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Stories from the slopes
Stories from the slopes

Missoula historian Stan Cohen has proof that those of us in Montana have been going downhill for a long time - since at least the mid-1930s.

Now, he needs everyone's help to gather even more evidence.

Cohen is amassing a collection of historic skiing photos and old video clips for two distinct but closely related projects. Cohen plans to publish a book on the history of downhill skiing in Montana, and eventually create a video history, using old video clips of Montana's skiing past.

For clarity's sake I need to point out that Stan Cohen and I aren't related, but we do share a lifelong love for the sport and because of that, he has been a frequent go-to source for many of my skiing-related assignments.

Now that the air's been cleared, Cohen is interested in hearing from folks who have old skiing photos and videos, particularly if the images are from rather obscure Montana ski hills.

If you've got stories to go with the images, even better, Cohen said. His goal is to get the book to print within the next 12 months.

Many longtime Montanans may have forgotten and newcomers may not know that Montana has been home to dozens of ski hills over the decades.

In 1940 the U.S. Forest Service listed 24 ski areas in the Northern Region, of which five were located in Idaho.

Many of the places listed aren't in operation any longer, but their existence certainly should be remembered as conversations about recreation uses and opportunities in Montana's forests move forward, Cohen said.

As is the creed of all historians, Cohen likes to say, if we don't know where we've been, we won't know where we're going.

To that end, in Cohen's archives are photos of ski places long since forgotten.

For instance, how many people know that in 1941 at the top of Pattee Canyon there was a ski lodge, a rope tow and a ski hill that boasted a 375-foot vertical drop with one expert run, one intermediate run and one beginner run.

Among Cohen's list of favorite oddball, almost-lost-to-time ski hills is Karst Kamp, a West Yellowstone ski hill that opened in the late 1930s with a 600-foot vertical drop and a 200-foot jump that was commanding enough to land the state's ski jumping competition in 1938.

Then there's Lionhead, another West Yellowstone ski hill that was home to the state's first chairlift in 1954, and Grass Mountain near Townsend.

Take a drive up the Potomac Valley not far from the wolf sanctuary and you'll see a forested hillside that looks vaguely like it has or once had ski runs cut on it. It was once home to Diamond Mountain, a popular Missoula ski destination after World War II. It, too, was known for having a ski jump; it closed in 1961.

For the past 42 years Cohen has been collecting ski memorabilia from around the world. Some of his photo collection was compiled for his published book "A Pictorial History of Downhill Skiing," but Montana's skiing history has captivated him because he lives here, and because he inherited all the archives of the Northern Division of the U.S. Ski Association.

A few years ago, he got a call from Norm Kurtz, a longtime ski associate who found boxes upon boxes of Montana skiing history dating back to 1938.

The material was in Helena, where the ski association was headquartered, and it was at risk of being thrown out.

Cohen said he would be happy to have the boxes, which filled the back of a pickup truck. When the opportunity came to go through the unexpected gift, Cohen discovered Montana's skiing history, including racing results from the late 1930s.

"Nobody's done a book on the history of Montana's skiing, and I have all this material," Cohen said. "I guess I just think one should be done.

"I have a lot of research, but I need people to contact me if they have anything to do with history of downhill skiing in Montana."

Cohen can be reached at Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 549-8488 or toll free 1-888-763-8350.

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com

Gone are the long hickory wood boards and the barely there bindings bolted to the skis popular in the late 1930s, when the ski industry first took hold in the United States and in Montana.

Today's skis and the industry that has sprung up around the sport has grown immeasurably. Welcome snowboarders - you've pushed downhill winter sports to a whole new level.

Despite the changes over the years, despite the whiz-bang technology that brings us fat skis and even fatter boards, and clothing tags that promise the garments will regulate our temperature as we barrel down the steeps, the rules have hardly changed one iota.

Thanks to Missoula historian Stan Cohen, we've been able to dig up this timely tidbit issued by the U.S. Forest Service called "Winter Sports in the Northern Region National Forest."

The dog-eared copy was issued in 1940, and the back page of the booklet, which outlines all of the ski hills in Region 1, lists the following ski trail courtesy guidelines and safety rules.

After all these years, they still apply.

SKI TRAIL COURTESY

Heed the cry of "track" immediately - move off the trail or allow the faster runner to pass.

If caught on the trail, stand still: Don't dodge.

After a spill, move off the trail quickly. Fill the spill hole.

Keep your eyes up the trail for oncoming skiers.

Tramp the bad spots. Mark the worn or dangerous spots.

Don't leave clothing or other obstacles on the trail.

Don't spoil the snow surface by walking on it when soft.

Downhill runners have the right of way. Keep off the trail when coming up.

Remember the good skier and the good sport is always under control.

SAFETY RULES

Never undertake ski tours in parties of less than three, nor unless properly equipped, nor without notifying some responsible person of where you are going.

Never ski out of control. It is both dangerous and poor form.

On practice slopes the slower-moving skier has the right of way.

Lost persons should remember the figure "3." The SOS call in the mountains is three signals of any kind, either audible or visible - three whistles, three flashes from a flashlight, etc. When lost, sit down and use your head, not your legs. If caught by night or by storm, make camp in a sheltered spot, gather plenty of dry fuel and make a fire.

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com

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