Vagabonds of the Snow Fields

Tales of Vashon

“John and I were having a bit of writer’s block one day.  What to write about?  The next day we awoke to a foot of snow as if the writer’s patron saint had answered our lack of subject matter.  We, strangely enough decided to write about snow and skiing..”

I begged Dad to let me take a year off from school.  My grades weren’t all that hot and I lived for skiing.  When the lifts weren’t running in the spring we climbed the snowfields for hours for a harrowing 20 minute run back down to the parking lot at Paradise, Mt. Rainer.  I used c-clamps to secure strings from the tips of my skis to my belt for the long pull up Nisqually Glacier.  I don’t remember carrying any food except for a small bag of mixed nuts or trail food and a can of grape-juice concentrate which was poured on snowballs to make the most delightful popsicles after a four to six hour climb.

My first pair of skis was Northlands with the square tip at the top, a gift from the neighbor, Ross Maybee, who knew that I had been taking the Vashon ski bus to Snoqualmie for lessons.  The school bus was so smoked up from all the steam rising off the wet parkas and ski pants that you couldn’t see who it was two seats in front of you and Sharon Osbourne and I pulled a blanket over our heads and snuggled to keep warm.

Long before K-2 there were HEAD skis, which I could never afford.  They were the most expensive skis.  So, in deference to my dream of owning HEADS, I painted Mr. Maybee’s  old edgeless Northlands black and wrote in white across the tips, HEDS, so I could brag that I owned a pair of HEDS.

You never really learn all there is to know about skiing; the whole idea is just to learn how to ski better, whether it’s on ice or in the deep powder found at Alta Utah, where I was certified to teach skiing by the Intermountain Ski Assoc.  I taught a lot of kids how to ski in Alf Engen’s ski school.  Alf taught me how to teach skiing, his having fought in WWII in the Norwegian ski troops.

Alta is famous for its deep powder, up to four feet overnight, creating an extreme avalanche danger at times.  The USFS shut down the ski lifts and even restricted inter-lodge travel.  This would be our signal for “a shipwreck party” that could go on for two days or more.

The Peruvian Lodge, where I was an assistant manager, had fifty employees and about the same number of guests.  The lodge was composed of old air force barracks stacked one on top of the other and the employees occupied the third floor where they could jump out of the windows into the deep snow banks when we couldn’t teach, ski or even walk the road to a different lodge. We only had three choices when everything was shut down; either drink, swim in the pool, or jump out a third floor window.

Hell’s Gate was a danger area across the road from the lodge, where Ed LaChappelle, the foremost avalanche expert in the U.S. at the time, had a 120 mm cannon on two wheels for shooting down the avalanche.  Ed asked if I wanted to pull the lanyard of the WWI cannon, just for the excitement of shooting down an avalanche.  He made me stand to one side, but forgot to warn me to put the spade down for stopping the movement of the cannon in recoil.   The shells were two feet long and the diameter of a grape fruit, when it went off and the cannon shot across the road and over the bank as the snow came down to cover the road and the hapless cannon in the ditch on the other side.

John’s and my skiing experiences were quite different as he had skied in places I had never even heard of:
“Some years ago Sean and I were preparing a mutual load of excess ‘stuff’ to go to grannies..

“You’re giving these up??? “, Sean said as he lifted a pair of my skies into the old Ford truck bed.

“Well .. they been around the world a lot and I think you and I are now more into catching crab then catching the crisp snow edge or feeling the deep powder thudding against our chests in a steep run between the chair towers!”

Sean looked over the skis.. yellow grade Head Skis with Rossignol binders and boots.  Custom fitted and high end for a few decades back. “Time to pass them along.”? . we agreed .. yes.

Sean looked at the underside of the skis and grimaced…” what the hell did you do?  The bottoms look like you dragged them behind a pickup on a gravel road”?   We looked at the gouges and lines and I had to tell Sean the story: “
“I carried these things around Europe.. Turkey.. Australia.. Even Scotland..North America .. and hardly a scratch.. even skiing illegally around Mt Arafat in Eastern Turkey!  Don’t ask how I got these skis transported on USAF jets to Eastern Turkey! “
“But those deep gouges resulted from a lesson I learned after I took them to New Zealand.”
“Oh really?  And what lesson was that?” Sean asked.  “Well it was when I lived in Wellington and was close enough to a live  volcano to ski around every weekend…. close enough being the ability to strap on skis to a clapped out ‘52 Porsche  1300 Super and ‘speed’ up the mountain at maybe.. 100 kilometers an hour.. Which was considered dangerously fast at that time.

“The problem was that every so often the volcano would toss out big flaming bombs of sharp edged glassy lava which would land on the snow.  Arapaho was the name of the volcano which according to local Maori legend translated into ‘do not do stupid things here’.
One of the stupid things to do was to trek skis steeply uphill on a vague trail beyond the allowed line, up to the volcano rim and then ski down.

Well this all sounded good and we had done this a few times so another time, early in the morning at low light to evade the park Patrols, we parked the car and slogged  up to the rim or at least as close as we could get. . All would have been fine except that during the night there had been an eruption and shards  of volcanic glass had been thrown downhill..And hidden beneath new snow..it made for an interesting ride downhill however! The sound of broken glass scraping the ski bottoms was not to be forgotten.. and the resulting repair job was not entirely successful.  And that is how those gouges appeared on those classy skis.. And the lesson is.. If you ski on a live volcano.. at least don’t use your  best skis.”