Peter Shelton

The Education of a Ski Instructor

Posted in Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on September 20, 2012

Who here has been lucky enough to find a soul mate and a career on the same day?

I did it, through no planning or skill, but only luck, on October 28, 1972, at Keystone, which was then one of America’s newest ski areas.

At 23, I had no idea what to do next. I’d graduated from college with a major in – cue Garrison Keillor’s beleaguered character – English. I’d gone east to the Big Apple, where my sister lived and danced with the New York City Ballet. She had the best of all reasons to be there. I had no reason, other than chasing ballerinas and pretending – or wondering honestly whether – I might someday fit in with the energy, the artistic drive, the high-speed claustrophobia of the place.

I lasted nearly a year before the big western spaces called me back. Jackson Browne’s “Take It Easy” was playing on the VW’s radio as I crossed the plains and saw the Rockies in the distance. All thoughts of having failed to “make it” in the big city blew out the open driver’s-side window: “Take it easy. Take it easy. Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy.”

Golden, Colorado, was the perfect stop-off on drives cross-country, and my Uncle Hal was the perfect host. He was easy to talk to. He was a mapmaker and a painter. He’d built his own home and studio on the side of Lookout Mountain and raised his sons to fish and ski and camp deep in the high country. There were rattlesnakes and horses out back and a baby grand piano in the living room.

In the morning after I’d slept, he cooked pancakes on an electric griddle right there on the table. He asked me what I wanted to do. I said I didn’t know. He said, “What do you love to do?”

This threw me. Nobody’d ever asked the question before in the context of a job. I must have hesitated. “I love to ski.”

This was true but off the subject, I thought, of a serious discussion about the future. Growing up in Southern California, I had skied but a handful of weeks, all told, in my life. Skiing was the opposite of what I knew living on the coast: the air was cold and piney, and thin; the snow squeaked under your boots; at the cabin where we stayed once near Mammoth Mountain, I could hear (but not see) a creek running beneath the snow; and an icicle as thick as a Doric column connected the roof and the ground.

On these family vacations in the 1950s we used gear handed down from cousins who had gone to school in Switzerland. Dad and I would get the skis down from the garage rafters and steel wool the rust from their edges. Then he’d open a can of sharp-smelling FasSki base preparation and we’d carefully brush the green lacquer onto the wooden bases.

Down came the box of clothes: wool sweaters and mittens and tightly woven gabardine pants. Best of all were the leather boots, which were black with age and coated in sweet grease from the season before.

Skiing was an alien world full of particular sensations: Sea ‘n’ Ski, Chap Stick, the rope tow burning through your gloves. Crowning it all was the seductive downhill rush, that magic acceleration that had nothing, it seemed, to do with you, with your will. Rather it was the winged boards, which, often as not, had a mind of their own – their mysterious, exhilarating love affair with gravity.

Uncle Hal flipped a couple of pancakes. He said that his son Stony was currently teaching skiing part time up at Loveland Pass and that he had started out as an apprentice.

Apprentice. The word sounded Dickensian – apprentice cobbler, apprentice quill-pen bookkeeper? But it was also strangely attractive. You mean, someone could be an apprentice ski instructor?

It turned out you could. I wrote to a bunch of Colorado ski areas. Keystone’s hiring clinic was the first on the calendar. It was a clear, cold, snowless morning. There wasn’t a flake of white on the autumn-brown slopes. (This was before snowmaking.) I crawled out of my sleeping bag in the back of the VW and dressed in the only warm thing I had, a Navy-surplus wool pea coat.

As I climbed the stairs to the meeting in the lodge cafeteria, a young woman swept down past me. She was slim and athletic with big eyes and long auburn hair. She was too beautiful to be available. Turned out she was married to one of the ski school supervisors. Our glances met very briefly.

To be continued . . .

One Response

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  1. Kayla said, on September 21, 2012 at 4:47 am

    Ooo… I can’t wait for the continuation! I think I like the direction of this story.

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