Peter Shelton

Max Dercum, Lucky Man

Posted in Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on January 28, 2010

I had a wonderful phone conversation with Max Dercum the other night. He is 97 and living in an assisted-living place in Evergreen, in the foothills west of Denver. He needs a walker to get around, but his mind is as sharp as a tuned ski edge.

We were talking about the early days of PSIA, The Professional Ski Instructors of America. Max was part of a “gang of seven” that formed the original association in 1961. There was no “American ski technique” then, only the venerable Arlberg technique and the so-called “new Austrian” technique, or—depending on what part of the country you taught in and where your ski school director hailed from—various offshoots of French or Swiss or German national models.

In those days Max, who hailed originally from Cleveland out of Norwegian stock, ran the ski school at Arapahoe Basin. He represented the Rocky Mountain region at that 1961 meeting on The Big Mountain above Whitefish, Montana. Everybody there, from the East, California, the Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest knew there needed to be a unified approach to teaching skiing in the U.S. An aspiring skier might be told at Stowe, for instance, to stem her ski and rotate her shoulders into a turn, and told later that winter at Alta or Sugar Bowl to reverse her shoulders and wedeln.

It was confusing. American individualism, spread across a huge continent, was not helping. Big egos and fiercely-held beliefs had to be overcome, and they were, though not without friction. Max gave me a light-hearted example involving Aspen iconoclasts Friedl Pfeifer and Fred Iselin. At Arapahoe, Max’s ski school taught the “new Austrian” method, the reverse-shoulder wedeln. Across the mountain, Iselin responded, “Well, here in Aspen we teach the Friedeln and the Fredeln.”

Max was always, it seemed, on the front side of change. During the war, he and Edna bought up a bunch of mining claims on the west side of Loveland Pass, most for back taxes, about $50 each. Those claims eventually became Arapahoe Basin, which opened to instant success in 1946. They also bought an old log-cabin stage stop down the road, which they fixed up to be the first ski lodge west of Colorado’s continental divide. Ski Tip Ranch was a warm, informal place with home-cooked meals from the wood stove and jazz jams in the Rathskeller late into the night. Door knobs were costly and hard to come by, so they used broken ski tips for door pulls.

In 1970 Max oversaw the opening of a new ski area directly out his back door, Keystone. He had walked the mountain for years. He hand cut most of the trails. That’s where I met Max and Edna, in the winter of 1972-73. He hired me onto his ski school as an apprentice instructor. He invited all of the instructors over to Ski Tip to see home movies he’d shot of Professor Kruckenhauser, in St. Christoph, demonstrating “new Austrian”—the basis of the new American—way. Max’s mother, Oma, who was in her 90s, skied cross-country along the river every day, except Saturdays, when she listened to opera on the radio.

He was a marvelous, if eccentric, teacher of teachers: small, upright and wiry, bald pate, thick Buddy Holly glasses. When I was finally allowed to take my own classes up the mountain, I’d see Max lurking in the trees beside the trail listening to what I was saying. Sometimes I’d call to him and ask him to demonstrate the maneuver we were working on. He’d come out of the woods blushing (he was often in helmet and downhill gear, out training for his beloved masters’ races) and deliver, with growing enthusiasm, the requested demo.

Mostly, he taught us very practical things, like stopping with your students’ backs to the wind and, fundamentally, not stopping any more than you had to. Keep ‘em moving; use the terrain to make turning and stopping easy; move, move, give them the gift of mileage.

About this time, dog-food giant Ralston-Purina bought out the original Keystone investors. Then Vail replaced Ralston-Purina. Max was eased out, Ski Tip given over to corporate owners. He and Edna built a new home farther up Montezuma Road and, unfettered, pursued their racing passion. They both won international titles well into their seventies. Max was the first inductee into NASTAR’s Hall of Fame.

