Peter Shelton

The Edge of Never

Posted in At the Movies, Ski history by pshelton on October 7, 2009

At an early-fall screening of the new ski movie The Edge of Never (in a comfortably thread-bare art-house theater in Salt Lake City) we were probably the three oldest guys in the audience. The filmmaker, ex-pro freestyler Bill Kerig, a youthful forty-something, bounced up on stage in fashionably saggy pants and encouraged everyone to “give it up” for the three little kids (two of whom were his) handing out Leki hoodies and Skullcandy ear buds and other door-prize swag.

At the Intermountain Ski Hall of Fame induction dinner in Park City the next night we were three of the youngest people there. We were the only men in sweaters, rather than coat and tie. Nice sweaters. Alta general manager Onno Wieringa, who is my age, 60, exclaimed, “Darn! I was gonna wear a sweater! And Tana [Montana, his wife] made me put this on. And I had to wear these boots Dick Bass gave me.”

Peeking from beneath Onno’s slacks were a pair of cowboy boots made from some kind of exotic honey-colored leather. Might have been crocodile, I don’t know; there were rows of little bumps. Dick Bass, who financed the building of Snowbird and still runs the resort at 79, was one of the inductees. Onno said, “Dick’s got a closet full of shoes. Hundreds of pairs of shoes. He took me in there one time. We’re the same size. He gave me these.”

Dick Bass is one of the big-oil Bass brothers from Dallas. Love him or have no idea what to make of him, he has been a force in the ski world. He is irresistible. He told me one time, “Pedro, one of these days ah’m gonna build me a cabin like yours and put mah feet up and rat poetry!” He is indefatigable. He was the first man (he did it in 1984-85) to climb the highest summits on all seven continents.

And he is irrepressible. He refers to himself, charmingly, self-deprecatingly, accurately, as “big-mouth Bass.” Back in the 80s I reported on Snowbird’s sister-resort exchange with Zermatt, Switzerland. I watched as über-polite Swiss dinner hosts stifled yawns at past-midnight while Dick powered on, hardly pausing to breathe, about the Matterhorn, and Mount Everest, and the love he feels for every guide who hauled his dilettante Texan hide to the top of the world’s most spiritual peaks, where with his oxygen tank drained, if it hadn’t been for the poetry he was able to chant from memory. . .

We worried that Dick would do it again, talk for hours at a ceremony where he was one of four honored guests. But he didn’t. Moved perhaps by his own encroaching mortality, he kept it short, and decidedly sweet. He talked about skiing as the only sport a five-year-old and an 85-year-old can do together. He spoke about its links to family, to graceful movement, to a natural world bigger than ourselves. It wasn’t poetry, but it came close.

The other inductee we knew was Alan Engen, son of beloved Alta patriarch, Alf. It would not be untrue to say that Alan lived his life in the shadow of his famously gifted and outgoing father. But it would be unfair to say Alan’s own career suffered in the shade. Quiet and almost painfully formal, he nevertheless bloomed as a preserver and promoter of skiing history, most especially his father’s legacy. He wrote books, saved early ski movies, helped organize the University of Utah Library ski archives.

The building we were in, the Joe Quinney Winter Sports Center/Alf Engen Museum, which overlooks a U.S. Team training facility for ski and snowboard jumpers, would not have been built except for Alan’s steady persuasion. During cocktail hour, dozens of geezers in ties stood looking out the big picture windows at kids in drenched getups sliding again and again down plastic-snow ramps, off the lip spinning and flipping, splashing down finally into the pool—acrobatic high jinks that would have made Alf smile.

The Edge of Never, despite its metaphysically gnarly title and the youthful audience for its Utah premier, was anything but typical ski porn. It had an actual story, and a moving one at that: 15-year-old Whistler, British Columbia, park rat Kye Petersen travels to Chamonix to ski the very couloir that claimed his father’s life nine years before. He meets and learns from some of the old masters of mountaineering, grows up a lot, and comes home with a new appreciation for skiing’s enduring if sometimes tragic fraternity.

Both events, the movie and the dinner, were designed, in their ways, for tears. The very idea of time can break your heart. It makes you want to run out and hug everyone you love. And at the first sign of snow, grab your skis and head out the door.

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