The last time Zjak and I skied together, he stood very tall on his feet, chest and chin up, the way I remembered from our years together at Bear Valley in California’s central Sierra.
His form was upright, but with a pronounced bend at the ankles, noticeable even in ski boots. This, too, I remembered. It’s one of the things that made Zjako’s beautiful on-snow line drawing possible. You see, the ankle flex (cue the song “Dem Bones”) connects to knee bones being positioned over the front of the binding, which leads to hip bones well forward over the feet (as opposed to in the back seat), which leads to a skier’s weight falling naturally in the middle of the skis. And that is the magic, the simple key to control, to going where vision and character want to go.
Simple to know. Not so simple to execute.
This was three years ago now. Maybe four; time slips around. John (Jock, Zjak, Zjako) Selfridge and his wife Marty were visiting Colorado from Carpinteria, on the California coast. Zjak was sick then. He’d been sick with an aggressive form of prostate cancer for many years. He’d been in and out of clinical trials, on experimental drug regimes, dosed with hope one season and deposited, spent, to his bed the next.
But there was no question during that visit that we’d go skiing. It was the thing that bonded us. Marty and Ellen are skiers, too. Accomplished, elegant skiers. But Zjak and I recognized each other as fellow addicts. Couldn’t help it, couldn’t stop. We needed to be out there on mountainsides, moving through the air and over the snow as serenely as possible. Sculpting space on the tilt.
Zjako was a master of the aesthetic line, the secret line. He didn’t care how he looked, whether his jacket was zipped up, which pocket held his cigarettes, which his Coors Light, which the matches and the marijuana. He had to rebuckle his boots and find his goggles, which were there on his head the whole time. It could try Patience herself waiting for Zjak to be ready, finally. But when he was he shoved off with a savant’s sense for where to find the softest snow, the quietest, most yielding snow.
Zjak trusted that exploration would lead to reward, even if that meant climbing over logs or squeezing through prickly spruce branches. There was redemption in as few as two or three turns of pristine powder.
He was James Dean handsome. But he was shy, reserved, and mistrusted (or didn’t believe in) his good looks. There was something wounded in there. I never knew what, though there were hints about family, parents, strained step-family relations? I don’t know. In any case, he refused – wasn’t cut out – to go into the family business, which was big-time farming in the Central Valley near Fresno.
Zjako covered over this disappointment (disappointment he had caused? or felt in himself?) with athleticism and irony. We referred to each other as “fellow kids,” after a line from the LP “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers,” circa 1968, by the Los Angeles comedy group Firesign Theatre. We – all four of us – practically memorized whole albums, they were so word-wise and funny.
(Clueless Principal Poop speaks at high school graduation: “Fellow kids. In addressing for the assembly this morning . . .” In the back of the gym, scofflaws yell out: “Eat it! Eat it raw!” “Rah, rah, rah!” Poop chants without missing a beat, “That’s the spirits we have here at More Science High!”)
Fellow kids. Dear friends. Sometimes we spoke in what amounted to a kind of code. Everything reminded us of a line from Firesign Theatre. Our children, Ellen’s and mine and Zjak and Marty’s boy, Sam, didn’t always know what the adults were talking about, but, eyes rolling, did know from whence the cryptic lines came.
(Nick Danger pulling in, tires screeching to a stop at a filling station: “Say, Pops, where am I?!” “You can’t get there from here.”)
(Catherwood the butler: “May I take your hat and goat, sir? . . . You may sit here in the waiting room, or wait here in the sitting room.”)
(“He’s no fun, he fell right over!”)
That last one was especially apropos on the few times when Zjako tipped over on skis. As the years went by, his balance, and his strength, slowly ebbed.
The addiction to skiing meant that Zjak and I never grew up completely. Lucky for us, we married women who had. Strong, loyal women, who understood and were willing to put up with us, with all that time on the slopes as we indulged our obsession.
In Bear Valley in the early 1970s Ellen and I taught skiing, Zjako worked as a lift mechanic. He had an engineer’s ability to see how things were put together, and he liked climbing up lift towers in his ski boots. Marty cooked at the Tamarack Lodge. She flowed around a kitchen, still does, with a seeming effortlessness.
