By Pat McKnight  

Along with his ski patrol headgear, Rich Rice could wear the hat of unofficial historian for Mt. La Crosse and downhill skiing in the Coulee Region.

“I’ve watched history being created,” said Rice. “Because skiing is a lifelong sport, it creates history.” 

A member of the Mt. La Crosse Ski Patrol for 30 years, Rice started his skiing career when he was just 3 years old. The sport has long been a part of his family’s history. 

His great-grandfather, an immigrant from Norway, is enshrined in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum in Ishpeming, Michigan, which is considered the birthplace of organized skiing in the United States. 

Rice discovered that the first documented recreational skiers in Wisconsin were at Big Hill Park in Beloit. Despite not being the original site for downhill skiing in the state, Mt. La Crosse can claim its own firsts in the winter sport.

“There are a lot of firsts here,” said Todd Schini, who with his wife, Cindy, bought Mt. La Crosse in 2000 from previous owners Ted and Susan Motschman.

According to Schini, Mt. La Crosse was the first downhill ski venue in the country specifically designed with snow-making in mind, an adequate source of water being needed for the process.

Rice became a junior ski patrol member in his teen years and has served in that capacity for more than 37 years. Many ski patrol members are as committed to the sport.

“We have a highly talented and dedicated patrol,” said Rice. “It’s all volunteers, and we are proud of the tenure our patrol has.”

Founded in 1938 by C. Minot Dole, the National Ski Patrol provided training that contributed to Rice choosing a career as an emergency medical technician. 

The Motschmans were the original owners of Mt. La Crosse, opening the ski resort in 1959. The start of operations put Mt. La Crosse ahead of well-known ski resorts such as Vail in Colorado, which opened in 1961. While the Rocky Mountain ski resorts might be larger in size, Wisconsin can boast of having more resorts.

“Wisconsin is third in the number of ski sites in the country,” said Rice. 

Mt. La Crosse can also compete with the mountain resorts in offering world-class skiing. Its slopes have been rated by the International Ski Federation (FIS – Fédération Internationale de Ski) and can provide local skiers with the experience and opportunities to become world-class competitors.

“We grow skiers in the Midwest,” said Rice. “Mt. La Crosse has a reputation for sending talented skiers up the ladder as coaches and pre-Olympic contenders.”

While archaeologists have found evidence that prehistoric humans used animal bones as skis, Scandinavians claim they developed skiing as a regular mode of winter travel. China disputes the claim and argues researchers have found evidence that their prehistoric ancestors were the first to travel on skis.

Rice says skis were first used for transportation and hunting. Later, skiing was used by military, which was then followed by recreational use. 

Rice has been collecting antique skis for 25 years. His collection of 25 to 30 pairs of skis spans the decades with the oldest pair made sometime between 1910 and 1930. The downhill skis in Rice’s collection show the progression of materials used to make skis. His oldest pair is made from wood, but the newer models show the development and use of synthetic materials in
ski manufacturing.

“The Norwegians mostly used ash,” said Rice. “In the 1950s, there was fiberglass. Then in the 60s, they started using plastics and Teflon.”

Along with new developments in skis, advances have been made in the bindings. The simple leather straps for securing boots to the boards of the oldest skis have been replaced with modern bindings. The innovations provide better control and have lightened the ski patrol members’ workload.

“The equipment has evolved,” said Rice. “We’re seeing fewer accidents with the equipment. Skiing has become safer over the years.”

Ski equipment developers have also branched out to making equipment for adaptive skiing. Because of those advances, Mt. La Crosse now offers more opportunities for adaptive skiers to get out on the slopes.

Located at N5549 Old Town Hall Road south of La Crosse, the ski resort also accommodates snowboarders. 

Because of the stretch of cold temperatures during the first part of November, snowmaking for the season began Nov. 9, one of the earliest dates in recent years. 

More information about Mt. La Crosse and its offerings can be found at www.mtlacrosse.com.