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  Comments (1) Total Friday Apr. 25, 2014
 
Home on the Fringe
Signature Whitefish Winter Carnival sporting event of Ski Joring still growing in popularity after more than 50 years
Three years ago, Scott Ping was lying face down in the snow with a broken neck, unable to move and certain he was going to die.

His favorite sport had placed him on death’s doorstep, and Ping says the only thing that saved his life was a vision of his late mother.

It was dusk and Ping was alone, riding his horse, Harvey Wallbanger, at full speed on his ski joring track. The National Ski Joring Finals in Red Lodge were fast approaching and Ping wanted Harvey to be in top form for the competition. He decided to squeeze in a few extra training laps on the track at his ranch outside of Whitefish.

“That probably wasn’t the best idea,” Ping acknowledges.

It was March and the hard snowpack concealed a nether-layer of slush. Harvey hit a soft spot in the snow and somersaulted.

“It was like it happened in slow motion. Harvey went over on top of me and I heard my neck crack. I was just lying there in a pile. I had a little bit of space under my chin so I could breathe but I couldn’t move. I was totally paralyzed,” he said. “After about 15 minutes I realized I was probably going to die there. Then my deceased mother comes to me. I heard her voice just like I was 10 years old again and she said, ‘Scotty, you’ll be alright.’ And I was.”

Ping managed to retrieve his cell phone from his pocket and call his ranch hand. Within 20 minutes he was strapped down in an ambulance.

He’d broken his neck between the C1 and C2 vertebrae, which is the same injury that left Christopher Reeves a quadriplegic.

“I should have been dead or paralyzed. But two hours later I was moving my hands and two days later I was walking,” he said.

A near-death experience like that would deter most sane folk from horseback riding, and certainly from ski joring — the fringe sport in which a horse and rider tow a skier around a horseshoe-shaped course at high speeds, flying over jumps and weaving through slalom gates.

But not Ping.

He wore a neck halo and had titanium screws placed in his neck to mend his spine and shortly after his recovery he was back in the saddle, intent on winning the Whitefish Open, the centerpiece of the World Ski Joring Championships held annually during the Whitefish Winter Carnival.

“I thought it would be cool to win the open,” he said.

On the first run, his horse fell and Ping broke eight ribs and suffered 12 fractures.

“I was pretty well laid up for a while,” he recalls.

But when the 2013 Ski Joring season rolled around, the 62-year-old Ping couldn’t resist. Riding his horse Kona Coffee, he racked up a solid performance at a race in Sun Valley, Idaho, and then went on to win the North American Championships in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

“I ended up winning the whole deal. You just got to keep going,” he said. “It’s been quite a run for me. I almost feel like this year might be my last.”

That’s not a convincing statement coming from a man so committed to ski joring, which made its debut at the Whitefish Winter Carnival in the 1960s when a group of locals sitting at the Pastime Pool Hall (now the Bulldog Saloon) were trying to settle an argument about who among them was the better skier, exhibited the most equestrian prowess and who was the more robust beer drinker.

In Whitefish, ski joring is notorious for prominently featuring all three activities.

Fifty years ago, the event was held in downtown Whitefish on Central Avenue, but after local businessman Russ Street was nearly thrown through the window of a downtown storefront and a crowd of spectators was parted by a couple of runaway horses, the event moved to the fenced-in Mountain Trails Saddle Club (now the Stumptown Ice Den).

The fun continued until 1982 but, due to injuries, the Whitefish Winter Carnival organizing committee could no longer place insurance.

Today, the competition is fully insured and sanctioned by the North American Ski Joring Association, and with as many as 100 teams competing it is widely regarded as the largest competition of its kind in the world.

Practice for the upcoming World Ski Joring Championships in Whitefish on Jan. 19. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon


Ping and Dale Duff helped revive the sport as the signature sporting event during the Whitefish Winter Carnival in 2002, drawing 25 teams and 1,000 spectators. Ping expects 75 teams this year.

Today, Ping offers training opportunities at his ranch for novice participants, and up to 5,000 spectators turn out at the main event to watch the excitement as teams compete for a purse of nearly $20,000.

Riders and skiers can be paired up for the competitions during the team registration party on Friday, Jan. 24, at Casey’s Bar and Grill in Whitefish. The competition takes place at the snow-covered Whitefish Municipal Airport grounds.

In 2012 the Whitefish Winter Carnival earned wide recognition by two glossy magazines, National Geographic Traveler and Vogue.

The January/February issue of National Geographic Traveler named the Whitefish Winter Carnival one of the top 10 winter carnivals in the world, ranking it 10th in a list that included Sapporo, Japan; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; Hanover, N.H.; Anchorage, Alaska; and Steamboat Springs, Colo.

The Vogue article highlighted the World Ski Joring Championship, describing the competition as “an exciting extreme sport that has skiers being pulled around an obstacle course by cowboys on horseback.”

This year, National Geographic Traveler included the Whitefish Winter Carnival and the World Ski Joring Championships in a list of “Best Winter Trips 2014.”

“We are getting quite the notoriety,” Ping says, adding that riders and skiers travel from all around the country to participate.
 
On 01-23-14, KC commented....
Wow, I moved away from Whitefish in 2007 and didn’t know this had happened to Scott. He is very tough for sure. Glad to know he is doing well.  Take care Scott….
 
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