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Most, if not all, of my ski heroes will go unrecognized by even the most alert reader. At least one of them remains unknown to me to this day.Certainly there have been flashes of inspiration from the famous. When I was 8 or 9, I tripped right out of my snowplow at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., as Linda Meyers, one of the best and most beautiful ski racers of the Fifties, wedled by on one ski, the other foot suspended above the snow in a plaster cast.
I once followed Jean-Claude Killy down Flying Serpent at Bear Valley, Calif., the day before a pro race there. Typical of the central Sierra in March, snow poured from the sky like rice at a wedding. Training was impossible, so Killy free-falled some of Bear’s steepest rollovers in 3 feet of grainy powder-without making a turn.
Then there was the poster high on the wall of our Bear Valley ski school locker room. It froze Ingemar Stenmark mid-turn with his uphill knee pressing into his chest and his downhill boot so radically edged his ankle skimmed the snow surface. We all tried to assume the position standing still, never mind at 40 mph on a sheet of ice.
I couldn’t do it, even while leaning against the tuning bench. No, the really key people in my nearly half-century of skiing have been private heroes, people who showed me something I could be, or something I could do on skis. Or hoped to be able to do, maybe, someday, if I kept at it.
The first of these was an Austrian instructor named Leo. When I was 15 my parents let me take the train, with a friend, from L.A. to Sun Valley over spring break. Leo had wavy hair that made the coeds in our ski-week swoon. Leo called me “Hollywood.” I don’t know why other than the fact that I came from Southern California. Maybe he sensed that I would have given anything to star in his, Leo’s, life: possessor of the most elegant check-hop turn you ever saw; effortless center of attention at the Ram Bar after skiing; and at night in a snow-bound lodge room…A boy could only imagine.
It took becoming a ski teacher myself in the Seventies to dislodge that vision of Leo and the skiing life. It turned out his perfect turn-or my version of it-was all style and little substance. Ski school supervisor Rolf Dercum, son of Keystone’s founder, Max, exposed the sham by taking our clinic groups into bad snow, down tight tree edges and through the biggest bumps. My locked-kneed, mono-ski platform fell to pieces. Rolf, meanwhile, skied everything with a super-efficient, wide-track stance that allowed him to pressure either edge at will. Simple. Forget form. Balance on the edge. Drive the edged ski through its arc. Like drawing a circle.
Then he dropped a bombshell on us. We apprentices had been working slavishly on our carved arcs when Rolf stopped us halfway down a long mogul pitch. “Let go of the mountain!” he commanded in frustration. “You guys are all clinging to the hill with your edges. Let go of the mountain!” Whereupon he dove his tips into the fall line and held them there, as Killy would later do, disappearing fast, like a stone skipping over water, to the transition and out of sight.
Whoa! Not only was this guy dissing perfect form, but he also seemed to be saying that turning itself might not be the goal. Old Max Dercum, who was in his sixties then and still skis and races today, taught us another hugely valuable lesson. Max would occasionally take a clinic group out in the afternoons, ostensibly to work on our teaching skills. But inevitably, we’d end up off the backside somewhere deep in the trees with no idea where we were going. Max pointed with delight at claw marks high up on a lodgepole pine. He talked about drainages and wind loading and what changed the snow over time. He never hesitated to answer the question: What’s over this next ridge? More often than not, we had an arduous hike back to civilization. But we didn’t mind: Max took skiing back to its roots, as exploration.
Back on piste, if perfect form was not the goal, thhen what was? A few other mentors, witting and unwitting, shined lights along the path. One of them came quite early, before I was ready to understand the message. I was still in high school visiting a friend in Salt Lake City. We skied Alta one morning as a storm broke into golden shards. Neither of us had the experience yet to handle the powder, but we did see an example of what deep-snow mastery looked like. Directly under us on the Collins chair, a man in a red anorak slipped down a steep shaft as if he were sweeping a floor. Left, right, left. Puffs of white dust punctuated his metronomic descent. We were stunned. The man showed no effort and maintained a constant, leisurely speed. It appeared he’d made a private deal with gravity’s wild pull.
Years later, in Bear Valley, a fellow instructor we called Uncle Milt personified the explanation. Milt had perfected the art of matching his body and his turn shape to the terrain. Like a Balinese balancing a basket, his head and shoulders never moved. While down below his long legs folded and extended, accordion-like, to swallow a bump or press deep into new powder. The opposite of aggression, Milt’s approach rewarded a light touch, sought collusion with the mountain. In his calm caress, I finally saw the secret of my Alta mystery man.
And finally, I must mention my wife, Ellen, who is doubtless weary of my holding her up as a skiing mentor. But I can’t help it. I fell in love following her at Keystone 27 years ago. And it’s still a revelation watching her ski today.
It’s not her technique that’s so inspiring, though hers is solid and refined. And she shows me that exceptional strength is not essential either. When we both taught full-time she was very fit indeed, but since then kids and jobs and changing priorities have dictated that Ellen ski, in her words, “without muscles.”
It has nothing to do with speed or bravado or the occasional stunning virtuosity in her feet. It has everything to do with imagination, with line, with the way Ellen sees the slope and feels her way down it. She stands tall, regally tall, leans into gravity’s embrace. She directs the edged tools on her feet, not to make turns but to take her places, astonishing places: up the sides of walls, swooping around tree wells, weightless over the knolls. She shows me that if we are imaginative and skilled, if we hold fast to a sense of play, then skiing need not be a cold sport at all. That a form of grace can wrap you in a warm cocoon all the way to the bottom of the hill.
Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Ridgway, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net, or check out his previous columns at www.skimag.com .