Good ol' days weren't that grand
by Tony Chamberlain/
Dev Jennings and I stood on the top of Upper Ptarmigan trail on Attitash just a couple of years before he died in April 2000. It was a deep bluebird morning and the snow underfoot, if still a bit crusty from the overnight temperatures, looked like perfect corduroy.
I’m not really sure why men on skis talk at such times, but he was such a vibrant door to the past, I’m sure I asked him some question and got him started.
In World War II, he had been a ski and mountain climbing instructor in the 10th Mountain Division Troops in Europe under the command of future U.S. Sen. Bob Dole. Dev also skied in the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, a downhiller who came in about halfway in the pack of 110 racers — an extremely good showing for an American ski racer in those days.
I noticed that Dev, who was in his 70s when we spoke, was wearing the newest, most modern skis/boots/bindings package available at that time — just a few years before the shaped ski “revolution.”
One thing he said that stuck with me is that if he had been skiing now on the groomed snow with modern equipment, even as a septuagenarian he would beat his old Olympic time by maybe a minute.
With that, he shoved off for a smooth and very quick run down the steep face of Upper Ptarmigan with me — more than 20 years younger than he was, pressing with all I had to keep his tails in sight.
Later that morning as we talked, I wanted to delve into those romantic “good old days” of skiing that he had grown up with. I asked him to flesh out what I — and all skiers — really understand on some level: that if we were to take our present skills back to the day of old equipment and grooming techniques, we might not feel quite as self-satisfied as we do now ripping our high-tech parabolic shaped skis driven by rigid plastic boots over the perfectly groomed corduroy. Why, it’s even called “ego snow.”
To make a turn, you just didn’t lay your ankles over to drive your edges and wait for the rest of you to catch up. Like running GS gates, most of the work to make the turn was done well before you turned the skis. First, the body had to lift and unweight the downhill ski while it was reweighted to the other ski, which, as you pivoted your lower body and reweighted it, became the downhill ski.
So, just to rub it in how easy we have it these days, I asked Dev to go through the ski life as he remembered it growing up in Utah’s Wasatch Range as a boy.
For starters, he said, the clothes were much heavier — wet, non-circulating wool that got only heavier when wet and began to smell by noon as it got soaked with perspiration. He picked up the modern lightweight parka on the back of his chair — at least twice as heavy as this.
Complain about how your boots treat your feet today? You know those rigid plastic shells with custom orthotic footbeds that transfer nearly directly the energy from legs to ski edge? Compare these with the glorified leather hiking boots (that were always loosening and getting soaked) that were basically screwed down to the ski. If you wanted to make the energy transfer more positive, you wrapped your lower legs with a pair of leather, long thongs that actually could ensure a broken femur in a hard fall.
The skis? What Dev remembers is the longest, stiffest, heaviest and straightest pair you could put on the snow. He made the analogy of a sailboat. (He was a sailor.) The most sea-kindly hulls in stormy seas are long, narrow and heavy. And in those pre-groom days, you never skied on smooth seas.
The poles were moving from relatively heavy bamboo to relatively heavy aluminum in those days with baskets the size of bread plates. Compare that with today’s delicately slim, lightweight, carbon-fiber poles that hardly have anything you’d call a basket.
Of course, non-fog goggles were far in the future, as were handwarmers for your gloves or battery pack-driven heaters for the boots.
How do the good old days look now?
Well, after you get the gear assembled, find the slowest lift you can imagine (remember the Stowe single where they handed out blankets because you’d be in the frigid air for so long?). It’ll let you down on the top of a narrow path running down into the woods through a chaos of ungroomed powder already worked over by the last 100 skiers.
And suppose the worst does happen up there and you wipe out, your long thong yarping your leg around (think Gronkowski) and you become one of the many broken-leg victims of those days, getting the bumpy sled ride down to a country clinic.
Setting the leg is done with surgical equipment that modern orthopedic doctors marvel at, looking through a glass display case of ancient medical devices. Your lifelong scar is huge, and your rehab painful and of doubtful use.
And if you do decide to go skiing again — in about a year — you realize that it will take about six years progression through a ski school and seasons of practice before you even approach that hallowed state: intermediate skier.
OK, enough, I tell Dev. I’ll never again fantasize romantically on the good old days of skiing as they appear in that Bing Crosby movie, “Holiday.” We click back into our skis and head for a whisper-fast detachable quad, and in the high morning sun, look down on that beautifully groomed snow we are about to glide over — smooth seas indeed.
And I am suddenly Garth, the Dana Carvey character in “Wayne’s World,” thinking: “I’m not worthy.”
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of New England Ski Journal.
Tony Chamberlain is the editor of New England Ski Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org