A Very Short History of Skiing | View to the West
by Peter Shelton
Apr 07, 2008 | 1154 views | 0 0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I fell skiing some tricky bumps on Aspen Mountain last week but managed to get my feet over my head and roll right back up. When I got down to the people I was skiing with, Bill Kerig, a former freestyle champion and most recently co-producer of the film Steep!, said matter of factly, “Nice worm turn, man.”

Everyone present appreciated the historic reference to a freestyle move from the 1970s. We were all in Aspen for Skiing Heritage Week 2008 put on by ISHA, the International Skiing History Association. Kerig was there to accept one of ISHA’s annual Ullr Awards for his history-of-extreme movie, which, you may remember, screened outdoors in the park at last year’s Telluride Film Festival.

Also honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in film was Greg Stump, creator of cult favorites The Blizzard of Ahhhs and The Maltese Flamingo. Stumpy and Kerig were pretty much the youngest people at the gathering. They’re both in their forties. The average ISHA member’s age is probably about 75. I’m a baby at 59.

But some of the old folks are sparky in the extreme, as if a lifetime spent skiing was a kind of tonic, if not an outright fountain of youth. John Woodward, who is 92 (and tall!), skis faster than just about anybody on the mountain. He still races, and wins, international masters competitions. (The last time I skied with him, on a cold day at Keystone, I got frostbite on my cheeks trying to keep up.)

Aspen’s own Klaus Obermeyer was there, his white hair swept back as if by the wind, his mouthful of brilliant white teeth perpetually grinning. Obermeyer is 89. The inventor of the quilted down parka skis every day. And at breakfast on top of the mountain Thursday he opened up his throat and yodeled the most haunting, wordless, clarion tribute to an alpine life.

I saw the regal Andrea Mead Lawrence a couple of tables away at the awards dinner. She was walking with some difficulty. But, she had made the trip from her home in the eastern Sierra. In 1952, at age 19 with pigtails flying, she won two gold medals at the Oslo Olympic Games, in giant slalom and slalom, the only American ever to do that.

Doug Pfeiffer is getting quite deaf. But the longtime editor of SKIING magazine and “father of freestyle” (he was the man who named the worm turn) still wears his silver hair in a ponytail and quite without encouragement from anyone, skated off at the beginning of one run into a series of royal christies, inside ski doing the turning, outside ski up in the air like a wing, arms wide – the whole package tilted down the hill like a bowsprit cleaving the waves.

Two people with the most musical names in skiing were there, Scooter Lacouter and Penny Pitou. Lacouter was already an éminence grisein 1973 when he was one of my examiners at the PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America) Stage 1 exam. Penny Pitou is 69 now. A girl-next-door, dimpled blonde in 1960, she stole a lot of hearts while winning two silver medals (downhill and giant slalom) at the Squaw Valley Olympics. Now she runs travel agencies in New Hampshire and leads groups of skiers on classic Alps tours, to Chamonix, St. Moritz, and Zermatt. Fit and hatless in a red one-piece, she looked as if she could challenge anyone, except maybe John Woodward, in the gates.

Surrounded by these ageless wonders I thought of an article in The New Yorkerby editor and pundit Michael Kinsley. It was called “Mine is Longer Than Yours,” and it was about aging, or rather the fierce resistance to aging by members of my own generation. Kinsley, who is 57, recounted an in-flight conversation he’d had with Robert McNamara in which the 91-year-old former Secretary of Defense explained how he was flying to Denver to join his girlfriend on a hut-to-hut cross-country ski trip.

Kinsley is not a skier. But the illustration accompanying the piece, by the humorist Arnold Roth, is ski related. It shows Death, with his black hood and scythe, being held at bay by an old, jowly skier poking at him with his ski pole. Immediately after reading the article I made a copy of the illustration and thumb-tacked it to the wall above my computer screen.

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