On The Brink
by Peter Shelton
Mar 18, 2010 | 1575 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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 son of actress Jeanne Crain. 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 Englishman, Maurice Flutey, who taught year round in Australia and Bear Valley, and a couple dozen other smart, hot-skiing up-and-comers. Little Bear Valley dominated the annual PSIA instructor certification exams, outscoring, and outclassing, the much bigger schools at Mammoth and Squaw Valley.

To keep this elite 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 convertible, drove it fast. He bought boots a size too small and skied without socks, barefoot, to maximize snow-feel. He had a peculiar sense of the possible versus the real. 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, but he kept insisting he could do it; he was a fast driver; it’s only about an hour, right? And still he lingered. The familial affection. The unreal relationship to 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, they 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.

Peter Shelton’s blog is
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