Peter Shelton

On The Brink

Posted in Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on March 18, 2010

Last week I mentioned our old ski school director at Bear Valley, Peter Brinkman. I was writing about Hollywood connections, and I referenced Peter as the brother-in-law of actress Jeanne Crain (“State Fair”). And I threw in the fact that he had dated a Playboy Playmate. All true. But only a fraction of the story. Peter deserves more.

Ellen and I liked him the minute we met. He was tall and animated, with an uninhibited high giggle for a laugh. I wouldn’t say he had classic, movie-star good looks—he was too goofy for that. But he was magnetic, broad-shouldered (he played football at the University of Washington), and the Bear Valley web site is not wrong to have described him as “one of the country’s hunkiest ski instructors.”

As our boss, he was both father and child. Like a father, or maybe more like a big brother, he cared about everyone in his charge. The responsible adult Peter assembled a staff of skiing stars: author and technical guru Lito Tejada-Flores; ex-U.S. Team member and speed skiing world record holder Dick Dorworth; fiery, long-legged film star Jon Reveal; Swiss pro Narcisse Emery; a pipe-smoking Kiwi, Maurice Flutey, who taught year round in Australia and Bear Valley, and a couple dozen other smart, strong-skiing characters.

(Here’s an example of the locker-room humor in the Brinkman era. Racer Tim Kennedy was fed up with people dribbling wax on the vise affixed to the ski tuning bench. So he wrote DON’T WAX ON VISE! on the chalkboard. Next morning someone else had written below: DON’T WANE ON VIRTUE!)

Little Bear Valley punched above its weight at the annual PSIA instructor certification exams, often outscoring, and outclassing, the much bigger schools at Mammoth and Squaw Valley.

To keep this bunch busy, Peter single-handedly kept the venerable, all-inclusive ski week alive. Elsewhere in ski country in the 1970s the week-long, lodging/lifts/lessons package was going the way of the dodo. But Peter the charmer, Peter with his contagious enthusiasm, successfully sold packages to ski clubs and groups across the West. He worked his tail off all summer and fall so that we could have work six days a week (seven if we wanted it) and not just at Christmas and Easter.

I’m not sure we told him often or directly enough how much we appreciated this. We did, however, make up in loyalty and tolerance what we might have withheld in formal thanks. Peter required tolerance. His child was irrepressible.

He skied under closed ropes and infuriated the Bear Valley ski patrol. I remember one incident after a major storm when Peter was caught in Grizzly Basin just as a huge, explosives-triggered avalanche was winding its way down Flying Serpent. The patrol was livid. The scandal rocked the whole ski-area family. And Peter was chastened, though not squashed, when he told us at the next Saturday meeting: do as I say not as I do.

We took to calling him The Brink. He drove a Porsche, drove it fast, sometimes with a bowl of breakfast cereal on his lap. He bought boots a size too small and skied without socks, barefoot to maximize snow-feel. He was a bit of a health nut; he refused to dilute his gastric juices with a drink at lunch, even on the warmest spring day. He had a peculiar sense of the possible versus the realistic. This was manifest most dramatically when he expanded his business to include the ski schools at Kirkwood and Telluride.

In those days, ski schools could be a separate business; they were not necessarily a spoke of the corporate umbrella. It’s still that way in Europe, where a major ski area is likely to have two or three ski schools to choose from.

Peter charmed Telluride’s founding developer, Joe Zoline, into giving him the ski school business in 1976. That’s how Ellen and I got to Colorado, along with a handful of instructors from Bear Valley, including Lito and his wife Linde Waidhofer, Marti Martin-Kuntz, and Kathy Phillips, now Kathy Mahoney, recently retired Mountain Village town manager.

In return for the franchise, Peter would do for Telluride’s mid-week business what he’d done for Bear Valley’s, by taking his show on the road and selling ski weeks. But Telluride was so remote then, so far off the average skier’s radar. And The Brink was seriously over-extended. He never stopped believing he could do it—zip back and forth between the Sierras and the Rockies, run the three ski schools, and maintain a full schedule of sales meetings for all three mountains—but it wasn’t humanly possible.

I remember an afternoon on Telluride’s Main Street. Peter was leaning an arm out the door of a rented convertible, not wanting to say good-bye. He had an hour and 15 minutes to make a flight out of Grand Junction. He was already too late—part of him must have known that—but he kept insisting he could do it: he was a good driver; it’s only about an hour to Junction, right? And still he lingered. The familial affection. The unreal relationship to distance and time.

Eventually he lost all three ski schools, Kirkwood and Bear Valley, too. He spent the last quarter century as sports director for Caesar’s Palace hotel/casino in South Lake Tahoe.

As for the Playmate, Ann Pennington, she and The Brink took a hiatus after her broken leg on the slopes. But they got back together and married in 1995, by all accounts completely devoted to one another until Peter’s death at 74 in 2005. The obits were few and far between, which surprised me. He was a force in the ski world.

I still don’t know what caused him to die so young. Too young for a skiing Peter Pan.

