Ski Like You Live

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Ski Like 1104

As an 18-year-old skiing in northern New England with my friends, I used to repeat the banal but blustery slogans that corresponded with that banal but blustery time in our lives: "Ski good or eat wood." "Ski fast, take chances." There were others, of course, but the words most often scrawled in the grime of our rear windshields were "Ski to die. Live to ski." Those were fun times and all, but the words never sat well with me-even then. I don't want to ski to die, I thought.

When George Sormer was 18 and skiing in northern New England, he was living to ski. He just didn't know it at the time. In 1939, George, his mother, and his sister fled Nazi Europe for America. A few months later, he enrolled at Bates College, in Maine, where he won every ski race he entered over two winters. Only later did George learn that, while he was competing-and then training ski troops for the 10th Mountain Division in Colorado-back in his native Czechoslovakia the world of his childhood had ceased to exist. His uncle was starving in Auschwitz. Two aunts would go on to die in the gas chambers there. His father, divorced from George's mother a few years prior, opted for suicide instead.

I don't pretend to understand how a human being deals with that type of tragedy. And I won't insult George by saying he was able to ski the demons out of his head. Still, skiing has been a constant in his life. And his passion for the sport has persisted unchecked for nearly 80 years.

Today, at 82, George tours all winter in the Wasatch two, sometimes three days a week, often summiting-usually alone. That's how I heard about him. Some crusty backcountry skiers told me of a strong but fading man who broke trail by himself in avalanche terrain. They said he was trudging up the big peaks for a reason. They said he was skiing to die.

George learned to ski in Czechoslovakia in the '20s, just as the telemark turn was going out of style. His family was well-off, and sent him to Austria and Switzerland for his education. As a schoolboy, he built jumps; later, he raced. During normal times, dominating the American college circuit would have meant an Olympic bid; instead, George was drafted. He wasn't exactly gung ho: "I was just a 19-year-old," he says. "I was unaware of what was happening to my family. I wasn't losing any sleep over Hitler. They offered me a position with the paratroopers because I spoke German. When they said they wanted to drop us behind enemy lines, I started coughing."

But George wasn't lumped in with the randomly drafted. The head of the National Ski Patrol wrote the Army on his behalf, and, soon enough, George found himself at Camp Hale, Colorado, training 10th Mountain Division ski troops. At the time, there was speculation that the Germans would invade the United States through the Northeast in winter. Later, planners envisioned U.S. forces driving the Germans from the Alps back into the Fatherland. The Germans were known to have crack ski troops who moved at brilliant speeds through the mountains; the allies had no such fighters. It would have been a bloodbath.

Much has been written about the 10th. Footage of the handsome troops arcing powder turns in their white outerwear made for effective pro-war propaganda. In the years since, the 10th has become the stuff of legend. George doesn't buy it. "We were goof-offs," he says. "We wanted to avoid fighting." Taking pity on the exhausted skiers (many were from the South, so altitude and frigid temperatures exacted a tremendous toll), George would let them sleep in the sun. When officers asked him to camouflage their skis, he painted the tops and bases a sticky white (a bad joke that landed him in military court). While in Colorado, he became close with already-legendary mountaineer Paul Petzoldt. A few years before his death in 1999, Petzoldt said George was the best skier he'd ever seen. George responds to the compliment in typical George fashion: "Paul justouldn't ski very well."

When the 10th shipped off for Italy, George was assigned to the 86th Regiment as a medic. The 10th didn't do much skiing, but they saw combat. "The only time I almost got killed," says George, "was when I volunteered to go on a patrol. We ran right into a German division. There was machine-gun fire, and I took a bullet in the shovel handle that was hanging from my belt. All the other medics had taken off their crosses because rumor had it that the Germans didn't discriminate. But I left mine on. I ran into a German officer standing in the road with a pistol. He saw the cross and motioned me aside. Then I ran into a farmhouse, and there's another German. He's been shot in the behind. He asks if I can take him prisoner, and I say, 'Not now! I don't have the time!' before running out and almost getting bayoneted by an American. He pulled back just before impaling me."

To hear George tell it, the war was something out of a Three Stooges episode. But when you ask him how he won a bronze star for meritorious service in battle in 1945, or why Petzoldt recalled an incident in which George single-handedly captured a large number of German soldiers, he clams up or makes a joke. The war, he says, wasn't the highlight of his life-all he really wanted was to move to Utah and ski. "I didn't stay in touch," he says, not a trace of regret in his voice. "There is a group that meets once a month in Salt Lake. I don't bother attending. I don't look back."

I first meet George in the apartment where he lives with his wife, Susan. It's modest, furnished spartanly, and sits on the top floor of one of the largest buildings in Salt Lake. I get a tour of his crammed gear room, which looks a lot like my garage: alpine skis, two or three touring setups, a mountain bike (Stumpjumper hardtail), a road bike (titanium Lemond), a bunch of climbing gear. Everything is well used. George carries very little body fat. We look at old photos, eat ham sandwiches, and talk about skiing in Utah.

After the war, George transferred to the University of Utah to finish school and get back into ski racing. He skied competitively, training with the great racer Jack Reddish, and just missed a spot on the 1948 Olympic squad. Five ankle breaks slowed him down-though he doesn't make excuses. ("The Austrians had huge ankles. I didn't come from that farm stock.") In 1952, at age 30, he retired from serious racing and went to work as a stockbroker in Salt Lake, but still managed to ski-a lot. He entered downhill races for a couple more years, and bombed around Alta at breakneck speeds on 210-centimeter wooden downhill boards. "I was in constant trouble at Alta-skiing too fast, always jumping," he says. "I still go once in a while because I get a free pass- I didn't think they'd give a pass to ol' George. Back then, we just did lap after lap on the face. We didn't do much hiking other than Baldy Chute. There was one guy who went into the backcountry, and we thought he was nuts."

By the early 1960s, though, lines were forming at the resorts, and George got bored. He'd grown accustomed to skiing untracked powder, and he wasn't about to give it up. On edgeless skinny skis, three-pin bindings, and boots "like tennis sneakers," George and some friends began exploring the Wasatch. He was in his mid forties. Five years later, thanks to a coin-collecting hobby that turned into a business and the well-timed purchase of IBM stock, he retired. His winters were free.

Avalanche science hadn't progressed much by the '60s, and George never had any formal training. He'd put some klister wax on his skis and some food and clothing in his pack and head out. Today he skis on the latest alpine touring gear, but his approach is the same. "Some people go out worried about every little patch of snow; others think they'll never get hit," he says. "You need to find a happy medium. You can feel it in the snowpack. I've never dug a pit. I use the ski pole. I don't carry a shovel or bother with that hearing business (transceivers). On the whole, we don't really ski the dangerous places. Never the south faces. We know what slides."

By the '70s, George's first set of backcountry partners had drifted away from the mountains, so he found a new group. They were in their twenties; he was in his late fifties. George kept up just fine, but he was the odd man out for more reasons than just his age. This was the '70s after all, and many in the crew heightened their ski experiences with chemicals. Aside from the one-time, unwitting consumption of a doctored brownie, George abstained. Eventually he skied through that group as well. "They're in their fifties now," say George. "I call them the 'young fogies.'"

The only young fogy George hasn't skied through is Rick Wyatt. In 1982, Rick became the first person to ski the Grand Teton on telemark gear, and he did so on a pair of hand-me-downs from George. These days, he and his wife, Evelyn Lees, ski in Utah in winter and guide for Exum, out of Wyoming, in summer. They still ski with George on occasion.

