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History of Schweitzer Mountain and Skiing in North Idaho

April 22nd, 2022

While the art of winter sports has now evolved to fantastic levels, early Indians in North Idaho were adept at ice fishing and certainly made snow shoes to facilitate the winter hunt and travel. Our area was settled much by German and Scandinavian stock, as well as the early French trappers, priests, and settlers. So, it was a natural that the descendants of these settlers followed with skiing the area. Snow skiing originated from two geographic groups: Alpine and Nordic, much like our ancestors. Nordic skiing is the oldest category and includes sport that evolved from skiing as done in Scandinavia. Nordic style ski bindings attach at the toes of the skier’s ski boots, but not at the heels. Alpine skiing includes sports that evolved from skiing as done in the Alps. Alpine bindings attach at both the toe and the heel of ski boots. These two categories overlap with some sports potentially fitting into both. However, binding style and history indicate that each skiing sport is more one than the other. Some skiing sports such as Telemark skiing have elements of both categories, but its history in Telemark, Norway and free-heel binding style place Telemark skiing firmly in the Nordic category.

Now, our area has much more to offer than just traditional skiing. There is cross country skiing, ice skating, hunting, sledding, snowboarding, snowmobiling, and a bevy of other winter sports. Still, Schweitzer Mountain has become one of the nation’s premier ski resorts, and that is the primary winter activity. However, Schweitzer Mountain was not the first ski area in Idaho. The first was in Ketchum, Idaho in 1936, and Sun Valley has the further distinction of having the very first chair lift.

Our area saw its first skiing in the Schweitzer basin in 1933, but those intrepid fans did so by hiking to a point, then sliding back to the foot of the mountain, often on wooden slats tied to their boots. In the 1950s, a group of friends, ski enthusiasts, and volunteers cleared the wooded hillside two miles west of Sandpoint around Pine Hill. They rigged up a rope tow powered by the wheel rim of a jacked up car, and the area’s first groomed ski slope became reality. Unfortunately, skiing conditions at Pine Hill were less than perfect. Even though the crude rope tow was soon replaced by a permanent two-chair lift powered by an old Dodge engine, the hill was not high enough in altitude to guarantee a season-long coating of snow, and a warmed-up car and thermos remained the only amenities skiers could expect following a run down the slope.

While many might have seen the bowl-shaped potential of Schweitzer as a possible ski haven, the idea of a ski resort came when Dr. Jack Fowler, a Spokane dentist, was returning from a ski outing at Big Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Montana. From Highway 200, Schweitzer looms up clearly, and displays the bowl during mile after mile of the drive. Awed by the beauty of Schweitzer Mountain’s snowy mountaintop, the picture of a premier ski resort came shortly after. In 2002, Jack Fowler celebrated his 80th birthday. As a tribute to Schweitzer’s founding father, a new run, “Jack’s Dream,” was built close to where the first handle tow was built some 40 years ago

Fowler’s companion on that skiing trip was Grant Groesbech, a Spokane architect. These two, along with Sandpoint businessman Jim Brown, and others, began developing Schweitzer in 1963. The partnership was formed, and they went on a mission to secure loans, investing their own money, and raising additional funds from the people of Sandpoint. Fowler generated support with ski enthusiasts, and Groesbeck went to other ski resorts gathering info and knowledge to help with the new Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort. They pooled their resources to buy the acreage encompassing the bowl, packed in equipment and provisions to establish a base camp at the foot of the basin, and began exploring the slopes to map out future runs. Construction on the mountain began in 1961 on the ski runs and road up the mountain. The tubular steel towers to support the mile-long double chair was constructed, and electricity was brought up the mountain for the lodge and lift motors. By the summer of 1963 before construction was finished, Canadian ski enthusiast Sam Wormington had been named as the first manager of the Schweitzer basin. He had built and managed the North Star ski area in Kimberly, British Columbia. It was through the knowledge and tireless efforts of Wormington that the foundation was laid for the Schweitzer of today. On November 30, 1963 the resort proudly opened with a day lodge and a mile long double chair lift. With the exception of one good year, the resort/area made no profit. It was supposed to be operated as a weekend resort, but ended up opening seven days a week.