Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Sun Valley musing


I first saw Sun Valley in 1953 after an all-night drive from Reno, Nev. I have written elsewhere of that first encounter: “When we woke … the first thing we saw were the 1953 moguls on Exhibition, the most beautiful, exciting sight I’d ever seen. It was love at first vision, me and Bald Mountain, a long-standing love affair that persists to this day. … As a skier that was an important moment in life.”

All these years later I am a writer who writes about skiing and other things and that writing is influenced, colored, perhaps even determined, by my lifelong relationship with skiing. While skiing, like everything including writing, changes, evolves, grows and sometimes shrinks, the basics never change. Sooner or later we always get back to basics. Seeing the moguls on Exhibition in 1953 sold me on Sun Valley because I wanted to ski, and Exhibition and Bald Mountain revealed to my young mind another dimension of what that might mean. In addition, within a week I had actually watched Stein Eriksen, Christian Pravda and Jack Reddish, among others, skiing on Baldy. No one has ever skied quite like Stein, and to see him in 1953 as a boy in love with ski racing was pure magic, a revelation. I still associate Stein with Sun Valley.

Stein was a world and Olympic champion and the first great ski racer who was also an astute businessman. He made huge contributions to skiing as a racer, businessman and spokesman, but his most enduring impact on skiing was a stylish gymnastic stunt—a full layout front flip on skis—that he routinely performed like no one else. It was great athleticism and show business but had nothing to do with ski racing and little to do with mainstream skiing of the time. It can be argued that Stein’s graceful flip would have a bigger impact on skiing than his unique giant slalom turn. Such acrobatics on skis were standard fare in Stein’s native Norway, but they were rare in the U.S. and it took Stein’s assurance and grace to get America’s attention.

Ten years later in 1963, I was living in the Sun Valley dorms and one of my friends and roommate at the time was the irrepressible Bob Burns, also known as Bobbie. He was a phenomenal athlete and a great guy, and he skied like no one we’d ever seen. He did everything wrong according to the technical standards of all we thought we knew about skiing, particularly ski racing. Bob sat back on his heels, locked his feet together, held his hands way too high, swiveled his skis like windshield wipers and violated every basic (as we understood them) tenet of traditional skiing. And, unlike us serious, even grim, ski racers, he smiled the entire time as if he was really having fun. Nobody skied the bumps of Exhibition like Bobbie Burns and none of us could keep up with him and, in truth, we didn’t try. We viewed Bobbie as an anomaly instead of the revolutionary if not prophet of the ski world that he really was. We couldn’t see Bobbie for who he was because what he was doing didn’t fit into our seriously traditional perspective and historical knowledge of skiing. Though few readers of my work today would perceive it as “conservative,” that perspective was conservative, one akin to the far more significant and consequential climate change denial perspective of today.

There were few skiers who responded to Stein’s flip and Bob’s bump technique with the kind of excitement and recognition of possibilities that came to me the first time I saw Bald Mountain. But there were a few, and that was enough. By the early ’70s, aerials and bump skiing were a big part of skiing. Today, from the Olympic Games to terrain parks on ski hills all over the world, aerialists and acrobatic bumpsters are integral to and, some would say, the most exciting and vital part of skiing and, of course, snowboarding. In more than just spirit, Shaun White is a direct descendant of the athleticism and spirit (and exhibitionism) of Stein Eriksen’s full layout flips and Bobbie Burns’ flamboyant bump skiing on Exhibition, something neither of them would have imagined in the early 1950s and ’60s. As a writer, I try to monitor my own perceptions of skiing and everything else and not put those observations into the box of my own limited perspectives. Like every writer (and every person), I have had my fair share of both success and failure in this effort.

At the same time that there is evolution, growth and change, there is a pull (back?) to the basics. Backcountry skiing—not to be confused with extreme skiing, para-skiing or cliff jumping—has grown in popularity an enormous amount in the past 20 or so years. Part of this growth is the price of a lift pass, prohibitive for much of the community. But there is something else, as many avid backcountry skiers can afford a lift pass and either choose not to have one or split their skiing time between backcounty and the lift-serviced ski hill. This something was perhaps best summed up by Pepi Stiegler, who won the Olympic slalom in 1964, ran the Jackson Hole Ski School for many years, is a lifetime alpine skier and has spent most of his time on skis for the past several years in the backcountry. A few years ago, Pepi commented that many longtime alpine skiers are turning to the backcountry because “it’s like it was in the beginning. It’s like it was in the beginning.”

That is, back to the basics.


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