My History with Skiing
Somewhere I have a photograph of me doing a tip stand. That's where the tips of your skis are stuck in the snow, your skis are sticking straight up in the air, and you're sitting back on your heels, up in the air, attached to your skis. But I haven't seen that photograph in years. If I run across it, I'll post it here.
I was the first person in my family to learn to ski. I was in the sixth grade and in a small boarding school of 28 boys. The school’s winter activities were skating on a pond below the school and skiing on a neighbor’s hill. The neighbor, of course, didn’t have a ski lift, so we spent more time climbing than descending. No one in the school actually knew how to ski, so we experimented. Turning up the hill was easy but we had trouble figuring out how to turn downhill. One technique we tried was to plant the downhill ski pole and pivot on it. This sort of worked at slow speed, and fortunately we never really got up very much speed on that hill, because this approach could have cost someone a kidney. We were much better at going uphill than down, and we were quite good on the flats because we knew how to skate. Several times each winter we would go to an actual ski area, which reinforced how very little we knew about skiing.
I attended that school for three years and never did figure out how to turn downhill. At the end of the winter of my third year my parents sent me to a three-day ski camp. I started with the rank beginners but because I had had three years’ experience walking around on skis, I progressed quickly. I mastered the snowplow and the stem Christy and was ready to move into the parallel class by the end of the three days.
The following winter I was in ninth grade and at a new boarding school in New Hampshire. The school had two good-sized hills, one for the ski team and one for the ski school; and a rope tow. If your winter sport was skiing you had to be either on the ski team or in the ski school. I, of course, was in the ski school. I started in the stem Christy class but very quickly moved on to parallel.
This was in the 1960s, when the aesthetic goal in recreational skiing was to keep your skis together and make graceful, carving turns. You had to be able to do that in order to get out of the parallel class. It seems that my right leg was put on crooked at the factory, so if I hold my knees together and squat my right foot will turn out. In order to ski with my skis together my right knee had to be either in front of or behind my left knee, because they overlapped. You always ski with your uphill ski in front of your downhill ski, so when you change direction you shift your skis accordingly. For me to do that I had to separate my skis to untangle my knees. This was not an acceptable style, so I couldn’t get out of the parallel class.
The class after parallel was short swing, which is a technique where the backs of your skis are sliding sideways down the hill and you check that motion by setting the edges; then you unweight the skis and swing them over to the other side and repeat the process on that side. If you do this constantly, you go more or less straight down the hill with the backs of your skis swinging back and forth. Short swing is not fast – it’s not a racing maneuver — but it gives you enormous control. You can change directions instantly, and you can control your speed on any gradient. I started going to the short swing class without permission. It was really fun and I mastered the technique.
The following winter I had a dilemma. I definitely wanted to ski, but if I signed up for ski school I’d be back in the parallel purgatory. If you were on the ski team you had to compete in all three events: Alpine, which included slalom and giant slalom; jumping; and cross-country. I was terrified of ski jumping and had no interest in cross-country racing, so ski team was not an option. But another option miraculously appeared: That year the school initiated a ski patrol program. This was a pilot program and they were only going to accept six students, who, I assumed, would be the best skiers. Most of the other skiers in the school had been skiing their entire lives, so I figured I didn’t have much of a chance, but I had to try out. It turned out that the primary test for entrance was being able to snowplow well. Snowplow is the first technique you learn, but it is the one that ski patrols use to bring a toboggan containing an injured skier down the hill because it is slow and very controlled. But snowplow is not a particularly graceful technique, so most skiers once they learn more advanced maneuvers never go back to it. I had just learned the snowplow the previous year, while the other students applying for ski patrol probably hadn’t done it since they were six. I was accepted.
In the ski patrol we learned first aid, with a lot of emphasis on splinting broken legs, and we learned how to handle the toboggan. The ski patrol toboggan, used to carry an injured skier down the hill, is a unique device. It looks like any old toboggan, though a bit wider and long enough that person can lie down on it. There’s a pair of skegs at the back to help track straight, and the most distinguishing feature is two long handles projecting up and forward from the front. The ends of the handles are about hip high, and the ski patrolman holds one in each hand with the toboggan behind him. (I say “him” because this was a boys’ school.)
The school ski patrol was affiliated with the National Ski Patrol, for which we had to pass various tests. One of those tests was to carry the instructor down the school’s ski slope in the toboggan.
I have to tell you a little about the school’s ski slope. As I said, there was one slope for the team and another for the ski school. There were a lot of people in the ski school so the slope got heavy use. Alpine skis, as opposed to cross-country or jumping skis, have steel edges so they can cut into the snow. This allows them to turn easily on hardpacked snow or even ice. When you turn, those steel edges push a little snow down the hill, and if several people turn in the same place you start to get a pile of snow just downhill of where they turned. That little pile of snow is called a mogul. When a lot of people use a slope the moguls can get frequent and large. That was the case on this slope. The steep parts of the slope were constant moguls, some as much as several feet high.
