed by liberal use of Activon on my leg muscles and knees before getting dressed. I would then layer underwear, socks, base layer, knee braces and finally ski wear.. Each morning, I would awaken feeling like I might not be able to go very long that day……..until I got the knee braces on. Once “strapped in” I would feel a surge of confidence. And once I put my ski boots on, I knew I was ready for an “honest day.”
As we worked through the deep snows of January, I developed a comfortable rhythm of finding something to ski quickly and efficiently in whatever conditions we faced. If chair 1 was crowded, Chair 2 almost invariably offered no waiting. If there was a persistent mid-mountain fog layer, I would ski the Chair 2 terrain repeatedly. If the snow was deep, I would ski whatever was groomed last. And I would struggle. Fred just flat outskied me on pure powder days. He was truly proving formidable and it always looked easy for him.
The relentless powder conditions did have an upside—skiing them brought subtle but noticeable improvement to my skills. John Gibson was right—this was the best byproduct of competing—at least to that point of the season. At some point in January, I noticed that slightly back from the “carving” balance point, was a better body position for powder. This adjustment allowed me to ski very quickly through powder and crud. In mid January, after skiing several long days, I caught and passed Fred for the Vert lead for good. Since the 5th day of the season, he and I had occupied and taken our turn in 1st and 2d place. From Christmas on, it was largely a two horse race between us.
Through February and into March, I continued to work at Fred’s 6 hours a day, 6 days a week pace, while skiing more and more efficiently down the mountain. During this period, I began to see and embrace the wisdom of Fred’s “No Saturday’s” policy. Taking a day off every week is good mentally and physically. And Saturday is also the most predictably crowded day on the mountain. Choosing to take those days off seemed smart and efficient. By mid-February, I had adopted Fred’s policy.
Over the last few weeks of February, I began to ski some with Fred. I found that skiing with him made me ski more technically, more controlled. I also found myself skiing places I hadn’t skied before. Twice in two days he showed me new terrain that I hadn’t skied or known about. I immediately appreciated the significance. Fred graciously showed me around the mountain. In skiing and riding the chairlifts with me, he told me of how he had come to know the mountain so well.
Upon retirement and moving to the area, Fred had begun working for Big Mountain. On Saturdays, he often worked the Heaven T-Bar (a short but decently pitched fall-line piece of the mountain). He noticed on a recurring basis, that when the mountain (and Chair 1 specifically) got crowded, the same few old guys, would come over and ski the T-Bar all by themselves. He came to appreciate their approach and strategy…..and on his ski days, began to follow them. They imparted their knowledge to Fred then…….and Fred similarly began sharing it with me now. We entered March, with Fred becoming a friend, showing me around, introducing me to dozens of the Mountain’s characters. And just as I’d begun to embrace and enjoy being the apprentice, the mountain mentorship was put on hold.
After a couple of weeks without much new snow, the day and night of March 3rd brought several inches of fresh snow. Tuesday morning March 4th, dawned sunny and bright. The crowds came from all over the valley, to ski powder in the sun—-a quite rare Big Mountain occurrence. And before Chair 1 opened at 0930 that morning, Fred’s season was ended when a teen skier collided with him on lower Eds run. Fred’s right shoulder was severely dislocated–the two-horse race was ended abruptly—through no fault of his own. I saw the ski patrol, the snowmobile, the crossed Rossignol skis stuck in the snow, and a glimpse of a purple jacket (Fred’s distinctively colored apparel), but I didn’t believe that Fred Frost could have had an accident at that place on Eds run. Twice, I skied past the accident site, with Ski Patrollers working on the injured skier. Despite the indicators, I didn’t believe it could be him. I clearly didn’t account for the other skier.
About noon that day, I skied into the Chair 2 lift line simultaneously with Pat and Giles. While riding up the chair, Pat said “you know the vert race is over?” I didn’t know what he was referring to. He said, “Fred was injured this morning. He’s done for the season.” I was somewhat stunned and then remembered the glimpse of purple jacket, the Rossie skis, and immediately regretted not stopping to offer assistance. If I had known it was him, I would have pitched in—carried his skis or something.
In the days following the accident, I felt somewhat lost on the mountain. I no longer had any need for a sense of “urgency” or purposefulness. I didn’t need to ski efficiently any more. Fred and I both had almost a half million vertical feet lead on Pat who was occupying 3rd place. I began to slow down, to reassess what I wanted out of skiing, and to appreciate the emerging friendships. I hadn’t realized how tethered my own work ethic was to matching Fred’s, until he wasn’t there any more.
So at this point, just like the previous season, when I finished with a preview of the following season’s strategy, I began skiing more leisurely and more socially. I began focusing on technical improvements, without worrying about efficiency. Upon reflection, I realized that I had only skied about 50 percent of the 3000 acres of terrain on Big Mountain. If I didn’t learn to ski any better, I wouldn’t get to ski much of that terrain. And I also appreciated that the best way into those areas is to follow an expert. There is no shortage of expert skiers among the Big Mountain characters whom I am now calling friends.
Along the way, Fred suggested that I might consider skiing with the Men’s Day Skiing group next season. The Men’s Day Skiing group meets once a week on Wednesdays, gets some formal instruction, and skis increasingly more challenging terrain. Pat and Giles, also former graduates of the group, concurred that this would facilitate improved skiing. Giles told me that he was exclusively a “groomer” skier until participating in Men’s Day a few years back. Since then, you can’t keep him on groomers if there is powder to be skied off-piste. I thought to myself, I should give that a go next season—and I did—for two seasons. And now I’m skiing like Giles.
I retired to Whitefish in order to ski Big Mountain. For at least one season, I wanted to ski more than anyone else. In the resorts 60 years of existence, some remarkable people must have claimed that spot. Only the last 7 years offer any empirical data, but the resort’s founders—who’s names you have read about in this account—Ed (of Ed’s run) Schenck and Toni Matt (the Austrian émigré to America–who had a hand in founding Big Mountain after setting the still unbroken downhill record at Tuckerman’s Ravine, Mt Washington, NH in 1939)—-must have been in the mix.
I began competing expecting to improve my skills but I didn’t expect to make enduring friendships. I am pleasantly surprised to have done both. While spending the time on the mountain, I have come to know and appreciate a few of these characters. I am enriched to be among them…and I hope to contribute some longevity and lore of my own some day. Come ski with us! JDPF
* The competition measures who skis the most—-with lift personnel electronically scanning each skier/rider’s season pass before they get on the chair lift. Each lift carries skiers and rider’s up a specific number of vertical feet. The longest ride on the mountain is slightly over 2000 vertical feet. Whatever the end total winds up being, it was arrived at, a few hundred to a few thousand feet at a time.