Ellen and I followed a muse to Telluride. Zjak and Marty moved back to the coast. She taught elementary school. His last job, before he had to stop working, was in a lab near Santa Barbara, messing around with silicone. Marty wrote in December about how hard it was watching Zjak “fade.” That was the word she used. He died in January.
The last time we visited out there, Zjak was walking with a cane and had to rest frequently. But he never once complained. About fate, or having to give up skiing, or having to lie down after a short walk on the beach. He was still movie star handsome: the strong, silent type.
Except when he was giggling. (From an alternative history lesson on Firesign Theatre’s “Everything You Know Is Wrong” album: “And so, I betook me to the Hashfire Inn, all lusting for life and liberty. The real George Washington brought the hemp, and I the evening papers. We quickly proceeded to get Sam Adams and young Tom Jefferson goodly stretched by the hemp. What a fetid fervor of freedom! I say, let’s have a revolution!”)
On that last beach walk, despite the fact he could barely ambulate more than a few yards without stopping, Zjako found a stretch of sand cliff: vertical, soft-sand walls three feet high chewed into the beach by a previous high tide. He motioned to me to follow and together we pounced barefoot on the lip and rode the cascade to the bottom. Zjak stayed perfectly upright, riding the incline on the soles of his feet as if surfing childhood itself.
You can’t compare skiing and sex. It’s apples and oranges, edges on snow and skin on skin. Then again . . .
Sometimes a new ski changes everything, opens the door to a new sensory paradigm.
My new skis are German-made Völkls, the Völkl Code Speedwall S. They came in a box from New Hampshire a couple of weeks ago. I leaned them against a wall downstairs and admired their sleek shape. And then I took them out for a first test ride.
The S stands for slalom, I think. They are built like a slalom racing ski, with a laminated wood core and stiff titanium top and bottom sheets. They are small waisted, and curvy. (Back when I used to be part of the annual equipment test at SKI magazine, someone correctly described the new “shaped” skis as having a figure like Betty Boop.) The Codes come with a built-in hairpin turn – if you can stay on top of them.
I bought them sight unseen. And untried. Risky business. But the guy I know at Völkl USA promised they were “outrageously fun.” So I took a chance.
Speedwall refers to the skis’ sidewalls, which can be waxed to make them more slippery. In fact, the factory supplies a little tube of fast fairy dust with an applicator lid. Just rub on and polish.
Why wax the sidewalls? Part of the Code. You wax the sidewalls because these babies beg to be tilted up on their sides – way up – so far up on edge the resulting grooves in the snow are etched by both the base and the sidewall. You wax your ski bases, so why not . . .
My regular five-year-old skis carve pretty well. They were once described, in a gear review, as “double-wide giant slalom skis.” They are curvy, too, compared to old-fashioned “straight” skis. But they are much fatter than the Codes. Their built-in turn is more like a bend in the road than a hairpin. A gifted skier can carve them down almost any hill, but I have to apply the brakes when it gets steep. I reach a point where I can’t handle the speed or the g-forces in a long-radius, pure-carved turn. So on the old skis I’m on-carve and off, scrubbing speed, on-carve and off. Carve and skid, where the skidding can feel like compromise.
With the Codes, and their tighter natural turn shape, I learned right away I could carve more terrain more of the time. This is huge. I struggle to relay just how huge. Carving is not like run-of-the-mill steering, not like the skiing we used to do. There is no play, no sloppiness, no brushing sideways at all in a turn. The feeling is pure precision joined with perfect stability, because the ski is in fact slicing a trench in the snow, building a tiny curved wall against which you, the driver, lean. Insouciant. Invincible.
Think of a bobsled run with its banked vertical walls along which the sleds ride. It’s as if an alternate gravity were pinning them to the wall. Carving skiing is like that. Except you don’t have to ride down a refrigerated track, you gouge your own tiny walls with each turn, anywhere you want, anywhere you’re brave enough to stand firm against that knifing edge.
