cato-memorial-race

Glencoe High School racers display a widely-held feeling in this 2005 photograph.

This coming January, for the 25th year in a row, hundreds of high school skiers and their families will gather on Mount Hood to dress up in whacky costumes, ski fast, cheer each other on, feast on turkey and roast beef, and have fun on the mountain. It will be the final running of the Christine Cato Memorial Race, and a lot of people are going to miss it once it is over.

The goal of the Cato race was to build something positive out of something terrible. Christine Cato died from an accident involving a snowcat at Timberline Ski Area on July 9, 1989. She was 16 years old.

All these years later, the family still prefers not to discuss the details of the accident.

“I can still burst into tears about Christine at any time,” says her mother, Judy Cato. “She was a fabulous person. She made friends with everyone. There were people who showed up for her memorial who said they were her best friend who I had never met before. And I believed them.”

850 people attended a memorial service for Christine Cato in Beaverton. “The church was packed and there were people standing outside,” remembers Christine’s father, Stu. “It was overwhelming.”

Stu Cato has been skiing Mount Hood since the 1950s. He and Judy bought a cabin without running water in Government Camp in 1974, when Christine was two, and worked for many years to improve it into a cozy refuge for friends and family. All three of the Cato children raced as Mitey Mites with the Mt. Hood Race Team and competed as high school racers. Their eldest daughter, Caroline, worked for Timberline Lodge after graduating from high school.

Skiing Mount Hood was a huge part of their life together, and now one of their children had died while skiing on the mountain. What could they possibly do to make things better?

'A Fun Race for All'

While they were suffering from the shock of their daughter's death, Stu and Judy Cato were approached by Richard Kohnstamm, president of RLK and Company, the company that rescued Timberline Lodge from bankruptcy in the 1950s and runs it to this day.

“Dick Kohnstamm came to us and told us he felt awful about what happened,” Judy Cato recalls. “He said he wanted to do something positive, and so did we. So we talked to the kids, Christine’s friends, and we finally came up with this ski race.”

Kohnstamm committed to hosting the race at Timberline and insisted on providing a nice meal at the lodge for the racers and their families. The Catos reached out to friends for help with organizing the race and assembled a core team of volunteers who have worked together for 25 years.

They decided to create an event with Christine's personality in mind. Christine Cato loved to ski and run gates, but she never loved the hyper-competitive world of high-level racing. She liked to see everyone get a chance, and she loved to cheer on racers new to the sport. In keeping with that spirit, the Cato Memorial has always embraced racers of all abilities and styles. Points and times do not count toward league competition, and there are no protests over times and rulings. Coaches are encouraged to give all of their racers a chance to compete, not just the fastest skiers. Racers are encouraged to relax and enjoy themselves rather than stressing out over their times. Unusual outfits are welcome.

“It’s a fun race for all,” says Stu Cato. “It’s great for skiers racing for the first time, or for racers who get tight in the gates. The idea is for everyone to walk away with smiles on their faces.”

A Spirit Award was added to the team and individual race awards, later followed by a Costume Award.

“We were sitting in a meeting one time, and someone said why don’t we do costumes?” recalls Judy Cato. “And I thought, well, Christine loved costumes, why not? So we put out the word that we were going to have costumes, and these kids really got into it. It just took on a life of its own.”

A few years later, a prominent photo appeared in the Oregonian of a six-foot male racer in full Lycra racing regalia, wearing a tutu.

“One year Aloha High School made sport jackets out of duct tape,” says Judy. “Another year they showed up in coconut boobs and hula skirts. A guy showed up last year dressed as a tree.”

Each year the Spirit Award and the Costume Award are selected and presented by a group of longtime volunteers including Dave Porter, Erik Bjorge, Steve Schaffer, Barry Jackson, Brian Thompson and Drew Porter — friends of Christine Cato who have made it an annual tradition to help with the race. They have grown from high school kids to college kids to adults with families, but to this day Judy still refers to them as “the boys,” and she credits them with making the race a success. They all get together every year on the Friday night before the race to sort the bibs and dine at Timberline Lodge, to reconnect, and to remember Christine.

"The Cato family really adopted us after Christine died," says Dave Porter, now a 43-year-old contractor with two kids of his own who are learning to ski."We were all friends of Christine's and we became family after her death. That bond is something that doesn't leave you."

Porter has never missed a Cato race. "It's a beautiful thing to see these kids having so much fun," he says, "kids doing what Christine would be doing, just goofing off and having a blast."

Over a quarter century the Cato Memorial has grown into possibly the largest, and certainly one of the most popular, high school ski races in the U.S. Thousands of racers — between 250 and 450 per year — have competed in the race and enjoyed the festivities.

Last year's Cato race brought together skiers of all ability levels, including racers dressed as bears, fairy princesses and vikings — not to mention the daring lad who shredded down in just his birthday suit.

'The whole family has been healing'

Stu and Judy Cato never planned for the race they started to continue for 25 years. It just kept going. Richard Kohnstamm insisted on hosting the event at Timberline and after his death at the age of 80 in 2006, his son Jeffrey Kohnstamm, the current president of RLK and Company, continued to support the event.

Now Judy Cato says it is time to move on. She believes the race has fulfilled its goal of creating something positive and lasting out of the tragedy of her daughter’s death. It also has helped family and friends to heal from the shock of losing Christine as such a young age.

“25 years ago I could hardly go to the cabin, let alone Timberline," Judy recalls. "Through the years and with loving understanding the whole family has been healing to the point that our son Ray was married at Timberline on Christine’s birthday this past August.”

Stu Cato says he is proud of the fact that his family and Richard Kohnstamm were able to come to an understanding rather than fighting one another. “We both suffered,” he says. “We lost a daughter and he had a terrible thing happen at his Lodge. What can we do to make this thing positive? You bring attorneys in and they’re going to convince you to hate the other person. Well we’re not that kind of people.”

The final Christine Cato Memorial Ski Race is scheduled for January 3, 2015 at Timberline Lodge. There will be a special course set up for all alumni racers who have taken part in the Cato race over the past 25 years, along with a large supply of Cato memorabilia — and some very emotional farewells.

The Mount Hood racing community is going to miss this event, and it remains to be seen whether something new will emerge to take its place. For many local skiers and coaches, the Cato race is a vital part of a good year on the mountain. This recent Facebook post by local skier and Southridge High School Coach Jason Hattery explains why the race has become so popular:

I have been to every Cato race since 1997, first as a racer, then as a coach. The race has meant a lot to me as it not only marked the start of the racing season but also renewed the spirit of the season. Fun, warmth, snow, family, and food of course! The Cato Memorial has been many racers' first competitive experience on snow, and what better way than to ease everyone into the race season than a fun non-league race bringing so many teams from across the state together to share the joy of this sport. Thank you so much to the Cato family, Timberline Lodge, and all the participants over the years for such good and plentiful memories.

Feel free to add your Cato memories to the comments section below. And take a look at this slide show from last year's race, featuring a wide variety of racing styles and fashion statements.

Austin Keillor of Hood River took first in the boys varsity.

Also, here is a link to a video from longtime Mt. Hood ski coach and videographer Robin Cressy: