For the Love of Skiing
This page tells the story of my skiing life and a breakthrough day on skis. It also provides a list of ski areas where I’ve gone skiing, in Europe and North America. The photo is of me skiing Shot Six at Alpental, taken by my cousin, Martin Lee. See also my brief memorial to Darryl Ford at the end. + +
My Skiing Life
I first tried skiing at the age of 14 in Alberta, Canada, and skied four times that winter. My first day was in early February 1977 (I think it was February 4), with rental skis outfitted with the old Spademan bindings that connected a plate under the middle of the boot to clamps on the sides of the foot (no toe or heel binding). I vividly remember that first moment at Canyon Ski Resort, near Red Deer, Alberta. At the instructor’s beckoning, I sidestepped about thirty feet up the bottom of a gentle run named Sundeck with these unruly planks on my feet, and then turned to face down the hill. I lifted my poles and pointed my skis straight down instead of wedging them. I didn’t stop where the others in the class stopped, but kept going as far as I could, maybe 60 or 70 feet, down at most only ten feet of vertical—reveling in the sensation of sliding on my feet (something I always enjoyed in my mother’s kitchen right after she waxed the floor). I was hooked, and I’ve loved skiing ever since, not just for the physical sensations of temporary weightlessness (on steeper slopes), the rhythm of turning, and the rewards of making first tracks, but for the beautiful scenery, the camaraderie, and the opportunity to travel and explore. For many years I always tried to ski at least one new ski area every winter.
And of course I also embraced the challenge and risks, becoming an expert skier within about five years. Chutes, cornices, deep powder, crud, cement, slough, moguls, corduroy—you name it, and I was all over it. I once hucked off a 35-foot cornice at Kirkwood ski area. And I’ve been in two small avalanches, one I was able to ski out of (a 400-hundred footer in-bounds at Mt. Hood Meadows), and another in a whiteout that took me down a short slope in-bounds at Big Mountain ski area (now Whitefish Mountain Resort), but ended quickly and I was able to dig myself out—thank goodness it was such a short slope. I became certified as a patroller in the Canadian ski patrol system (CPR anyone? and what fun to practice chairlift evacuations). I also became a cross-country patroller (took up XC skiing too), and trained as a Level II downhill instructor. While I haven’t skied nearly as much since starting a family, I still enjoy the sport as much as I can, and particularly enjoyed introducing skiing to my kids.
On a flight from Calgary to Vancouver, I once sat next to Hans Gmoser, the inventor of helicopter skiing, and chatted for ten minutes. I knew it was him because I had just read about him in Ski Canada Magazine before boarding the flight, and besides, he was signing his name to a stack of Canadian Mountain Holidays powder skiing Christmas cards. I also met Mike Wiegele [see 2021 obituary], another famous helicopter skiing operator (whose logo would be perfect for my initials too), and have met a few ski racers on the U.S. ski team over the years, mostly while summer skiing at Timberline in Oregon, or at ski shows. I used to always watch the Warren Miller ski films every autumn, too—I agree with Warren Miller who said “My favourite ski area is whatever ski area I’m skiing right now.” I’ve skied in every month of the year except September (that’s on my bucket list), and I once went snow skiing and waterskiing on the same day (at Timberline and on the Columbia River, in July or August, I think in 1985). I’d love to try skiing in Vermont, Utah, more of Colorado and British Columbia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, anywhere new to me in Europe, and Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii (yes, they have skiing there). And shucks, while I’m at it, how about the indoor ski slopes in Dubai? See a more complete list below.
Speaking of travel, I love pouring over trail maps. There’s something inspiring about looking at all the ski runs, all the lifts, and learning my way around places that I’ve never even been to. I’ve saved trail maps from most of the ski areas I’ve visited, and even kept a journal of all the places I skied for at least at least a dozen years (it’s in a box somewhere)—marking the runs I skied on the maps and describing the day. I guess that was the writer in me, but such record-keeping was motivated by my love of skiing. Even today, when I go to ski shows, I love collecting new trail maps to see what’s new, what’s changed, and to visit each resort at least vicariously.
Skiing has the clichéd hazard of breaking a leg, but such injuries have been relatively rare in the sport in the last 30 to 40 years compared with previously, thanks to advances in binding safety. But skiing has given me an occasional minor injury. I got frostbite on my fingers one of those four times I went skiing that first season, and the tips of my fingers turned black and fell off—and that was while I was taking a typing class in high school. Fortunately, I suffered no long-term problems, and can type pretty fast. On another one of those first four ski days, I had just gotten off a T-bar and was standing to the right of it (well out of the way, I thought) putting my poles back on when someone after me let go of their T-bar carelessly. They dropped their T-bar as they went to the left and it swung to the right, aiming for the back of my head. Someone yelled at me to watch out, and I turned around just in time to have it whack me just above the eye and knock me down (but I don’t think it knocked me out). I received three or maybe five stitches, as I recall, and still have the scar above my right eye. Years later, at Kirkwood, I cartwheeled in untracked snow after jumping off a cornice, and wrenched my shoulder badly. About a week later I went bowling, and the first attempt to bowl wrenched my shoulder all over again and I instantly had to quit bowling that day. It was a gutter ball, in case you were wondering. Those were the worst of my ski injuries, and I’m glad to have gotten two of them over with in that first season. I’ve had a bruise or two, and a few sunburns from spring and summer skiing, but have generally been injury-free.
Well, almost. A year or two after my first season I remember skiing at Fortress Mountain, south of Banff. On the first run of the day, down the mogul field on a run called Watch Me, right under the chairlift, my ski came off and whacked me just below the knee as I spun around. Boy did it hurt, at least at the moment, but I kept skiing for the rest of the morning. At lunch time, I discovered a large, bulbous extra kneecap—a swollen contusion that was more scary-looking than painful. I skied the rest of the day, although a little gingerly. That was a Sunday, and I remember having a basketball game at school the following Thursday, in which I scored 28 points—my best game ever. And then, on Saturday morning, when I got out of bed, I collapsed. My leg really hurt and I couldn’t support my own weight. I was on crutches for two weeks. I still don’t understand what the issue would have been, especially given the week of feeling essentially fine, and then that highly productive basketball game.
At any rate, no matter what, I loved skiing. I remember one time skiing at Sunshine Village in Banff, Alberta, when I stopped at a rise on the Wawa Bowl run. I looked up across the valley at Delerium Dive between The Eagles and Lookout Mountain. It was literally breathtaking—the light on those steep mountain faces under a gloriously blue sky. I stayed there and just looked for at least five minutes. If I was already in love, I fell in love all over again, and that was just for the scenery. I’ve had similar moments of sheer awe at the scenery at Zermatt, Switzerland, and Lake Louise, Alberta, and other places. Having lived for many years in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where it’s utterly flat, the chance to see any kind of hill or mountain is never something I’ve taken for granted.
Years later I had the chance to go snow-cat skiing in the High Wallowas of northeastern Oregon, above Wallowa Lake—probably the most obscure place I’ve skied. Back then a sightseeing gondola took you up, then you boarded the snow cat to explore the top of Mount Howard. Some years, when there was enough snow all the way to the bottom, there was apparently 3,700 vertical feet—which almost never happened. But the skiing was great up top. This was a low-budget operation (which was why I could afford cat-skiing in college). On the first ride up, I asked the cat driver where I should ski, and he said, “I don’t know—I don’t ski.” Fortunately, he explained that the perimeters were clearly marked and we couldn’t get lost. I think the runs were something like a thousand vertical feet, and most of it was unskied powder. A friend and I, Barry Donesky, had an enjoyable day making turns in whisper-light eastern-Oregon snow.
And I’ll always remember my first day of mountain skiing, at Lake Louise, long before. The drive there was a bit depressing because the weather report listed deeply chilly temperatures—something like –30 degrees (and whether in Fahrenheit or Celsius, that’s cold). And when we got there, other skiers were minimal because of how cold it was. We got on the first chairlift (the old Olympic lift, since replaced), all bundled up for a possibly miserable day. But in a few minutes the lift popped us through the day’s low, foreboding clouds into the stunning blue skies of a temperature inversion. Above the sea of clouds it was at least 20 degrees warmer—and there was six or so inches of new snow that we had almost all to ourselves. I was still a relative beginner, but what a fun day that was for my first time in the mountains. And if you want to see beautiful scenery, the view from the Lake Louise ski area across the valley to the lake itself is one of the most stunning views in all of skiing—made even more amazing by that layer of clouds at the bottom of the valley on my very first ski visit. No wonder I was hooked.
Breakthrough on Skis
A bit of a story to tell, a longer one. In the early spring of 1980, in March, I needed to travel from my first year of college in central Alberta to Eugene, Oregon, to visit my parents, where my dad was teaching for a sabbatical year at the University of Oregon. I figured out that the overnight bus trip from Calgary would get me to Sandpoint, Idaho early in the morning, so I thought why not go skiing at Schweitzer Mountain for the day, stay overnight somewhere, and then continue with the bus ride the next day. I was seventeen, didn’t have a car, and couldn’t find a ride to the bus station in Calgary. I asked around and finally an adult acquaintance said he could take me if I didn’t have too much luggage. A ski bag and a suitcase, I said. He looked puzzled, and I didn’t know why, but then said he could help. Whew! So the next day we packed my stuff into his car (no, a friend’s car—why was that?) and we drove to . . . the local airport! We were going to fly in a light plane to Calgary. What a way to start this ski adventure, but that was far from the highlight.