Moguls can be really fun when you’re just free skiing. You can jump them, or you can carve a turn around one — which tends to make it steeper and build up the one below it. But moguls present a particular problem for controlling a toboggan. If you try to go straight over the mogul there will come a point when the toboggan is right on top of the mogul and the skegs are off the snow. At this point the toboggan can slide sideways off the mogul and flip over. That would not be a good thing, particularly if you have an injured skier—or Ski Patrol instructor—on it. So your goal is to guide the toboggan between the moguls. If the moguls are small or infrequent this is not a problem, but on the ski school slope the moguls were frequent and large.
The day came for my toboggan test. At the top the hill the instructor climbed on and lay down. I grabbed the handles and headed out in a gentle snowplow. The top of the hill was not too steep so there weren’t many moguls, but once I hit the steep part I was having trouble turning quickly enough to keep the toboggan between them. I had to go over some. I needed to be able to turn faster, and I thought that if I went a bit faster I would also reduce the chance of sideslipping. I picked up some speed and started to short swing. This worked great because I could turn quickly to keep the toboggan on the preferred course, and I could easily keep my speed in check. I got to the bottom without a hitch. However my fellow students, who were watching, said the instructor was gripping the rails with white knuckles, ready to jump out at any moment. The ride was a little faster than he expected. But I made the run without incident, so I passed the test.
All six of us earned our National Ski Patrol badges. We patrolled our local slope, and on weekends we would join the patrol at a local commercial ski area, but I never had to transport an injured skier in a toboggan. I did do one rescue though. Ski bindings are designed to release if you fall, in order to reduce the chance of breaking a leg. A safety strap keeps the ski from sailing on down the hill on its own, not only because you don’t want to have to walk down, but also because a loose ski can get going really fast and could seriously injure someone. It seems that someone did not have their safety straps properly fastened, because one day a ski went sailing by me. The proper course of action here is to shout “ski!” which I did, but I also did something that is not in the book—and not at all recommended: I charged after it.
There is one really good reason why chasing after a loose ski is not recommended: a skier has more wind resistance than a ski, so the ski will go faster. What did I care! I pushed off with my poles and took a few skating strides to build up speed then crouched down into my lowest racer’s tuck. The ski and I both build up speed, I continuing to yell, “ski!” as we flew by startled skiers. Then the ski slope took a banking turn to the left, but the ski continued straight, sailing into the unknown. I, of course, followed the ski, having no idea what was on the other side of that snow bank. The snow was too deep for any exposed rock, and there were no nearby trees, but there could have been a sheer drop of untold distance. I had no
idea and hadn’t given it a thought. I flew off the snow bank and straightened my back and bent my knees, executing what we referred to as a “gelande” jump. This particular style of jumping is all about show, and I’ll bet I looked great as I sailed through the air. But the landing was not particularly graceful, as I was not accustomed to skiing in 10 foot-deep unpacked snow. My bindings did not release and I did not break any bones, so all was well. I recovered the errant ski and started climbing back up to the ski area proper. This was very slow going as I had sunk into the soft snow nearly to chest level, but eventually I sidestepped my way back onto the snow bank. While I stood there catching my breath a guy hobbled up to me on one ski. I had a pretty good idea that I was holding on to his other one. As a member of the ski patrol I could have yanked his ticket, but I’d had much too good a time chasing the ski, so I just gave it back to him with an admonishment to use the safety straps.
I don’t know how or where, but somehow my siblings all learned to ski. My parents had some good friends, the McClaves, who had moved from Connecticut up to New Hampshire, so for a couple of years the whole family spent a week in New Hampshire, visiting and skiing. The McClaves lived in Jackson, which is near Mount Washington and several excellent ski areas. But Jackson also reputedly has over 100 miles of cross-country ski trails. My brother, Rocky, and I were both interested in cross-country skiing as well as Alpine skiing, and there was one trail in particular that the McClaves recommended. We were told it would take most of the day, but we were game, so one morning at dawn Mrs. McClave drove us to the starting point at the foot of Black Mountain with instructions where to turn at the various forks.
I don’t know whether technically the sun was up when we started or not, because we never actually saw it that day. We also never saw clouds or snow; the sky was an uninterrupted gray. That kind of day, especially in the snow, mutes all sound, and the only thing we heard as we skied up the mountain was the whisper of our skis sliding along the fresh snow and the dull thump of our ski poles rhythmically puncturing it.
After a few hours of gentle climbing we came upon an Appalachian Mountain Club cabin. These are small one room huts scattered about the White Mountains and available for hikers to camp in. We stopped there to re-wax our skis and take a short break. I stood outside the cabin listening to the silence for a long time. The experience was like waiting for your eyes to adjust to a dark room. I heard absolutely nothing for a long time, then eventually heard what could have been water flowing in the stream or possibly traffic on a distant highway. That was the only — and very negligible — sound. The stillness was palpable.
