Fear and loathing on a chairlift
February 26, 2008
"All is fair in love, war and the pursuit of first tracks," Mel Fletcher begins reflecting on his early ski instructor days. "At Park City, powder days evoked tough competition And no one was sneakier than Gary Knudsen."
Fletcher’s tale, found in the book, "Ski Instructor Confidential," tells the anecdote of how Knudsen managed to swindle everyone else out of dipping their skis into the powder first: by pretending to film skiers as they come down the mountain calling it "First Tracks on Film." "I’ll tell you what. I’ll ski to the bottom of the run and film each one of you coming down." Months go by, then finally, frustrated with waiting, fellow instructors and patrollers demand to see the footage. Of course it turns out, there was no film in the camera ever. It was all for the love of fresh snow.
The story joins more than 150 others including five more culled from Park City — chronicled in "Ski Instructors Confidential: The Stories Ski Instructors Swap Back at the Lodge," collected by Allen Smith, a ski instructor at Vail Resort. Originally published in 2005, the book is in its second printing.
"Some of the stories come from the first woman to be a professionally-certified ski instructor in 1941, and one came from the person that revolutionized the ski jumping posture," Smith explains. "Others revolve around mushy leather boots and long hickory skis and the days before political correctness Altogether, it’s a historical journey down through the business of teaching skiing."
The idea to put his fellow instructors’ memories into writing struck Smith at an annual ski school meeting, while listening to the humorous banter during a break.
"To kill time, one of the instructors told this story and it was just hilarious it was the funniest thing I ever heard," he remembers. "But then, afterwards, another instructor replied, ‘Yeah well, you think that’s funny, let me tell you what happened to me’ and it started this whole chain. By the end, I’d heard half a dozen stories and I thought: ‘I wonder how many stories there are like this you know?’"
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Smith, a freelance writer, proceeded to begin his research for his special-interest non-fiction novel, calling ski instructors in Vail, then throughout the United States. He found plenty hungry to share their experiences from ski filmmaker Warren Miller’s extreme-skiing muse Chris Anthony to Joy Lucas, the first woman to get certified through the Professional Ski Instructors Association and Chuck Coiner, who went on to become an Idaho State Senator. All told, he received 350 stories to choose from, he says.
"It was easy to find stories," Smith continues. "I mean, as an instructor, you’re taking people that live in Florida or the South or something and they hop on a plane and within 12 hours they’ve completely relocated themselves from sea level up to the high country at 8,000 feet. They run around getting a hotel, trying to get the kids in order, renting equipment and that’s what you have to work with on the first day. It’s tough, but that’s what makes ski teaching interesting."
Smith has taught skiing for seven years all told, first in the 1970s, and then returning in 2001 part-time, pursuing a full-time career as the technology director for the local board of Realtors. "It’s just really fun helping people enjoy their vacation," he says. "They’re coming out here and if you teach them to be a better teacher, it’s really quite a thrill The main thing is you get to ski with people from all over the world who you would ordinarily never get to meet."
Upon his return to ski instruction and reflecting on the accounts from various ski instructors young and old from California to Vermont, Smith observes quite a bit of change has occurred in the ski instructor profession. Beyond just advancements in ski equipment, the job and resorts in general, are of a larger industry now. They’ve gone from mom-and-pop family-run businesses to publicly-traded companies and new standards and restrictions have emerged, he says. No longer is it funny to attempt to steal some "alone time" on the lift with a cute student it’s against the rules.
"It all just has a whole different set of standards and it’s just a sign of the times," he concludes. "For the most part maybe it’s a good thing better-groomed runs, better ski lifts but it’s taken away a lot of the spontaneity and the hijinks. It’s a give and take. There are a lot of funny stories now, but they just come from a different place."
Copies of "Ski Instructors Confidential" may be purchased at Dolly’s Book Store, the Spotted Frog Bookstore, online at http://www.snowwriter.com or by calling (800) 201-7892.