Powell helped shape Whitefish Mountain Resort over four decades

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Chester “Chet” Powell at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Thursday, Jan. 31. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

Chester “Chet” Powell Jr. dropped out of college in 1975 and became what used to be called a ski bum.

Remarkably, the young man received no pushback from his father, Dr. Chester Powell Sr., a neurosurgeon, for choosing skiing over higher education.

“In fact, he was very jealous,” said Chet Powell Jr., now 66 years old. “He was envious. He loved to ski.”

In 1976, Powell, a native of Salt Lake City, and a girlfriend applied to join the ski patrol at what was then called Big Mountain Resort. It turned out all the jobs were filled. Yet Powell learned in early December that one applicant had backed out and he joined the ski patrol.

He left Utah in his little Nissan pickup and headed to Whitefish and Big Mountain, the ski area destined to be his employer for 43 years.

“I stayed the first night in the Cadillac Hotel and then I spent a night or two in the truck,” Powell said.

Big Mountain Resort, founded in 1947, became Whitefish Mountain Resort in 2007.

Recently, Whitefish Mountain Resort announced that Powell, director of mountain operations, will retire when this ski season ends.

In a news release, Dan Graves, chief executive officer of Whitefish Mountain Resort, said he could always count on Powell to accomplish “what was needed for the resort in his good-natured-way.”

Graves said Powell had played a key role in getting the resort to where it is today.

A lot has changed in 43 years. Powell wasn’t a ski bum for long.

When Powell started there were three chair lifts, a rope tow and a T-bar. Today, there are 11 chair lifts, two T-bars and a “magic carpet” to transport skiers.

On Jan. 31, as skiers glided by his office windows, Powell talked about some of the changes he has witnessed and proudly helped shepherd for a ski area linked to famous skiers like Tommy Moe and Maggie Voisin.

He talked about being blessed with the opportunity to make a career in skiing. He talked about the satisfaction of playing a role in providing a setting where individuals and families have a good chance to make good memories.

Yet there also was a nostalgic quality to his reminiscences, an occasional mention of earlier, simpler times when Big Mountain felt more like a big family.

Powell recalled the days when the ski patrol’s soda machine was filled with cans of beer instead of pop. There were nightly “de-briefings” even though nothing significant had happened that day, he said.

At lunchtime at midweek, he said, Chair 1 shut down and the ski patrol gathered in the chalet for a big meal that was important to the group of low wagers.

“It wasn’t like we were making a lot of money on the ski patrol,” Powell said.

One day, the patrol played a prank on a ski patrol director who was carrying a little extra weight. After the boss doffed his parka and dropped his fanny pack, a member of the patrol crept over and secretly snipped a few inches off the pack’s belt, Powell said. Later, after a hearty meal consumed by all, the patrol snickered happily as their boss struggled to cinch his belt. He finally succeeded, likely concluding he’d eaten too much that day, Powell said.

One winter, Powell met his future wife, Susan, on New Year’s Eve at the Ptarmigan Room, now Ed & Mully’s restaurant.

“We both have different accounts of what took place,” Powell said, smiling.

The couple married and raised two children, a son, Nathan, now 31, and a daughter, Meagan, now 27.

Powell said Big Mountain was smaller, in both the size of the ski hill and the size of the staff, when his children were young. The hill became a sort of daycare, he said.

“When the kids were little there was a guy at the switchboard named Kyle. The kids were probably 3 and 5 years old and they loved sitting with Kyle. Sometimes he’d even let them answer the phone,” Powell said.

And then there were the Saturday mornings when the children drank hot chocolate and watched cartoons with Jon Bos in the chalet, he said.

It became a family tradition to participate every Christmas Eve in the torchlight ski parade. That tradition held for roughly 25 years, Powell said.

There were times when Powell let his children sit in front of him on his snowmobile as he toured the slopes and lifts.

He said many of the traditions and conditions of decades past, including the ski patrol nightly “de-briefing,” would not fly in today’s litigious society.

Powell has been on the mountain during victories and tragedies and everything in between.

He remembers Tommy Moe.

“He was a rowdy kid,” Powell said with a smile. “We used to chase him all over the place. We used to go out on searches after him. He was always pushing the envelope. But even when he was very young, he could glide a ski like no one else.”

Powell was on the mountain when Bill Johnson, who won a gold medal in downhill skiing in the 1984 Winter Olympics, was attempting to make a comeback in March 2001 in a race at Big Mountain. Johnson caught an edge that day and slammed into the snow, causing a brain injury from which he never recovered. He died three years ago at age 55.

Steve Spencer, who now co-owns Blacktail Mountain Ski Area, hired Powell at Big Mountain, where Spencer led the ski patrol before becoming mountain manager.

“Chet is about as nice a guy as you’d ever want to meet,” Spencer said. “He’s very personable.”

The men were involved in numerous infrastructure projects through the years at Big Mountain.

“We had a lot of freedom back in the day to make improvements,” Spencer said.

And it sounds like the men had fun, too.

“Steve ended up becoming a dear friend,” Powell said.

He smiled, adding, “Steve taught me a lot of things I should do and a lot of things I shouldn’t do.”

Whitefish Mountain Resort said Powell has been involved in a host of projects during his tenure. They include the Big Ravine and snowmaking ponds and expansions of the ski area into the North Bowl, the north side and Hellroaring Basin.

More recently, Powell has helped oversee installation of the Bad Rock lift, the Flower Point trail system and lifts and the relocation of Chair 5 from Ptarmigan Bowl to the East Rim.

Although Powell is retiring as director of mountain operations, he will continue to work part time as director of special projects.

“I don’t like the word ‘retirement,’” he said.

Powell said he has a banjo at home and “maybe a guitar floating around” and a number of long-neglected projects.

He said he is grateful to have earned a living from an activity he loves.

“I’m just a real fortunate guy. Not everybody can say they liked what they did for the last 43 years.”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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