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 right out of a cinematic old Western. Shadows fall from 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 transforms into 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 inebriated saloon patrons 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, an organizer who's worked with the Bad Rock Council, the group that coordinates Cabin Fever Days, on and off for decades. (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 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.’ It just kind of took off from there.”
Today that stool-on-skis race has blossomed into the three-day Cabin Fever Days blowout, with the Barstool Ski Races as the crux. The 2024 event runs February 9–11, with the races going down on February 10. The entry fee to watch ranges from $3 to $5, and all proceeds benefit local organizations like the Martin City Volunteer Fire Department and the Canyon Kids Christmas Fund.
The early days of the festival also featured quirky 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—typically about 5,000 of them descending from all over, twice the population of Martin City itself—competing in temperatures that can dip well below zero. During the festival's 2022 post-pandemic return, the number ballooned to 8,000. “It was by far the most people we've had, 60% more than our previous most," says Shafer. “There was a lot of pent-up cabin fever after two years.”
Food trucks help keep attendees warm, including a local sausage vendor serving up bison and elk links, while sponsor Glacier Distilling offers a special cinnamon-laced Cabin Fever Brandy they call “an all-natural and less sweet version of Fireball.” A free shuttle deposits revelers in front of several venues for live music and hog roasts, friendly bouts like roshambo 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 dart and pool tournament on Friday, and the bulk of Sunday is reserved for Super Bowl parties. And then there’s 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 you can enter via Google form, each with a $20 entry fee (deadline for entry is January 31). Three are competitive: steerable, non-steerable (traditional), and open class, with two racers competing in each tournament-style heat. Steerable and non-steerable races both utilize traditional four-poster barstools on skis, while the open class allows just about structure on skis, often something 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—those tend to be the fastest designs,” says Shafer. “A 10-foot-long steel Budweiser bottle won a couple times.”
The fourth race is the show class, where anything goes, and winners get voted in by the audience. Here you’ll see the creativity come out: outhouses, 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 fact-checked.) For each race, both the winning rider and pusher receive $200 plus a sweet trophy shaped like a miniature whiskey keg, one that apparently actually functions.
One year, there was a participant from Canada dressed as Evel Knievel who raised $1000 for the charity pot. Another favorite modeled himself after something a little closer to home. “Cabin Fever Days are quite popular for actual mountain men,” says Shafer. “We had one fella, kind of a legend in the area, that raced every year 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 get in on the action, Shafer recommends attending the racer meeting held about a month prior to learn the ropes, meet other racers, and 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.”