After we flew to Calgary, he took me to the bus station, where I caught my late-night bus. I didn’t get much sleep on the overnight drive. In Cranbrook, British Columbia, I had to change to what I remember was Empire Bus Lines to head south into Idaho. The bus was a commuter trip, it seemed, and stopped frequently, despite the long drive—and that was on top of the stop at the border, where we showed our passports (or driver’s licenses, or whatever was acceptable back then) to the official-looking border guard who walked down the bus aisle. And then we drove on, but kept stopping frequently. And every time we stopped, the bus shuddered and shook. At Bonners Ferry, we pulled up behind a gas station to yet again pick up and disgorge a few passengers, and had a five-minute rest stop. When we loaded back up, the bus wouldn’t start. The engine worked, but somehow the brakes had locked up and the bus couldn’t move. We weren’t going anywhere, and the bus driver said it would be many hours before a replacement bus could come. The dawn light was just starting to brighten the snowy hilltops, and I was eager to make it south to Schweitzer. But we were stuck. So much for my day of skiing.
But a guy just getting on the bus said he had to make it to Spokane that day to catch a flight, so he decided that he’d drive himself all the way there instead of taking the bus—and he had room for a couple of us if we wanted. So I threw my gear into the back of his little pickup truck, and I joined him and another stranger in his tiny cab for the trip south to Sandpoint. Lucky for them, I wouldn’t be crowding their space for even an hour. The driver said he could drop me off wherever I liked (I explained my plan to go skiing), but I knew I had to find a hotel first, get changed, and then find my way up the mountain. Eventually, a few minutes before we got to Sandpoint, I saw a sign saying to turn right at the next intersection for Schweitzer ski area. There was a small motel at this rural crossroads, and it had a vacancy sign, so I said, “Stop here.”
He let me off, I got a room, and then . . . I was stuck. Because of the delay, I had missed much of the first-tracks ski area traffic up the hill for this midweek ski day. And as it turned out, I wasn’t even on the main access road, so skier traffic would be minimal. The motel owner kindly said she would have driven me up the mountain herself, but had a medical appointment she couldn’t miss. So I decided to walk, hoping someone might give me a lift if I stuck out my thumb. I changed into my ski clothes, grabbed my skis and boots, and started hoofing it. At least ten miles up the hill, as I recall. A long way to carry my skis and boots. And I wouldn’t even get there until the lifts closed for the day. Depressing. But believe it or not, about three minutes later, the first vehicle that came by gave me a lift—ah, the kindness of fellow skiers. Eight or nine inches of new snow had fallen, and it was a partly sunny day, but there was hardly anyone on the hill. I skied my brains out.
I mention this story because, quite aside from all its transportation adventures, it was a breakthrough ski day for me, like no other I’ve ever had. There was powder to ski almost everywhere. I had fun exploring a new mountain, never having to wait for anyone, and the lift lines were nonexistent. I skied through lunch (did I mention that I hadn’t had breakfast either?). And where they had groomed the slopes, superb moguls began to form, especially on one run, which I think was called Timber Cruiser. That was because a ski demonstration team was practicing there that day, all wearing red uniforms, and they concentrated just on that one run, making the most beautiful and consistent mogul field I had ever seen. And they hotdogged down that run (there’s a ’70s term for you), popping helicopters and daffies and iron crosses (back then flipping was verboten, but I remember seeing at least two flips in the middle of the moguls). These guys could ski! And it was all right under the Stella chairlift (or at least, that’s the name of what’s there now). It was a blue run, so not steep for moguls, but they were perfect for me to learn on. I finally “got” moguls and could read my way through them with rhythm and finesse, snaking over them in different ways, learning how to carve on the backside of each bump instead of whumping through them down in the troughs. My skis were together, I was carving smoothly on my inside edge, and I could ski anything the mountain threw at me, even the chutes off the top of the Lakeview chair. It was an exhilarating day, and I could peel off for a powder run whenever I wanted, on different parts of the mountain, take a cruiser, or head back to the bumps.
What I didn’t realize was that I was skiing so hard—all day, nonstop—so hard that I was becoming severely dehydrated. It was that intense a day, and I’d had hardly any sleep the night before, too. Toward the end of the afternoon, shortly before the lifts closed, both of my hands cramped up and I couldn’t even unclasp them from my ski poles. With some effort I was able to get one hand off, and used that hand to pry the other one loose. It was that severe—although that didn’t stop me from skiing the last few runs I could, though my legs were aching. I just needed water, but didn’t know that—I had skied nonstop all day, and pretty furiously at that, and hadn’t had breakfast or lunch, or any snacks, or even anything to drink since the night before. My legs were beginning to cramp up too. But what a leap forward I made that day in my skiing abilities, and I will never forget it. Breakthrough on skis, indeed (that was the title of a popular ski instruction book, by Lito Tejada-Flores, that came out some years later and has been the top-selling ski instruction book in history). I haven’t been back to Schweitzer since that single magical day in March 1980, and I’d love to visit again, although I’m sure it would never be the same as that first time.
