This story originally published in the January 2017 issue of POWDER (Vol. 45 Issue 5). PHOTO: Lido Vizzutti
The Who: Even grandmas get into it. Nancy McDowell, 72, has kid skis mounted to a medical stand with an attached toilet seat designed as a roadster, styled out with a pink Easter basket on the handlebars. Her silver hair is poofed straight up by the wind as she takes off down Central Avenue during Cabin Fever Days in Martin City, Montana. There's also the gruff biker dude in a leather speedo racing on a chopper trike, a bathtub with girls in bikinis behind a shower curtain, and a crowd favorite—a rock 'n' roll band speeding down the course performing "Highway to Hell." Here in "the Canyon" just outside Glacier National Park, you'll see just about everything as mountain folk ski wildly on barstools to stem the madness of winter. Sometimes, it takes more than blackberry brandy to get you through the funk of February.
The push-zone at the top of the moderately pitched course is 23 feet long, ensuring dangerous speeds from the gene pool that gave us entries last winter like "Too Drunk to Stand" and "Death by Stupidity."
The What: The barstool races started in 1978 when a drunk guy at the Belton Chalet bar made a bet with a couple friends that he could go farther and faster down the street on his barstool than they could. Ever since, people from all walks of life have scrounged the cheapest skis they can find to mount them to the bottom of a barstool for Cabin Fever Days. It costs 20 bucks to enter into one of four categories: Steerable, Non-Steerable, Open, and Show.
Some of the crashes can be spectacular. The Darwin Award nominees barely miss killing bystanders. "The Non-Steerable class is where the rodeo breaks out," says Monte Pruett, owner of the South Fork Saloon and the winner of the Open class the last three years running. "Lots of them end up crashing into hay bales, but every once in awhile you get one that goes straight and they end up winning." The push-zone at the top of the moderately pitched course is 23 feet long, ensuring dangerous speeds from the gene pool that gave us entries last winter like "Too Drunk to Stand" and "Death by Stupidity." Helmets are "recommended."
The Why: The $3 button you buy at the entrance benefits the Canyon QRU (Quick Response Unit), Martin City Volunteer Fire Department, Canyon Kids Christmas Fund, and the Canyon Community Group. Last year they raised $15,000. Winners often give their cash prize right back. If you don't buy a button, the sheriff will throw you in jail. Here, the slammer is a horse trailer with a keg of beer while you wait for your friends to bail you out—and add some more cash to the coffers.
The WTF: The closest ski area, Whitefish Mountain Resort, is about 25 miles away, which is one reason this event feels so raw. You just don't see people putting thrift-shop skis to use like this everywhere. Anywhere. Walk into the South Fork Saloon and meet Vernon Kiser, who's wearing a tight-fitting, red downhill suit. He engineered his sled in his buddy's body shop, steerable with joysticks.
"The brake levers came off a wheelchair and it's semi under control—but not really," he says. Granny takes the cake for eldest stool-racer, but there are others who eat off the senior discount menu, too. Mike Murray is 61; he's a barstool champ who has perfected a style with his feet out in front and his head back, lying on his stool like he's racing the luge. "I'm aerodynamically better. It just made sense to me. I go faster," he says. Murray named his barstool "Big Red" and hires a professional ski tech to wax the bases. He keeps it competitive with only a couple Bloody Marys in the morning, because, "You can't be drunk and race a Non-Steerable barstool." His advice? "Spectators beware—there is a reason they call it Non-Steerable."