Montana’s Barstool Ski Races Are Exactly What They Sound Like
When the weather gets cold, things get wacky.
Pull up to the wooden exterior of the Southfork Saloon in Martin City, Montana, just as the sun starts to dip, and it’s a cinematic scene right out of an old western: shadows are lit by a neon “Bar Open” sign, the saloon’s propped-up 1949 facade framed by Teakettle Mountain in the distance. It’s so serene you’d hardly know that, once a year, it’s the unofficial headquarters of Cabin Fever Days, the rowdy annual blowout fueled by pent-up winter energy. At its center: the famed Barstool Ski Races, which are pretty much exactly what they sound like.
Picture it: it’s 1978, the dead of winter in one of the harshest states for the season, around the time folks start getting twitchy and coming up with wacky ideas to pass the time (fun fact, the scenes driving up to the hotel in The Shining—the ultimate example of seasonal snow-induced psychosis—were filmed right next door on Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park).
At some point, two drunk guys in the saloon had an idea. “One of them was challenged to see if he could make it down the main drag in Martin City—on what we call Sugar Hill—on a barstool on skis,” says Ben Shafer of the Trapline Association, the organization that coordinates Cabin Fever Days. (Sugar Hill may or may not be named for its former occupation as Martin City’s red-light district.)
The only rule of the challenge, the story goes, was that you had to cross the finish line in the drinking position—a rule which still holds today for the traditional barstool ski races. So one of the guys screwed some skis to a barstool and shoved off down the steep, steep 750-foot hill. “He made it most of the way,” says Shafer. “And the next year it was, ‘Okay, let’s see who’s fastest.’ And it just kind of took off from there.”
Today that stool-on-skis race has grown into the three-day Cabin Fever Days blowout, with the Barstool Ski Races as the crux. This year it returns after a Covid-19 hiatus, running from February 11-13. The entry fee is $3 or $5 a button, all benefiting local charities like the Martin City Volunteer Fire Department and the Canyon Kids Christmas Fund. Last festival, they raised $11,000.
In the early days of the festival, there were events like deer and mouse races, which were apparently shut down for many reasons, not least of all sanitary ones. Today, the only animals are human—about 5,000 of them descending from all over, twice the population of Martin City itself coming out in temperatures that can dip well below zero. Food trucks help keep attendees warm, including a local sausage vendor, serving up bison and elk links. Glacier Distilling, a sponsor, offers up a special Cabin Fever brandy.
A free shuttle takes you to all six festival venues for live music and hog roasts; events like Rochambeau and arm-wrestling tournaments; egg and spoon races; beer pong; and Chicken Shit Bingo. “Picture a big cage with numbers on the floor and a chicken inside,” says Shafer. “I think they probably feed them a lot that day.”
There’s a poker run, where you pick up a playing card from each bar and, at the end of the festival, create the best poker hand possible, and a Mountain Man competition with hatchet-throwing and other survivalist skills in competition, plus buckskin aplenty.
And then there’s the antics of snowshoe softball. “You gotta try to field and run the bases in snowshoes,” says Shafer. “For years there was a keg on second base, should you make it that far, but our insurance company kinda knocked that out a couple years ago. It’s BYOB now.”
That first barstool dare turned into four different official races, each with a $20 entry fee. Three are competitive: steerable, non-steerable, and open class, with two racers competing in each heat, tournament-style. Steerable and non-steerable races both utilize traditional four-poster barstools on skis, while for the open class, it’s anything on skis, often kept to anything simple enough to gain speed while racing. “It’s usually something in a reclined position where you can have a handle on either side so you can tilt your skis to steer with—those tend to be the fastest designs,” says Shafer. “A ten-foot-long steel Budweiser bottle won a couple times.”
The fourth race is show class, where anything goes, and winners get voted on by the audience. Here you’ll see the creativity come out: outhouses, the guys in recliners watching TV, a full band performing while standing on mounted pallets—with pyrotechnics!—and indecent grannies. “We’ve had a little granny riding a toilet, with pairs of her panties she was selling for charity,” says Shafer. (Yes, it was a real granny. We clarified.)
There was a participant from Canada dressed as Evel Knievel who raised a thousand dollars to donate to the charity pot, and another favorite from closer to home. “Cabin Fever Days are quite popular for actual mountain men,” says Shafer. “We had one fella that raced every year, kind of a legend in the area with a leather and fur suit and a huge beard. He made a replica of the Glacier Park Jammers (the red vehicles that transport guests in Glacier National Park) and packed it full of kids.”
Should you want to participate, Shafer recommends coming to the racer meeting held about a month prior to learn the ropes, contact other racers, and to get in good with the veterans.
He also recommends bringing protection. “Four or five years ago we started bringing in a professional grooming machine, and [races] go significantly faster now,” says Shafer. “Once we started grooming the hill, a lot more guys started wearing helmets.”