6 Responses

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  1. Mary Ann Dismant said, on March 18, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    -P, In spite of not being a part of the ski world, your column on P. Brinkman opened a whole new person for me. Some of my favorites from your writing: “Peter was chastened, though not squashed… He had a peculiar sense of the possible versus the real. so far off the average skier’s radar. And the Brink (what an apt nickname), was seriously overextended. He was a force in theki world.
    I still don’t know what caused him to die so young. TOO YOUNG FOR A SKIING PETER PAN (CAPS mine). Amazing, to say so much iiin a mere five words.Great Bio.

  2. pshelton said, on March 22, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    Update on The Brink: I have heard from a couple of Peter Brinkman’s friends that he died of pancreatic cancer. And that he was at peace. And that he told at least one old ski school buddy (Dick Dorworth) on the phone: “I love you.” That’s The Brink I remember.

  3. kcasper said, on May 13, 2010 at 12:04 am

    I just found out from a friend that Peter Brinkman had passed away a few years ago.

    I was a Mammoth ski instructor during the era of Peter Brinkman and was certified under his proctoring while he was a Far West ski examiner. Great guy Peter was… however, I understood his older brother Paul Brinkman was married to actress Jeanne Crain, and Jeanne Crain was not Peter’s mother; Please forgive me if I am wrong, but it would be impossible for J. Crain to be his mother… looking on the internet, Peter was born in 1930 and Jeanne Crain was born in 1926. By the way, Peter Brinkman also had another nick name, “Peter the Breeder” as I recall…this guy could the pants off a woman and make a women’s knees buckle at first sight. I personally observed him in action one day while he visited the ski school locker room in Mammoth during FWSI testing. Two female ski instructors were beside themselves saying he was the most attractive man they had ever met! He was quite the womanizer and ultimate ski instructor…always wore a scarf around his neck…drove a Porshe…charmed a lot of beautiful young women, sometimes twently plus years younger than him being the same age as some of the girl’s fathers! I know, he almost stole my wife away when we were having some marital problems…my wife was 27, he was near fifty! I didn’t blame him at the time however…my wife was more beautiful than the model and actress Anne Pennington, (which I read he eventually married). Of course I was a fool to seperate from my beautiful wife anyway, especially with the likes of Peter B. running around the ski lodge and on the loose! I was lucky to get her back…Whew, that was a close call! However, through it all, I always thought Peter was a first class guy and a real gentleman… funny though,now that Peter is in his grave…maybe now the rest of us poor saps can relax and not live in fear of loosing our wives or girl friends to the ultimate charmer…. my two belated cents worth. RIP Peter…By the way, Mr. Shelton, you are an excellent writer and enjoyed reading your articles! Peace and Aloha to all!

    • pshelton said, on May 14, 2010 at 10:30 pm

      You are right about Jeanne Crain’s age (although gives her date of birth as 1925). So The Brink must not have been her son, as I mistakenly wrote. And, yes, Peter the Breeder was another nickname, though not, methinks, as sweepingly appropriate as The Brink. Thanks for writing.

  4. murray wagnon said, on July 29, 2010 at 6:39 am

    Hello Peter,
    I enjoyed your piece on Pete Brinkman. He was truly a force of nature. A fun memory just popped into my mind as I am writing this, of his Peche melba, or Poire Bell Hellene contributions to the weekly Ski School Pot lucks used to crack me up. His connections in the entertainment and business worlds were profound, and, having known him, it seems that more should have been written about him. One item in your story, however, bears correction. Peter’s relationship with Jeanne Crain was as her brother-in-law, as she was the wife of his brother Paul. Thank you for the memories of Brink, a character that was larger than life.
    Murray Wagnon
    Bear Valley 1970-1974

  5. Ric Reiter said, on February 15, 2012 at 11:35 pm

    Great memories of Peter… I was one of the young instructors who would be out thumbing a ride from town to the ski area, and we always cringed when we recognized ‘The Brink’s” Porsche coming at us! He would always stop to give a ride, and as PS (the author of this piece) noted, with his usual bowl of cereal between his knees. Riding with Peter was an experience, one which we all survived but wished we had never taken. Passing other cars while slurping down his breakfast, driving with his knees, around blind corners! But he always got us to work on time!

    But he was a great boss… he instilled a degree of professionalism in the entire staff, one which I still aspire to! He had surrounded himself with a group of pro’s (many still in the industry) which created a synergy second to none I have experienced in the 37 years since he first hired me.

    Peter loved to race! He could be found where ever 3 bamboo poles might have been set in a line, imagining them to be a race course. He raced on the Sierra Tahoe Pro Circuit, the Far West Masters events, and if he wasn’t racing in the event, he felt it his duty to forerun it!

    The last time I saw Peter was in Vail in the early 90’s. We were about to begin an instructor race one afternoon on the Golden Peak race hill, and there he was at the bottom of the course. I recognized him immediately, went over to offer my regards, and his first question was whether he might be allowed to forerun the race. I never saw him again, after that chance meeting.

    Though I do get back home (I still own a home in the area) a little more often lately than I did for a long time (see Peter Shelton’s article “Coming Home” or maybe it was “Going Home”), I can never visit without remembering all of the guys and gals, especially Peter Brinkman, who took a young kid, still wet behind the ears, and turned him into a life long ski pro.

    For any of those guys and gals who might trip over this reply to the story, a Facebook group has been started called Mt Reba/ Bear Valley Ski School Alumni. Several of the old faces have joined in- we’d love to see everyone from the old days join in!

    Regards, Ric Reiter

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