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What a Legendary Ski Photographer’s Dad Said About Moving West

Maybe he didn't expect to raise a ski bum. But was he disappointed?

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My friend Bill always felt like the black sheep. He grew up in a New Hampshire family of siblings and cousins who all carved out respectable careers in the “regular” world—doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. But after graduating from Dartmouth, he followed a force that beckoned him out West, where he built a life that revolved greatly around skiing. At some point, he shared his feelings with his dad, and somewhere in there he admitted that he’d always felt he’d let the old man down. I had a similar experience. I blew off going to a university with stature and lollygagged through my entire education, winding up out West just like Bill. I too pursued a life that revolved around skiing.

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I too felt like my dad thought I hadn’t become all I could have—like I’d pursued a life that wasn’t, in his eyes, the wisest choice, or the best. Then one day, when my dad was in his late 70s, I found myself talking to him about it. We were parked in my driveway during one of only two visits he ever made to my Salt Lake home. I opened up about the feelings I had—that I’d come up short of what he thought I could be, of who he wanted me to be. I fought tears as I broached this new subject with him. I was in my 30s then, and this lifelong accumulation of emotion was coming out for the first time. And maybe my dad’s reaction didn’t surprise me that much. He said that he was never disappointed in me, that I had lived the life of my choice and that all he wanted was for me to find happiness in it. Any misgivings he’d had were long forgotten.

What a weight was lifted from my heart. I suspect lots of guys who end up building lives around skiing go through a similar sort of experience. There’s some weird guilt that comes with shunning societal norms to pursue something you enjoy. On the other hand, in the case of skiing, it’s usually Dad who turned you on to the enjoyment in the first place. I know mine took me skiing when I was five.

As my dad lay on his deathbed I sat with him, and the last time he spoke more than a single word was in response to my telling him that his grandson, just turned 18, had won the coveted Sickbird Award in his first men’s division big-mountain comp. I know he didn’t really understand what the Sickbird Award was, though I explained it to him.

“Pretty cool, huh?” I asked him. He strained to agree. “Pretty cool.”

And one day, when Bill was at a family reunion where all his nephews and nieces were enjoying a visit to Utah ski land, one of them said, “Hey, Uncle Bill, you know, none of us would be doing this now if you hadn’t made that move out West.”

Sure enough, my own kid wouldn’t be living the life of a skier if I hadn’t done the same thing. Pretty cool, huh?

Photographer Lee Cohen calls Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon home. His work appears frequently in SKI.