With every change, there appeared to be no bitterness, hardly any nostalgia. There was, it seemed, only one definition for change: things were different. Edna had died, at age 94, two years before. (More sturdy Norwegian stock.) They had been married 71 years. But what he wanted to talk about that day on the phone was the drive his son Rolf had taken him on recently, up Squaw Peak in the Front Range, where he had spent the summer of 1942 as a fire lookout. Some of the fires he spotted were set by Japanese incendiaries floated across the Pacific on balloons. “I was told not talk about it,” he said with a conspiratorial twinkle in his voice. “Nobody was supposed to know, but thousands of balloons made it across on the jet stream, hundreds of them all the way to Colorado. It was amazing!”

I thought about the last time I’d skied with Max, at A-Basin in 1995. “Isn’t this great?” he’d said on one bright-spring chair-lift ride. And then answered himself, “Absolutely! I wanted to come to Colorado, and I wanted to do something. And that was the time to do it, by golly. You have this dream, and it comes true! Not many people have the opportunity to say that.”

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20 Responses

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  1. Bill de Alva said, on January 30, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Peter,

    I remember staying at Ski Tip Ranch in the 60’s. My Dad knew Max from the earliest days of Arapahoe Basin. I’ve passed your story on to him – I’m certain he will enjoy it!

    Bill

    • pshelton said, on January 30, 2010 at 6:34 pm

      Very cool, Bill. I was only there for one season. But it remains super vivid. And Max has been a lasting influence. Cheers, -P

  2. Julia Johnson said, on January 31, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    Peter,

    I really enjoyed your article about Max Dercum. I was the Principle and taught 7 & 8 grades in the old Dillon. Dercum’s children were in grade school then so I knew the family well and spent many evenings at Ski Tip Ranch. I convnced Arapahoe Ski Area to allow the children in the upper grades to ski on Wednesdays. Our cook made an early lunch for us and between Edna Dercum, Adena Ganong and I we drove the kids to the area at noon. We paid $.50 for a ticket, had a lesson for an hour, then skied until the lift closed. Many years after that while skiing at Copper I rode on the lift with a teacher who said they were still doing that but not for just 50 cents. I feel that I left my mark on the communities children who I hope are still skiing today. Those were the days.,,I wasn’t married then. My maiden name was Meikleljohn, I had never taught school before, had 3 teachers old enough to be my parents, two men, one who was just out of the Marines and the other who was on the Ski Patrol. I too was on the Ski Patrol a few years later along with the only other female, Ruth Wright.

    • pshelton said, on February 3, 2010 at 6:39 pm

      Wonderful story, Julia. What became of the school, and you, after Dillon was flooded?

  3. Durfee Day said, on February 3, 2010 at 3:33 am

    Peter, thanks for a wonderful story of Max, beautifully written. I was one of his weekend warriors through college and loved recalling those days in your prose. You’re there in all kinds of ways, and I appreciate your work very much.

    • pshelton said, on February 3, 2010 at 6:28 pm

      Durfee, it’s amazing how many people were touched by Max and Edna. You too!

  4. Don Bachman said, on February 4, 2010 at 2:27 am

    Hi Peter,

    Nice story – A-Basin, skiing the way it should be. I remember the Durcums too; when I was at Berthoud Pass in 60-61 – and now to see familiar names in the comments – and rembering trying to adjust my skiing posture with the tug between Durcum and Iselin – then there was the dipsy doodle going around in those days! Thanks for the memories.

  5. […] Read a nice post on Max Dercum and the history of skiing in the Snake River Valley  by ski writer P… […]

  6. Gerda Wirth said, on August 6, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Memories of Max and Edna Dercum

    Thinking of Max and his wife Edna means to me thinking of family, friendship and a way of life. As a 20 year old girl I came to Ski Tip Ranch in January 1956 and never went back to Chicago. I started to work at the lodge for free room and board, free skilessons and lift tickets, learned the technical language of skiers and promoted to a skiinstructor by the end of the season. But most of all I became integrated into a family for the rest of my life. For many years Ski Tip Ranch was a place of refuge to me after the seasons in Aspen closed down. Springskiing at Arapahoe Basin was something special, especially when Max took us down the runs of North Glade and the Palavicini. Not to forget the interesting evenings by the fire, with musik, movies and big discussions about natur, skiing and the Keystone Area to be developed.
    I was lucky to be able to visit Colorado with my husband and our son for the last four decades until it became too uncomfortable to travel, but the friendships will last for ever. Thank you Max for all the wonderful moments!