With freshly waxed skis we continued on to the summit of Black Mountain, which was marked with a little bronze plaque. Until that point we had been climbing the entire way, but shortly we had a new challenge. The trail took us to the top of one of the slopes of the Black Mountain ski area, and Mrs. McClave had explained that we had to traverse the entire ski area to pick up the continuing trail.
Alpine skis, you may recall, have steel edges to bite into the snow when skiing across (i.e traversing) the hill, but cross-country skis do not, and cross-country skis are not rigidly attached to the ski boot (and the ski boot is not rigid), so when you try to ski across the hill on hardpacked snow you do a lot of sideslipping. What we wanted to do was ski at 90° to the fall line, but what we could achieve was only about 45°. After maybe 100 yards we came upon a T-bar carrying skiers up the hill. Beside the T-bar was unpacked snow, which is much easier for uphill cross-country skiing then hardpacked snow, so we headed up alongside the T-bar. This was fun, because we could keep up with the skiers being towed up the hill on the T-bar, and they all gave us odd looks. (“Why would you ski up hill?” they were no doubt thinking.) The T-bar did not go to the top of the mountain (the chairlifts serve that function) and at the terminus of the T-bar we continued our traverse. We had to repeat this procedure several more times before we finally reached the far end of the ski area, where we were easily able to pick out the continuation of the trail. As advertised, the trail led down to a road, but it didn’t end there. The trail paralleled the road and we were able to follow it all the way back to the McClaves’ house. It was a great adventure and a wonderful day of skiing. Most of the rest of the week we Alpine skied at Wildcat Mountain.
My junior year of high school found me in public school in Connecticut. The school did not have a ski team but a couple of friends and I decided it would be a good idea to form one, because if you were on a varsity team you did not have to go to gym class, and we did not want to go to gym class. Everyone, from the phys ed teacher to the principal, told us, “You can’t just create a varsity sport!” But we had a secret weapon: we had Neal Conolly.
Neal was — and I assume still is — a guy who knew politics, but from behind the scenes. In high school I’m sure he knew more about school system politics than any other student, and probably more than any teacher or administrator. For example he knew that the key decision-making body in the school was the Departmental Counsel and that students were permitted to attend their weekly meetings and voice their opinions (albeit without a vote). He told me about this and although I had a class at that time, I was much more interested in attending these meetings, so I did. (Actually, the class was Contemporary Social Issues, and I ended up getting credit for attending the meetings.) Neal was probably the only student who attended all Student Council meetings as an observer, and he frequently provided significant input. So it was not surprising that he knew exactly how to go about creating a varsity sport. Three of us — Neal, Frank, and I – met with the Board of Education, the Superintendent of Schools, and a host of other people, and before long we had a varsity ski team.
Part of the deal was that we had to supply our own equipment and transportation to a ski area, and we had to have a coach from within the faculty, who would not be paid extra for this duty. Our coach was the typing teacher, because he knew how to ski and was willing. We usually drove to meets in my family’s Ford Econoline van. Although the van was not particularly old it also was not in particularly great shape. When parked, you could turn the steering wheel 90° back and forth without the tires moving, so when driving you had that 90° of play before the vehicle would respond. Before the first meet the coach insisted that he had to drive for insurance purposes, but after one exit on the interstate he decided maybe insurance wasn’t such a big deal after all, and I was welcome to drive.
The team consisted of just Neal, Frank, and me, along with the typing teacher coach. Neal was the captain. We only went to meets; we didn’t practice, except to look over a course before skiing it.
Neal and Frank were both seniors, so the following year — my senior year — I had two new teammates, one of whom was Neal’s younger brother, Mark. I don’t remember who the other guy was, but I do remember that both of them were much faster than I was. My contribution was that I was reliable. Some of the slalom gates were tricky to navigate and it turned out that I had a knack for memorizing the course and was always able to negotiate the tricky gates successfully. If the other two guys finished they always finished ahead of me, but they didn’t always finish, while I did. That made us a good team.
One day we were on our way to a meet and for some reason I was just driving myself. Halfway to the ski area I had a very strong feeling that I should not ski that day. I am not clairvoyant; I don’t get feelings like that. But I did that day, and I decided to respect it. I did a U-turn and went home. I have not put on a pair of Alpine skis since. Of course my teammates were justifiably furious with me. They claimed we would have won had I been there, which is possible, but they both finished, and they finished next-to-last and last.
I did continue to cross-country ski. One of my colleagues at the PhotoGraphics Workshop, Tom, lived on a golf course. I don’t mean near golf course; his house was on the seventh fairway. All the windows on one side of the house had heavy wire screening to prevent errant golf balls from breaking the glass. The golf course was part of a popular cross-country ski route, so Tom and his wife, Jennifer, were very popular in the winter. (They were popular anytime, but their house was especially popular in the winter.) On a nice winter Saturday there could be five or six extra cars in their driveway. They were always good-natured about it.
I quit cross-country skiing when I hurt my back, in 1982, but I hung onto my skis. I did try it one last time about 10 years later, only to discover that cross-country skiing requires some substantial leg muscles that I no longer had. I gave away my skis.