During the early years of Big Sky Resort, the route to the ski area was no more than a logging road that turned into a muddy mess every spring. Tourists were scarce, the war in Vietnam was winding down, and at times, the hardy folks that adopted the fledgling resort as their new home felt like the whole place was all their own.
It was a mild spring day in March of 1975 when I first saw the ten-foot-tall replica of an Olympia beer can hanging from the gondola cable, silently making its way uphill. It was a beacon of hope, and a sure sign that the season was waning. The wonderful prop meant the biggest ski party of the season was officially underway – it was Oly Days!
The event started in 1974, and ran aground in 1984 when members of Montana State’s football team got a little too rowdy over the long weekend. But for that decade, Oly Days would measure up as the premier end-of-season bash where beer flowed like glacier melt from the south face of Lone Mountain.
There was something for everyone during the three day extravaganza: There was live music, the dual GS town league championship, a triple slalom, kids races, snow sculpting, snow golf, single and three-man team inner tube races, all preceded by a Calcutta auction where lucky bidders won hefty cash payouts if their team placed in the top ten. A red hot air balloon with “Ski the Sky” emblazoned on the side made a few passes, but the sense of community was most prevalent when that giant Olympia beer can whisked overhead, making laps on the gondola towers.
My participation in the first couple of years eventually led to directing the event from then on. In those days, nostalgia and tradition were the rage, so we handed out beer can trophies to the winners of the various events. The Oly Cup, a giant megatron award, was bequeathed to the best town-league team.
Before ski area liability was a major concern, the three-man inner tube event was a huge crowd favorite. In the late ‘70s, it even made it into a Warren Miller movie. It was amazing to see how serious athletes were about this competition; some even waxed their tubes! Carnage ruled over the pro bump that was built for the giant slalom race, but also served as a launch zone for tubes. Helmets weren’t required for the first couple of years, but that quickly changed due to the fact that many tubers wore ski boots, and after vaulting over the bump, would inadvertently knock each other unconscious with them.
In one instance, an inebriated tuber went off course, flew over a cat track backwards, and narrowly missed a slash pile with the back of his neck by inches. We had a flimsy cheese grater safety net with bamboo poles that lasted one heat. Spectators were leveled in the finish area by the thundering horde of inflated truck tire riding trouble-makers. It was great action, but as Gary “Chicken Fry” Collins** recalls, Team Ore House owned the event for years: “In the top seed was the Ore House team who rode the “Tube Steak” to victory.
Team members Kevin Kelleher, Kevin Breen and Rob Griffin were tubing “Gods”, and were treated like rock stars. They wore black wet suits, in part to help adhere [themselves] to the tube. They trained hard for days, developing their start strategy. The race seemed to be won at the start. A good start with a good grip and a proper stack increased your odds of surviving the jump.”
As fun and action-packed as tubing was, the triple slalom was the real feature event. I’m told it was invented in Aspen, and brought to Big Sky by the first ski instructors. In all of my forty years as a racer, coach, and technical delegate, I have never seen an alpine race like it. We started at the top of the Tippy’s headwall with three start wands. The single-pole bamboo gates were equally spaced, measured with patrol rope, for a twenty-two gate, 20 second run.
The cast of characters was mind boggling: Vuarnet powder junkies, bearded three-pin hippies, bartenders, cat drivers, lift operators, goggle-tanned shred betties in white turtle necks and push-up Roffe stretch pants, resort management, a bevy of green card Austrians, ex pro racers, and anybody who could stand the pressure of hundreds of spectators hooting and hollering as three evenly-matched gate crashers came down at the same time.
Oly Days wasn’t just about drinking beer in the sun, it was about the great people that shared that space in time: The waiter, the ticket girl, the patroller, the dirt bag living in his van in the parking lot. The deck surfing in front of the mall, the “As the Bull Wheel Turns...” drama, the course reports of who got hurt, who got run off, who got married, and who split. It was about the town, the blower pow, the lifestyle, and the dudes or dudettes you hung out with. It’s still pretty much the same, but there are way more people soaking it up. The image of that giant beer can gliding on that steel gondola cable will always be with me. It brings me back to a time when my life was as simple as an inner-tube race, a lap in the Couloir, and a hug from a pretty girl with a killer goggle tan in Roffe stretch pants.