  7. Rick Dentel said, on September 11, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    Great story. I was in school in Leadville 73/74 and one of my professors was Alf Tieze (Max’s son in law). Alf got me a job at Keystone on weekends in the winter and full time in the summer. This is how I met Max and his family. His daughter Sunny (Alf wife) is a great baker,we always had fresh hot pastries and coffee after skiing (also quite the artist).Max’s granddaughter Karina Wetherbee wrote a book The Minefield of Memories about her father Alf early childhood. A great read about his trek from Austria to Colorado.

  8. Karina Wetherbee said, on September 17, 2010 at 11:18 am

    I am Max and Edna’s grand-daughter, and daughter to Alf and Sunni Tieze, and I loved reading this article! I find myself thinking of my grandparents every day, and how they took the amazing leap of faith that moved them West and planted them in the most beautiful of places. I spent a wonderful childhood at Ski Tip, skiing, playing hide-and-seek in the guest rooms with my brother and my cousins, and I soaked up the incredible and inspiring energy Max and Edna (Boppa and Nana to us) exhibited every day of their lives. Max still has more zest for life than many people a fraction of his age. I recognize many names of people who have left comments; it is wonderful to see how inspiring Max and Edna have been to so many people.

  9. Frank E. Francisco said, on October 26, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    I was checking to see if Ski Tip Ranch still existed and ran across this wonderful story of Max and Edna. I stayed at STR in ’54, ’55, & ’56 when I was in the Air Force and took leave to ski Colorado. Have many memories of skiing with Max from the top of Arapahoe Pass back down to A-Basin and once from the top of A-Basin down the backside to Montezuma Road. Memorable evenings too with the huge stone fireplace and Max’s friends from all over. I also remember a fantastic run with one of Max’s assistants at Alta from the top over to what is now Snowbird before it was developed. Wonderful powder but we had to cross the brook, climb to the road, and hitchhike back to Alta. Sunni may remember me as the kid with a red Jaguar coupe and then an Austin-Healey convertible. Stayed there a couple of times in the 60’s but then discovered Europe and the Dolomites so have been going there for over the past 30 years. I am 81, live in Hawaii, but still get 30 to 60 ski days a year. Thanks to all for the memories of Max and Edna.

  10. […] the 1880s and part of a ranch for years after. In the 1940s the now-decrepit ranch was purchased by Max and Edna Dercum who opened it to guests as the state’s first ski […]

  11. […] the 1880s and part of a ranch for years after. In the 1940s the now-decrepit ranch was purchased by Max and Edna Dercum who opened it to guests as the state’s first ski […]

  12. […] the 1880s and part of a ranch for years after. In the 1940s the now-decrepit ranch was purchased by Max and Edna Dercum who opened it to guests as the state’s first ski […]

  13. […] the 1880s and part of a ranch for years after. In the 1940s the now-decrepit ranch was purchased by Max and Edna Dercum who opened it to guests as the state’s first ski […]

  14. Peter Dewees said, on November 27, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    Hello Peter just read the piece on Max Dercum was real good I have lived and breathed Arapahoe Basin as a kid and knew a lot of the old guard of ski insructers. Max and his wife had a great place there at Ski Tip used to ride horses there in the simmer. Sad to see that Summit County has changed so since the 70″s will hold the memoies dear because everyone there was fantastic. Respond if you can thanks Peter.

    • pshelton said, on November 27, 2015 at 6:12 pm

      Yes, Peter, the decades have flown by. Max and Edna both gone now. Ski Tip, too, I gather. I live in Oregon now. It’s been a while since I’ve been back.


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