Peter Shelton

The Education of a Ski Instructor, Part Three

Posted in Personal History, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on October 11, 2012

There were other gurus at Keystone that winter besides the comely E.

A ski shop employee, a lifer prone to heartfelt clichés, told me, “Skiing is a dance, and the mountain always leads.” At the time, the metaphor was new (to me anyway), and I thought it was brilliant.

A ski-school friend, another apprentice, liked to punctuate conversation with a staccato laugh and the phrase, “Are you skidding me?” This was both a witty misuse of language and a comment on the obsession our clinic-ers had with “carving.” Carving was the opposite of skidding. Skidding was what people did who didn’t know any better: intermediates and amateurs. Carving was the far more subtle skill of leaving a narrow track, of drawing arcs with your skis rather than sliding them sideways. (A series of linked skidded turns was inevitably derided as “windshield wiper” skiing.) If any of us were to have a chance of passing the Stage 1 exam at the end of the season, we were going to have to demonstrate carving.

(This was long before skis with deep sidecuts made carving possible for a big swath of the skiing populace and “pure carving” attainable by a serious minority. Pure carving is when the ski does not skid at all: it leaves only a clean, sharply cut line in the snow, like a jeweler engraving a capital “C.” Two engraved lines equal “railroad tracks.” Back in the early 1970s, on their 207-centimeter “straight skis,” even the best skiers combined some skidding with their carving action to produce nearly carved, narrow-track turns. This is what E. was doing on Flying Dutchman.)

Perhaps the biggest, and hardest-to-grasp truth came from Rolf Dercum, Max’s son, a one-time ski racer. Rolf told us to “let go of the mountain.” Easier said than done. But when you think about it, it is what separates the fluid, truly accomplished skier from the merely good. It does involve accepting some speed, but more than speed it is about seeing a bigger picture, looking farther down the mountain, standing tall and trusting that control will come from where you go, and not from how forcefully you are able to apply the brakes.

All of this was happening while E. and I were conducting our secret love affair. And it was a secret; nobody knew. Her husband didn’t know, although he must have had some inkling. E. had left him the summer before, moved to Vail on her own. She’d come back; it was a failed experiment, but he knew she was unhappy. At some point that winter she began sleeping in the living room of their apartment.

We didn’t even tell our friends. E. wanted a clean break at the end of the winter, when it wouldn’t disrupt the ski school dynamic. She and her husband had come from New York out to Colorado for Keystone’s maiden year, in 1970. They were part of what was known, only slightly facetiously, as the “royal family,” with the extended Dercum clan and a few others. She knew her leaving would be upsetting, and she didn’t want to cause a ruckus.

Neither did I. I was training for the exam in April, to be held at nearby Copper Mountain, and E.’s husband was one of my clinic-ers. It was even possible, given his standing with the Rocky Mountain Division of PSIA, the Professional Ski Instructors of America, that he would be one of my examiners.

So, for weeks, we met only furtively, barely exchanging glances. I slipped poems into E.’s ski-school locker. One time – I don’t remember why we thought we could be so bold – we sat together in the cafeteria upstairs. E. spooned a couple of teaspoons of her homemade black currant syrup into a bowl of plain yogurt. She and the Dercum’s daughter Sunny had picked the berries that fall on the steep hillsides of Montezuma Basin. The yogurt tasted wild, earthy and sweet. (I didn’t see the cliché until E. pointed it out years later: “The way to a man’s heart . . .” etcetera. Like all lovers, we thought we were inventing everything. The world was utterly new.)

Meanwhile, I was getting to teach, beginners on Checkerboard Flats, novices on the three-mile-long run from the top called Schoolmarm. Max loved teaching and he loved Schoolmarm; it was one of the reasons he cut the mountain the way he did. He’d showed us how to use its gentle, playful terrain to practically guarantee successful turns. He taught us how and where to demonstrate a new maneuver, how to stop our groups out of the wind. Mostly, he taught us not to stop, to keep moving. Move, move, move. “Mileage is the best teacher.”

When I wasn’t teaching, I was clinic-ing. Sometimes with Max or Rolf, sometimes with E.’s husband. As the exam neared, he even loaned me a pair of snappy, fiberglass Head skis to replace the old metal ones I had brought with me.

To be continued . . .

One Response

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  1. Bob Berwyn said, on April 12, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    I’ve long felt that Schoolmarm is one of the best beginner trails … I taught my son so much on that long run. I think it’s the continuity of making turn after turn after turn that helps create the muscle memory, so much better than short bursts interrupted by lift rides.

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