Peter Shelton

The Education of a Ski Instructor, Part Two

Posted in Personal History, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on October 4, 2012

She was the queen of the ski school. Already Stage 1 certified. Married to the supervisor. But more to the point to my apprentice-instructor’s eye, elegant.

Elegant the way she filled out her over-the-boot stretch pants. Elegant the way she arrived at lineup in the morning, rocking with that heel-and-toe motion of walking in ski boots.

Most of all elegant in motion, on skis, where the effort, whatever effort she employed to make her skis turn, was invisible; she just floated across the top of the snow.

There were other gods and goddesses at Keystone in that early winter of 1972-73, some of whom were charged with taking the apprentices and molding their unformed, or malformed, lumps into decent skiers and productive ski teachers.

I took the clinics, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what E. was doing to make those elegant turns, and I didn’t get what Rolf Dercum, son of Keystone’s founder, Max, was telling me about “independent leg action.”

I thought the idea was to lock your legs together, one knee tucked behind the other in a mono-legged channeling of Stein Eriksen. I’d had only one formal lesson. That came at Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1964 when I was 15. My parents let me go on the train from L.A., with a friend, for spring break. Sun Valley’s ski school in those days was practically an expat state of Austria. Starting in the 1930s, ski hills in the U.S. thought the thing to do was to import instructors from Austria, the birthplace of Alpine skiing and home of Hannes Schneider, who systematized and perfected the Arlberg technique.

The Arlberg and its “new Austrian” offspring were formal and ubiquitous, the best way anyone, to that point, had figured out for getting long, recalcitrant skis to turn. My instructor in Sun Valley was named Leo. He had the charming accent, the swept-back hair, the erect Alpine bearing on his skis. One by one the college girls dropped out of our ski-week class. I’d see them in the dining room looking bleary and happy, and I wondered in my adolescent fog if Leo’s attentions hadn’t extended beyond stem christies.

Leo called me “Hollywood,” I guess because I was from southern California, and perhaps for my schoolboy ability to mimic what he demonstrated. And what he taught was a check-hop turn: traverse across the slope with the uphill ski, hip and shoulder leading; thrust heels sideways to an edge set (the check); plant pole down the hill and unweight (the hop) into a sliding, boots-together arc ending in the next traverse.

When I arrived at Keystone, I still thought the “perfect turn,” Leo’s turn, was the goal. Rolf and the other clinic-ers soon disabused me of that notion. All they had to do was take us to someplace steep, or bumpy, or icy, and my straw-man technique came totally unglued.

“Get your feet apart,” Rolf admonished gently. Better balance that way, he said. Good skiing is dynamic. And good skiers are doing different things with each foot and leg: different weighting, edging, steering actions.

I tried, but I still didn’t get it. That is, until one cold January morning. It had snowed a trace, maybe half an inch. And I found myself following E. down an undulating run called Flying Dutchman.

Our tracks were clearly visible in the new snow. Hers were round and continuous, like ribbon on the ground, where mine were more angular – a Calder mobile – triangle swishes connected by straight lines.

I tried following her exactly and couldn’t do it at first. But then it dawned on me: she wasn’t making turns for the sake of making turns. As beautiful as her form was, the technique was in service to something else.

Hips forward with eyes looking well down the hill, she was reading terrain, playing the shapes to control her speed. Where I needed, or thought I needed, to throw my edges sideways to slow down, she drew a curving line up that side hill or over that roll, finding momentum or braking, acceleration and deceleration, in the natural features underfoot. Using the mountain, complementing it.

We seemed to be alone; no one else was out in the testy weather before morning lineup. We rode the double chair, talking, never touching but feeling something electric through layers of down.

On our second run, in a bubble of wind and drifting snow, I laid my track on top of hers, and the revelations changed my life.

To be continued . . .

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