Max Dercum, Lucky Man
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.”