Meanwhile, though, I still had to get back to the hotel. My legs were hurting something fierce. I hobbled into the lodge, got a sip of water, went to the bathroom, and then stuck out my thumb. Again, within a few minutes another pickup stopped and I and a couple of others threw our stuff in the back. But the cab was full. I’d have to sit in the back of the pickup with a couple of other people, and with the sun nearly down, it was turning pretty cold and windy. One does these things when one is seventeen. I climbed in and had to keep my legs bent up. They were screaming. Twenty minutes down the hill—in muscle-cramped hell. And we ended up taking the other access road, directly into Sandpoint, where the driver let me and the others off. And now I was stuck again, because I was still miles from my motel. And my legs were killing me—I could barely walk. I stuck out my thumb to try to catch another ride north out of town on Highway 2, Eventually a car stopped (gee, those were the days), and when I explained where I needed to go, the driver went out of her way to take me to my motel. I never enjoyed a hot shower as much in my life. I still never had anything to eat that entire day, except for some crackers I think I had left at the motel. The next morning the motel owner drove me into town in time to catch the next bus heading further west. What a ski day. I’ll never forget to hydrate again, but more importantly, I’ll never forget what a breakthrough day that was for me and my skiing. That’s what skiing’s all about.
—25 January 2017
Where I’ve Skied
The following is a list of places I’ve skied, as best as I can remember. There might be one or two additional places in California, and maybe a couple of small places in Austria and Switzerland—hard to remember them all, especially with foreign names. A handful of resorts are now out of business (marked as defunct), or the names have changed. I’ve also hiked in the summer at Marmot Basin and Mt. Norquay in Alberta, Red Mountain and Big White in British Columbia, and probably a few other places I’ve never skied at in the winter, but have also hiked at places where I have skied, such as Sunshine Village and Snoqualmie Summit—a sort of vicarious out-of-season thrill, I suppose. And although I’ve just hiked at Marmot, Norquay, Red, and Big White, I know I’d enjoy skiing there too! And probably at every other ski area on the planet as well. Sign me up!
Arizona Arizona Snowbowl
California Alpine Meadows
China Peak (formerly Sierra Summit)
Donner Ski Ranch
Iron Mountain (now defunct)
Sierra at Tahoe
Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley)
Colorado Beaver Creek
Idaho Bogus Basin
Montana Whitefish Mountain Resort (formerly Big Mountain)
Nevada Diamond Peak (formerly Incline Village)
North Dakota Frostfire
Oregon Anthony Lakes
High Wallowas (snow-cat skiing)
Mt. Hood Meadows
Mt. Hood Ski Bowl
Summit East (Hyak)
Alberta Canada Olympic Park (formerly Paskapoo Ski Hill)
Canyon Ski Resort (first place I skied)
Fortress Mountain (temporarily? defunct)
British Columbia Cypress Mountain
Fernie Alpine Resort
Manitoba Agassiz Mountain (now defunct)
Ski Valley (Minnedosa)
Snow Valley (Roseisle; now defunct)
Spring Hill Winter Park
Winnipeg Ski Club
Ontario Mount Evergreen (Kenora)
Austria Axamer Lizum (Innsbruck)
Scotland Aviemore (I forget the specific name of the ski area)
Ah, the preceding feels like too short a list! The following are places where I’d most like to ski, but haven’t been to yet, although I’d be happy to try any new ski area anywhere. Is it time for me to win the lottery or what?
Canada Big White (have hiked here in the summer)
Marmot Basin (have hiked here in the summer)
Mt. Norquay (have hiked here in the summer)
Red Mountain (have hiked here in the summer)
United States Alta
Aspen / Snowmass
Breckenridge / Copper Mountain / Winter Park
Killington / Stowe
Park City / Canyons
Chile / Argentina
Numerous new places in Europe (in the Alps)
Remembering Darryl Ford
I’ve had this photo in a frame by my desk for at least 25 years. It’s of Darryl Ford, who died on November 22, 1986, a day when I always remember Darryl in addition to John F. Kennedy. I took this photo of Darryl while we were summer skiing at Timberline, on Mt. Hood, Oregon, in July or August of 1985 or 1986 (this photo is a scan of a small print, and not as sharp as I’d like). I had just skied off this cornice myself, though a little further uphill where the drop wasn’t quite as high. Darryl died in a climbing accident on Mont Salève in France, near Geneva, before the ski season started, after I (and others) had encouraged him in his desire to spend a year in the Alps. + +