After all the years, all the work, all the 48-mile round trips to the hinterland of the Blue Hills, what Pat Sorenson remembers is the laughter.
"It was just great to hear the laughter all over the hill," said Sorenson.
The hill is a mountain for this area, and the mountain is Christie, turning 40 years old this month.
The laughter came from the skiers after George and Pat Sorenson took on the challenge of carving downhill ski runs in the hills and forests of Rusk County, 24 miles from their home in Rice Lake.
It was a daunting task. The Sorensons' love for skiing and George's passion for a challenge led them to the site in Altanta Township, where Mt. Atlanta had a rope tow and a couple of short runs for a few years in the 1950s.
"We lived at Hardscrabble," said Pat, describing her family's love for downhill skiing at the Rice Lake area ski hill, which closed in 2003. "Someone told us about Mt. Atlanta. We took snowshoes and went to the top of the hill."
What the Sorensons saw was a vista like none other in this part of the state, a view stretching 30 miles to the east. What they were standing on was the possibility of a ski hill with a 400-foot drop, more than any ski hill around.
"We looked to the east. It was just amazing. George said it ought to be a ski hill," remembers Pat.
That next summer, George, who passed away in 2014, took on the "ought to be" challenge. He designed a series of trails that would take advantage of the woodland and protect skiers from winter winds. He called in the bulldozers, found two chairlifts from a ski hill out east and engineered their installation, and built a chalet.
But before all that, there was the matter of water. A ski hill can't operate without massive amounts of water for snowmaking. And it was the biggest hurdle for the Sorensons, who found only rock in early drilling.
George went a bit to the east of where the chalet is now for one more try.
"George said we'd drill one more time and it would determine if we could do it," remembers Pat.
In what was truly amazing at the time, the giant drill bits found an underground stream. There was plenty of water to pump up the hill and into a holding pond. Christie Mountain was born.
Forsaking the old Mt. Atlanta name in Atlanta Township, George opted for Christie after the alpine skiing term Christina, a turn used when a skier is making a stop. Hayward had its Mt. Telemark named for the telemark turn, and the Sorensons had their Christie Mountain, along Rusk County Hwy. O between Ladysmith to the east, Rice Lake to the west, and smaller, closer towns Bruce and Weyerhaeuser 6 miles to the south.
"This is what remains of the oldest mountain range in North America," George Sorenson told a Minneapolis Star Tribune writer at the time, noting that before the last glacier, the Blue Hills were believed to be higher than the Rocky Mountains.
In the fall of 1976 there was a media blitz which mostly amounted to newspaper stories and the Sorensons placing brochures in businesses throughout northwest Wisconsin. By Jan. 9, 1977, the Sunday known in these parts for a 60-below zero temperature reading, and also the date of Pat's birthday, Christie Mountain was open.
"By the way, dad and I skied down the slopes that day," says Susan Ritchie, the Sorenson's daughter who was a teenager at the time and worked at the hill, along with her older brothers, Greg and David.
"It was definitely a family thing," said Ritchie, a partner at the Anderson-Hager-Moe accounting firm in Rice Lake.
For nearly 25 years there were two ski hills in the Blue Hills area— Hardscrabble near Rice Lake and Christie Mountain 15 miles to the east. Hardscrabble closed in 2003 after considerable damage and a fire due to a lightning strike.
The lights of Christie: The Landreth Era
"What the heck is that?" Jim and Laura Landreth asked each other on a winter's night in 1977, the lights of Christie Mountain suddenly illuminating a hillside 7 miles from their home on Thornapple Road near Bruce.
"We had moved to Bruce in 1976 and weren't too up on the local news," said Jim Landreth, explaining they didn't know a ski hill was being developed to the west.
It wasn't long, however, before the Landreths were skiing there with friends who introduced them to the sport.
Jim Landreth was a carpenter, making a living building houses and doing remodeling jobs. The Landreths and their young daughter North eventually moved to a 30-acre parcel south of Bruce. In the mid 1980s, they heard that Christie Mountain may be sold or shut down.
Pat Sorenson readily says that her husband was much more enthused about planning and developing the ski hill than its day-to-day management after it became a reality.
After 8 years, the Sorensons were ready to move on, and George returned full time to his management position with Jerome Foods. At the same time, the Landreths were ready to take a risk.
"I approached George about the hill. I was a young guy, and I didn't have a clue that I didn't have a clue," said Jim Landreth.
