Wednesday, December 24, 2003

"Skiing in Vail"

Sydney M. Williams
15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Note from Old Lyme

Skiing in Vail
                                                                                                                                                                      December 24, 2003

The flight to Denver was full, as were my expectations. Sixty-five inches of snow had fallen in Vail since the first of November, and the mountain had been open for twelve days. According to the Vail website twenty-four percent of the mountain, represented by nineteen lifts and 1300 acres, was available to skiers.


Nine years earlier, in 1994, five of our current group of seven signed up for Pepi’s Wedel Week. Pepi Gramshammer, a seventy-six year old former member of the Austrian Olympic ski team, began a program called Pepi’s Wedel Week in 1985. The program is designed for accomplished skiers who love the sport. Skiers of like ability are placed in small groups of five or six and are assigned an instructor from the Vail Ski School. Bud Mantz and John Dominis met as young men in Dallas in 1952. Bud was in the process of building what would become a very successful graphic design business, while John was a photographer with Life magazine. John’s credits would later include a tour in Vietnam with the French prior to their defeat at Dien Ben Phu, accompanying President Nixon to China, and as the only photographer allowed in the inner circle at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968. Bud and John have been friends for over fifty years and have often skied together in the United States and in Europe. Helen and Bill Gilbert live in St. Louis and, since 1978, have had a condo in Vail. Bill runs a successful business with facilities in St. Louis and Wisconsin. Helen is an accomplished horsewoman who competes in hunter classes. A good friend, Ned Hamarat, who had attended Wedel Week the previous year, suggested I might enjoy it. So, December 1994 found us in Vail signing up for Pepi’s Wedel Week. Bill Gilbert and Ned ended up in a class a level above the rest of us. Helen, Bud, John and I, along with one other, ended up in a separate group. Assigned to instruct us was Lyle Viers, then a fifty-five year old native Californian from Bishop. Lyle first appeared in Vail as an instructor in 1967. He then spent a few years coaching national junior women’s teams and returned to Vail in the early 1970s. As we all, tentatively, greeted one another that morning nine years ago we had no idea of the friendships that would be formed from that chance meeting. However, we soon glimpsed that ineffable something that would bond us together. Getting off the Vista Bahn chair at mid-Vail on the first trip up, Bud Mantz’s first question was, “Where are we going to have lunch?” Helen and I looked at each other and started to laugh. This was going to be fun. We knew we were soul mates. Any differences in our respective skiing abilities would take second seat to the camaraderie we felt. In 1996, during our third season, Hank Sykes joined our group. Hank and I are very close friends and were first introduced through our wives who had both, reluctantly, attended a student-wives tea at the University of New Hampshire in September 1964. We were both completing our senior year. Hank had been denied his diploma at Princeton due to the snippety attitude of the Dean when he (Hank) was late turning in his thesis. I…but that is a matter for another time.

Pepi’s Wedel Weeks were fun, but proved too confining for our free spirits. After four years of Wedel Weeks we grew restless. We had a lot of fun together and we all loved to ski, but we felt dispensing with fashion shows and mandatory lunches and dinners would be even more fun. So, December 1998 found us in Vail and on our own. We were able to elude the grasp of Pepi, but Lyle stuck to us like wet snow on the bottom of a ski. (Actually, we had to prevail upon Lyle who had been working with us diligently but fruitlessly to abandon Pepi’s Wedel Weeks and come with us.) Two years later, in December 2000, Dene Hunt, a friend of Helen’s, joined our group. Dene is an Australian who, because of her love of skiing, spends the winter months in Avon, a few miles from Vail village. Our group was now complete – Helen and Bill, John and Bud, and Hank, Dene, Lyle and myself.


Chair number four, which rises from Mid-Vail to Vail peak, emerges from the shadows to brilliant sun as it climbs out of a gully to the upper slopes a few hundred yards from the peak. At eleven thousand two hundred and fifty feet the air is thin and still cold, and my heart was racing in anticipation of the first run of the season. The morning sun and the distant vistas of the Gore Range provide a, unnecessary, lift to one’s spirits. The first run of the season on the new Stockli laser 168s that I have rented is only moments away.

The skis glide easily. We follow in Lyle’s tracks, Indian fashion. An inch or two of snow had fallen over night on the groomed packed powder on Swingsville – a smooth, wide, cruising slope, perfect for the first run of the season. As I push off, the only sound is the whistling of the wind as my body attempts to respond to my memories of last year’s lessons and admonitions from Lyle. I try, not always with success, to keep my upper body stable, with arms and hands forward, and let the shaped skis carry me through sweeping ‘S’ turns. Lyle stops about five hundred yards down the trail for the morning ritual of stretching. A few minutes later (and after a few sardonic witticisms – funny only unto ourselves) we continue down the hill. By the third run of the day we feel warm, limber and comfortable. Initial feelings of apprehension have been put to rest, while muscles that have been at rest re-emerge. A feeling of warmth and confidence spreads through the body, and the skis and the legs become as one. “It is better than sex,” says one of us, without really meaning it. Skis and boots are nothing more than extensions of one’s legs and feet. Ski poles, on the other hand, like the tail on a bobcat, run the risk of evolving out of existence. When successful, a skier becomes a study in rhythm.

Each day we get a little better. In spite of our attitudes and abilities, some of Lyle’s teachings actually sink in. One day follows the next. As our skiing improves, our confidence soars. We race down a groomed Riva Ridge, through the moguls on Power Glade and Showboat, with Lyle calling out, “…get more extension, get up on your edges, get your feet further apart…” A break for hot chocolate, good conversation and some gentle ribbing occurs around eleven. A late lunch is preferred and the place of choice is the Game Creek Club, a private club to which Helen and Bill belong. Lunch is a prolonged affair and the body seems a little stiff (pardoning the pun) after the wine and rich food. As we go outside and step into our skis, the mid-afternoon sun seems unable to dispel the day’s chill. Shadows are lengthening. We carefully pick our way down to the Game Creek chair, which carries us, cold and uncomfortable, to the top of Wildwood from which we will descend to Vail village. However, after a few minutes of skiing our bodies are again warmed by the exercise, and the wine and the food coursing their way through our bodies act as a relaxant. We cruise through the trees on Owl’s Roost, down over the steps on Ledges, and finally down Bear Tree doing our best to let the skis do the work while we enjoy the ride. We arrive in the village in plenty of time for a shower and a rest before the next big adventure – dinner. On this particular night Liz and Luc Meyer of Left Bank have prepared for us a superb dinner; starting with a fresh lobster appetizer, followed by a perfectly cooked rack of Colorado lamb, and finished with a dessert consisting of a light and tasty cheesecake. After an aperitif or two, good and appropriate wines with the dinner, accompanied with lively and joyous conversation, we are ready for bed and for visions of tomorrow’s skiing that will dance through our heads.

Were my expectations fulfilled? You bet they were, and more. To an Easterner the skiing was glorious. A Westerner might have lamented that the back bowls were not open and that, for the most part, we were skiing on packed - not fresh - powder. I have been skiing a long time. I received my first pair of skis fifty-nine years ago when I was three years old. However, I am there for the fun. It is not the number of runs or the speed achieved that is of consequence. It is, rather, the individual challenge, the beauty of the place, the joy of being alive, healthy and outdoors, and the camaraderie of old friends that make skiing important to my life. Fifty-one weeks will pass before the eight of us will again be together. But it is the recall of those days - the morning sun on the snow-covered trees, fresh tracks through new powder, laughter rippling from underneath helmets and from behind goggles and the cry of “Oh! Mona” resonating in our memory - which is the carrot that will bring us back to Vail next December.