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Originally published September, 2005 issue of SKI Magazine.
Soon after I arrived in Sun Valley in 1948, I kept hearing the same challenge: If you could take Canyon straight and survive, you were one of a very elite group of skiers on the mountain. When you consider how bad the equipment was at high speeds in those days, straight-lining Canyon was about as risky as bungee jumping without a bungee cord.
Skis were 7 feet 6 inches long and made of stiff laminated hickory. Beartrap bindings that resembled a partially closed vise clamped your foot to the ski, no matter which way your leg twisted when you fell. My Chippewa ski boots were made of soft leather that went all the way up to my ankle. They gave even less support than a pair of today’s cross-country boots.
Synthetic parkas hadn’t been invented. Mine was poplin, and I had to wear two, sometimes three, sweaters under it, with long underwear under that, to stay warm.There also were no thermal long johns then, just good old-fashioned wool underwear, which had a serious design defect. When wool long johns got wet, they would start itching so badly you could hardly sit down on a chairlift.
And my long johns got wet a lot, because my $7 gabardine ski pants were anything but waterproof. I had also opted for flaps on my pants pockets, because they were a dollar cheaper than a pair with zippered pockets. I hadn’t sewn on buttons to hold the flaps closed, so my pockets were always full of snow. When I went into the warming hut for lunch, the snow in my pockets would melt and get my wool long johns wet—and then they would really, really itch.
In the spring of my second season in Sun Valley, while skiing in a snowstorm, I missed a turn and ended up straight-lining the Narrows, the bottom half of Canyon. It was exhilarating. Thinking about it on the way back up, I realized I had already reached terminal velocity for a 6-foot-3-inch skinny guy who was wearing a baggy army-surplus parka and baggy army-surplus pants that flapped violently in the wind. I also had stood up straight with my arms out to cut my speed. The scratched-up wooden bottoms of my skis probably slowed me down another 15 percent. I rationalized that I couldn’t go any faster no matter how far up the hill I started; I would just be going at terminal velocity a little longer.
So I decided that this was the day I would be able to say, “I took Canyon straight.” At the top of the Exhibition lift, word got out and two of my ski-patrol friends were trying to talk me into letting them wax my skis. They were calling me chicken for not starting in a tuck from the top.
After a side trip into the trees to relieve my nervousness, I decided to go for it. Amid the shouts of hordes of spectators—there were now five—I timidly shoved off. I didn’t dare skate for more speed. Halfway down, I was glad I had made that trip into the trees. Hitting 50 mph in my second season was plenty fast enough for me. Danger is an accumulative commodity, and going this fast for such a long time greatly increased my odds of crashing. At the start of the run, I had tucked my arms close to my body. But by now I was reaching out for any wind resistance I could find. Somehow, I had to slow down. “Come on, parka and pants,” I prayed, “flap more and slow me down.”
As I plummeted into the Narrows, my army-surplus wardrobe and my wildly waving arms slowed me down to about 40 mph. Now I had only to hang on for another hundred yards or so. I’m not sure, but I probably closed my eyes about then. And somehow I made it. I had finally taken Canyon straight.
I had done it from top to bottom, and I was still alive. I took stock of my physical condition: Arms? Not broken. Legs? Not broken. Brain? Not broken—which might help explain why I decided right then and there to never straight-line Canyon again.