The Landreths now live in California. Jim's job as director of real estate analysis with Impact Seven took him west to near the Pacific Ocean south of San Jose.
To this day, Jim Landreth remembers that the Sorensons were good to his family. "No money down, pay month to month. They took a chance on us."
To make the new venture happen, the Landreth's sold off lots on their property and remodeled part of Christie's chalet for living quarters. Then they took on the job of updating equipment, adding new runs, installing tall windows in the chalet, and working all night to make snow and repair snow-spitting equipment.
"The first few years we were trying to survive," said Landreth.
But what the new owners had going for them were ski patrollers and ski instructors, a family of sorts that wanted to see the hill survive. Friends with skills in various trades pitched in. And the Landreths kept working.
"A ski hill is like a farm. You do all the work," said Landreth.
The Beast awakens
Ask Jim Landreth about his marketing approach in a sparsely-populated area, with considerable dependence on skiers traveling 50 miles from the Eau Claire area, and he immediately launches, without prompting, into one of his favorite topics of Christie Mountain.
"It was the darnedest thing. This beast showed up and started to ski there.
It was the Blue Hills Beast, which still lives at or near Christie Mountain to this day, so they say.
"People accused me of putting on a beast costume," said Landreth by phone, tongue no doubt firmly implanted in his cheek. "That's shameful of them. I wouldn't stoop to those depths."
The blue-haired Beast became a hit. As the story goes, the Beast had learned to ski eons ago. When it heard the laughter from Christie Mountain it awakened and found a ski hill full of fun and free of cares.
"Families are always having their photos taken with the Blue Hills Beast," said Sue Vohs, who with her husband, David, found their way to Christie Mountain.
Looking for something: The Vohs Era
David Vohs had ski hill management experience, having been at Cascade Mountain near Portage for 15 years. He and his wife, Sue, were looking to own a business in the late 1980s when the Landreths decided to sell Christie Mountain.
A campground was a strong possibility, but then the Vohs saw an ad in a ski industry magazine that Christie Mountain in Rusk County was for sale. Sue knew of the place, having taken the couple's two children there for ski races.
David says he learned a lot at Cascade about snowmaking and the other jobs of keeping the outside part of the hill operating.
"I got my nose into the business and learned some. Then we bought this and learned a whole lot more," said David, sitting with Sue in the lodge's quiet shadows after a busy weekend this month.
The Vohs are now in their 18th season at Christie. They came with a work ethic and ideas, some of which worked, others that were scratched, for the good, they now say.
David has to laugh. "I thought the Beast thing was corny. Then people started asking, 'Where's the Beast?'"
The Beast returned. The old met the new—snowboarding and snowtubing, using the internet for marketing and providing up-to-date ski hill news (christiemountain.com), and more trails and more snowmaking machines.
"The tubing park was a hit. It's for all ages, and it helps keep us going," said David.
The number of trails have more than doubled, from 14 to 30, and a highspeed rope tow—800 feet per minute—keeps skiers on the slopes more.
The Vohs, sharing the operation with their daughter and her husband, Andrea and David Luettgerodt, have also developed rock climbing on one of the hill's walls cliffs, adding a summer recreational sport.
The transitions from owner to owner to owner have been smooth, and each credits the other for their place in Christie Mountain's 40-year story.
"I was skiing there last weekend," said Susan Ritchie. "What is so neat to see is the fabulous job the Vohs have done. The hill is in good shape."
After purchasing Christie Mountain in the fall of 1998, David Vohs was talking to a local, who eventually got around to telling the new owner that he must have a lot of guts to buy a ski hill in the middle of nowhere.
"I told him that the guy with a lot of guts was George Sorenson, to build a ski hill in the middle of nowhere," said Vohs
Jim Landreth doesn't pause when asked if his family's years at Christie Mountain were rewarding. "People come to have fun. You do your job and they will have fun," said Landreth.
And then, Landreth uses nearly the same words as Vohs to explain that buying a ski hill was not as gutsy as building one. "George had this crazy idea to build a ski hill in the middle of nowhere."
Pat Sorenson looks back, knowing what it took and still takes. "Everybody put in their time and effort. That it's still going is a testimony to that."
Forty years later, Christie Mountain is still somewhere in the Blue Hills, with a beast and a 350-foot drop where laughter keeps echoing across the wind-protected runs and the view that captured its first owners.