For her warm-up run, Susan Armstrong shoots down Swift Creek and speeds toward Heaven. Her demeanor is relaxed and easy, but she’s fast. Her yellow coat and orange helmet glow like a tiny torch at the bottom of the run by the time I’ve made three turns through the hard-packed snow. I become very familiar with the back of her head and her butt flap, which keeps her warm during the 20-ish times she will ride the lifts this day—and every day—of the 2018/19 season at Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Not to dwell too much on that butt flap, but it’s pretty special. She had it embroidered with her vertical totals since she started skiing in earnest about four years ago. Last year’s tally stretches across the black, waterproof fabric in a bright purple stitch: 4,059,637 feet, which was enough to earn her the informal title of the first-ever “vertical queen” of Whitefish. Every year prior the honor has been bestowed upon a “king.”
This year the vertical queen is in third place, and I ask if she’s trying to win bragging rights again. “No, I’m not. I’m just trying to enjoy my season,” she says. Which just so happened to be her approach when she won the title last year.
A lot of people don’t accrue as much vertical in a killer snow year, like 2017/18, since it takes longer to search out stashes of powder than it does to bomb groomers. This was the case for Armstrong, who was just trying to ski her butt flap off.
Armstrong frames her accomplishment as circumstantial. “I really wasn’t trying to win last year until I guess I went for it after there were a lot of deaths in tree wells in different places throughout the whole Northwest, and my husband asked me to stay out of the trees. When he did that I thought well, since I gotta ski groomers, I might as well go for it.” So partway through last season she set her sights on upping her vertical game and started adding a few more laps each day.
About her impressive feat, this winter sports athlete is humble. “Part of the reason I won last year is because both Frank and Fred had to go out of town for their mothers’ birthday parties,” says Armstrong, referring to the top contenders for the title last year and again this year. Frank’s mom was turning 90 and Fred’s 100. Armstrong, who still has around six years to go before she qualifies for the senior discount, had the home-court advantage, so to speak, since, “My mother lives here.”
Riley Polumbus, who manages PR for Whitefish Mountain Resort, explains how easy the mountain makes it for skiers and riders to keep tabs on themselves and each other using the vertical tracker function on the resort’s website. “It’s a cool metric that shows people’s dedication in terms of hours…. It shows how much this community loves winter, loves to ski, and loves this mountain.”
As a result, vertical has become part of the Whitefish culture. People can compete with friends and family or compare how much they’ve skied year to year. Polumbus says, “Even if you’re not in the competition, it’s fun to track yourself. I can see my vertical over the last eight years and follow my buddies, the mayor of Whitefish, or the CEO of Whitefish [Resort].”
She adds, “Our total pass-holder vertical shows we have a diehard skiing community, and these retired folks are helping up that amount.”
Armstrong is among them. She served four years in the Air Force before continuing her career as a civil servant while continuing in the reserves. Now she lives in Whitefish and skis her way through retirement.
On the day I try to keep up with Armstrong, she laps the mountain with a dedicated crew of ski bums. Some could be her kids, and others are seniors or super seniors who are over 70 and ski for free. They don’t always wait for each other, but they’re usually good for a wave or a heckle.
When asked what she’ll do when the snow melts and the lifts start hauling mountain bikers instead of skiers, she says, “I’ll probably run a couple of marathons.” Last year she ran five.
I turn her loose after our third run and watch her disappear into a white spray of creamy turns. She seems at once exceptional and totally badass to me, while also representing just one of many scrappy and hard-charging characters who cruise the flanks of Whitefish Mountain Resort for 120+ days each winter season. //
Summer Hess is the managing editor of Out There Outdoors. She wrote about backcountry touring in the Wallowas last issue.