“Oh, I get it,” said the guide. “Half of them are deaf and the other half don’t listen.”
This was a funny if somewhat exaggerated assessment of the group. But it was also a little cruel. Her charges, my compatriots at the annual gathering of the International Skiing History Association, probably averaged 75 years of age. More than a few of them sported hearing aids. Quite a few – the group numbered about 20 – were well into their 80s. All were lifetime skiers, some of them superb skiers still. They knew what they were doing, but not, all of the time, where they were going.
ISHA does a lot of good things. It maintains an exhaustive history website (www.skiinghistory.org). It publishes a quarterly journal, Skiing Heritage, that is chock full of profiles of people everybody’s heard of (Stein Eriksen, Ernest Hemingway) and ski people you probably haven’t heard of (Jerry Nunn, for example, the first female professional avalanche hunter, a woman who regularly drove cross country with a trunk full of dynamite; or Roland Palmedo, Wall Street banker, World War I pilot, kayaker, sailor, climber, world traveler and master of four languages, the man who started the ski areas at Stowe and Mad River Glen, Vermont).
ISHA also has access to one of the world’s most extensive collections of ski art, including fabulous posters from the 1920s, 30s and 40s, prints of which the association makes available for sale.
But the organization is in trouble. Raising money is always going to be a challenge. But this is even more fundamental: the membership is dying, literally. I attended the annual gathering in Mammoth in 2004. (In addition to skiing and drinking wine, there were scholarly seminars and an awards banquet to honor the year’s best ski books, videos, and now websites.) That confab filled a moderately big conference room – I’d guess 150 people at least. During the day, skiers of necessity split off into independent groups of 10 to 15. In Aspen in 2008 the number had shrunk by about one-third. Then this year in Utah, at least on the days I joined them, the clan appeared to be diminished by another 50 percent, down to about 50 stalwarts for the banquet. Fewer still braved the ski outings.
Some of it is undoubtedly the economy. Fewer people of any age can afford to travel and ski. But some of it is certainly a matter of advancing age. Where, I couldn’t help wondering, are all the 50- and 60-year-olds with an interest in skiing’s colorful past to fill in the ranks?
There was plenty of life left in the 80-year-olds who did attend. Bill Briggs, one of the oldsters who missed the cutoff at Alta, walks with a dramatic limp, but skis like an angel. He was famously the first person to ski down the Grand Teton – one of the fathers, or grandfathers, of extreme. (Check out the movie Steep.) He still runs the ski school at Snow King in Jackson, Wyoming. His smile could melt ice, and he always finds a time to break out his banjo and sing a few tunes.
Doug Pfeiffer will be 83 this year. He is considered one of the fathers of the freestyle movement – moguls and trick skiing – in the 1960s and 70s. He wears his hair in a long, silver ponytail. And at least once at every gathering I’ve been to he leads off a run with a couple of royal Christies – elegant, balletic turns on one foot while the other ski is held aloft behind him.
Pfeiffer’s got an aid in one ear (the other ear has none, perhaps because it wouldn’t do any good), and like a lot of partially-deaf folk he makes up in speaking volume what he lacks in hearing. He grabbed my arm at the Thursday night dinner as people were arriving and clued me in. “Do you know Sandra Heath?” he asked as an attractive, 70-ish woman came in. “She was a Bogner model. . . magazines, movies,” he said in a booming stage whisper. “And she’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that she slept with Toni Sailer” (the Austrian dreamboat who won all three alpine Olympic gold medals in 1956).
Pfeiffer also happens to be a brilliant master of ceremonies. That night he called on just about everyone in the room for a story. Briggs talked about a youthful indiscretion in Wales, in which he found himself seated next to a white-haired old man who turned out to be Sir Arnold Henry Moore Lunn, the Brit who invented slalom in the 1922.
I stood up and recalled the day in the 1980s when famously hyper-active, peripatetic, narcoleptic, Texas oil man and Snowbird ski area founder Dick Bass looked around my primitive cabin outside Telluride, clapped me on the shoulder and said: “Pedro, one of these years ah’m gonna build me a cabin and put mah feet up on the railing and wrat poetry!”
Relative youngster Alan Engen, who is just 70, read from a compendium of “Alf-isms” he recalled his father telling him over the years. Alf Engen was perhaps the greatest all-around skier (jumping, downhill, and cross-country running) in history. He had a large hand in starting the lift-skiing at Alta and ran the school there for 40 years. His sunny attitude impressed countless followers – he claimed guilelessly to have never had a bad day on skis.
Alan, his eyes glistening, remembered Alf saying to him near the end of his long life: “Retire, me? What would I retire to? I have the most beautiful office in the world, and I plan to continue to ski as long as these old legs will allow me to stand up.”
– Peter Shelton's blog is peterhshelton.wordpress.com