Today is one of those occasions. The lift at Alta has shut down for the season, and Rick, Evelyn, George, photographer Scott Markewitz, and I have decided to skin up to Germania Ridge. I'm a little nervous. Not because I think George will get hurt, but because of something Rick told me in an earlier conversation: "In a genuine and deep way, George resents getting old. He used to be very social in the mountains-not so much any more." After spending a great afternoon laughing and poring over old photographs, I don't want to see George turn off.

He doesn't. George may detest his waning strength and endurance, but as Rick also noted, George on skis can be as juvenile as a first-year ski bum. We set a steady pace, and George cracks jokes about the early days of Alta (Alf Engen wasn't much of a skier), Rick (he couldn't even turn the old skinny skis), and everything else that crosses his mind. After gaining the ridge, we drop through some trees, making turns in a few inches of new snow that sits like paste on the corn below. George flubs a turn and sits down on his tails, but springs back up like a 14-year-old and keeps going. He hams it up for the camera, finds a groove, links some nice arcs. He lays down, wads up a snowball, chucks it at Evelyn.

Before I'd met George, I'd been intrigued by the notion that he was skiing to die. I'd asked Rick about it earlier, and he had thought about it, too: "I was out pushing hard with him once," Rick said, "and I got worried that he might blow a valve and fall down dead. Then I thought, 'What better way?'"

I'd intended to ask George if it was his plan to die in the mountains. After skiing with him, I thought better of it. George isn't skiing to die: He loves to ski. More than anyone I've ever met, George is a skier for life.

Nov. 2004 don't carry a shovel or bother with that hearing business (transceivers). On the whole, we don't really ski the dangerous places. Never the south faces. We know what slides."

By the '70s, George's first set of backcountry partners had drifted away from the mountains, so he found a new group. They were in their twenties; he was in his late fifties. George kept up just fine, but he was the odd man out for more reasons than just his age. This was the '70s after all, and many in the crew heightened their ski experiences with chemicals. Aside from the one-time, unwitting consumption of a doctored brownie, George abstained. Eventually he skied through that group as well. "They're in their fifties now," say George. "I call them the 'young fogies.'"

The only young fogy George hasn't skied through is Rick Wyatt. In 1982, Rick became the first person to ski the Grand Teton on telemark gear, and he did so on a pair of hand-me-downs from George. These days, he and his wife, Evelyn Lees, ski in Utah in winter and guide for Exum, out of Wyoming, in summer. They still ski with George on occasion.

Today is one of those occasions. The lift at Alta has shut down for the season, and Rick, Evelyn, George, photographer Scott Markewitz, and I have decided to skin up to Germania Ridge. I'm a little nervous. Not because I think George will get hurt, but because of something Rick told me in an earlier conversation: "In a genuine and deep way, George resents getting old. He used to be very social in the mountains-not so much any more." After spending a great afternoon laughing and poring over old photographs, I don't want to see George turn off.

He doesn't. George may detest his waning strength and endurance, but as Rick also noted, George on skis can be as juvenile as a first-year ski bum. We set a steady pace, and George cracks jokes about the early days of Alta (Alf Engen wasn't much of a skier), Rick (he couldn't even turn the old skinny skis), and everything else that crosses his mind. After gaining the ridge, we drop through some trees, making turns in a few inches of new snow that sits like paste on the corn below. George flubs a turn and sits down on his tails, but springs back up like a 14-year-old and keeps going. He hams it up for the camera, finds a groove, links some nice arcs. He lays down, wads up a snowball, chucks it at Evelyn.

Before I'd met George, I'd been intrigued by the notion that he was skiing to die. I'd asked Rick about it earlier, and he had thought about it, too: "I was out pushing hard with him once," Rick said, "and I got worried that he might blow a valve and fall down dead. Then I thought, 'What better way?'"

I'd intended to ask George if it was his plan to die in the mountains. After skiing with him, I thought better of it. George isn't skiing to die: He loves to ski. More than anyone I've ever met, George is a skier for life.

Nov. 2004

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