The Codes drew such round-y perfect lines in the snow, I could ski entire runs, top to bottom, without once throwing my skis sideways. Not until reaching the lift line again. I felt like I was cheating. Ted Ligety, the American master of giant slalom, can do this. So can Mikaela Shriffrin, the slalom prodigy from Vail whose gorgeous technique and precocious sense of touch have made her, at 18, the world’s best slalom racer. Carving has been the Holy Grail of efficient, ecstatic skiing, especially for ski racers, forever. Sixty-four-year-old guys who started late and have never raced aren’t supposed to be able to do this. To feel this controlled freedom, this giddy, pressed-against-the-wall line drawing. And yet . . .
The Code. Maybe it’s Code for cheating? Na. I don’t believe there is such a thing as cheating in skiing. In the early 1970s, when I was trying out for the ski school at Keystone, my Uncle Hal took me into his garage and showed me his Dynastar MV2s. He called them his cheaters, said they knew how to turn and somehow transferred that gift, deserved or not, to him. They were beautiful, white metal, with a small red logo near the tip. I bought a used pair in Denver and aced my apprentice clinic.
Those skis were primitive approximations, many design generations ago, of the surgical tools available today. I couldn’t have carved a turn on them to save my life.
The Codes are white, a beautiful pearlescent white, with a small red Völkl chevron. Riding them I can bend space-time.
I get excited just thinking about it.
This is my last column for The Watch for a while. Maybe forever.
When we were out in California last month, my parents, who are 88 and just shy of 90, talked more than usual about the end. (more…)
The Film Festival is coming to town! The Film Festival is coming to town!
Actually, the festival’s worker bees have been in Telluride for weeks now, setting up for the 40th “SHOW.”
Ellen and I had just moved to Telluride in August 1976 when the third TFF raised its curtain, with tributes to Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones, the original King Kong, and director King Vidor. That year we met Bill and Stella Pence, festival founders along with James Card and Tom Luddy. The Pences will be in town this week to help celebrate the 40th.
All of this sends me back to a time when our two families, ours and the Pence’s, got together at a place we fondly referred to as the Ridgway Bijou. (more…)
[In honor of the recent speed skiing exhibit at the Telluride Historical Museum, I found this article in my files, written for Diversions magazine, back in 1982.]
Marti Martin Kuntz hops down out of the helicopter and unhooks her skis from the struts. They are not powder skis, though the chutes and bowls here in Colorado Basin above Silverton sparkle with 18 inches of fresh powder snow. These skis are 235 cm long, almost seven feet, nine inches, straight and slick and heavy.
Marti’s ski suit is like a second rubberized skin stretched white over her body. Slashes of red identify the manufacturer, Snofox, and Marti’s sponsor, the Telluride Ski Resort. She’s carrying a teardrop-shaped helmet under her arm and has turbulence-cutting, Styrofoam fins, called fairings, sweeping back from her calves. She wears yellow kitchen gloves, and her poles have so many curves built into them they could represent a traditional ski descent.
But Marti’s not going to be making even a single turn on the snow. The Telluride ski instructor is going down straight, trying for a new women’s speed skiing record. (more…)
One of the last times I drove Bailey, our 1977 Jeep pickup, I headed up Buckhorn Road to scout for oak firewood. I hadn’t gone two miles though, when I noticed wisps of smoke emanating from beneath the hood. I pulled over and popped the latch to find a squirrel’s nest, made up mostly of stripped juniper bark, blazing away atop the engine block. (more…)
Sebastien Chaigneau, the Frenchman who won last weekend’s Hardrock 100 endurance run, sounds like an interesting fellow. He set a new record for the counterclockwise race direction at just over 24 hours, 25 minutes. But in post-race interviews he said it was not the winning that mattered, or the record, but “the spirit of the trail.” He said he runs “without objective.” (more…)
Denny Hogan, Colorado boy and former snow ranger at Silverton Mountain, was reassigned by the Forest Service to California’s Lake Tahoe region a couple of years ago. He can’t get over the cloudless summers there. (more…)
Ironically, or prophetically, Randy Udall wrote a column a couple of years ago for the Aspen Times in which he described the disappearance of a much-loved local carpenter. (more…)