My first ski-bum winter was spent at Winter Park, CO, in 1959/60. For my second ski-bum winter, I got a job at the Peruvian Lodge, at Alta UT. The employees were housed on the unfinished third floor. My roommate was David Hiser, a mountain climber from Seattle (who would become my best friend). Next door was John Stirling and Paul Sulinsky. John was a very talented athlete from a rich California family. His parents, engineers both, had worked on the Golden Gate bridge. Paul was a rough-hewn character from New Jersey, who liked to drink. One drunken night he put his fist through the plasterboard wall of the hallway. I named our room the “Rat’s Nest”, and put a sketch of a rat up on the door. The four of us quickly bonded, and I named our group the “Schmucksters”, which none of the guys objected to. We were tight. John went on to become a very good skier. He married, and had two children with his wife Ruth. They lived in Carbondale, CO, where John did real estate development and built houses. He and Ruth eventually separated. Paul became a smokejumper in Alaska and never married. We Schmucksters managed to stay connected for decades. John died in a car accident, as he and his friend Schlomo were on their way to the Hood River Gorge, to go wind-boarding. Paul also died in a car wreck.
Doug Gargel lived down the hall. He is memorable for his incredible collection of ski sweaters, individually packed in plastic bags. Twenty or more sweaters. He was a real ski-bum. There was a small ski shop on the main floor of the lodge, run by an even more real ski-bum, by the name of Jim McConkey. He was the most stylish skier at the area, and would often lead a bunch of ski-bums around the mountain, including myself. He would ski a challenging line, and then, from the bottom, call up to us: “Come on. No chicken-shitting around”. His son, Shane, became the most well-known free-skier in the world. He died in Italy in 2009, base jumping, and was remembered in a film called “McConkey”. This film included interviews with his father and sequences of his father skiing. A ski lift (if not more) is named for Jim McConkey in Utah. A friend of McConkey’s, who spent a lot of time around the Peruvian, was Fred Lindholm, a pioneering ski photographer. I remember him doing an advertising shoot of the new Head Deep Powder ski, flexing it over a trench dug in the snow. Other locals were the “Silver Fox”, Ted Johnson, and Junior Bounous, the Assistant Ski School Director. I skied with Junior again at Sugar Bowl, when I was working there as a ski patrolman.
The closest I came to death that winter was when some of us were getting air on a big rolling bump, on Racecourse run or near it. I was already in the air when I saw, directly downhill from me, the Ski School Director, Alf Engen, teaching a lesson on the part of the run-out invisible from above. I leaned to the side as I landed, but still ran over the tails of his skis, and fell downhill from him. He came roaring after me. He was a huge Norwegian bear of a man. He raised his fist as he skied up to me. All I could do, laying on the ground, was say “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” repeatedly, and as fast as I could. He didn’t hit me.
With David Hiser, on a ski tour to American Fork Canyon, to the south of the ski area.
My job at the lodge included cleaning toilets. My boss thought I wasn’t doing a thorough-enough job, and planted some cigarette butts in some of the stalls. When I didn’t find them all, I was fired. John had already left for Sun Valley, and I followed him. A lodge guest gave me a ride as far as Wells, NV, where I began to hitch-hike north. I had to bivy outside of Twin Falls, ID, shivering in my sleeping bag. The next day a gay guy (they weren’t called “gay” then) gave me a ride all the way to Ketchum. In those days, I was often picked up by homosexual men, looking for some action. I had him drop me off at the local ski-bum crash pad. I think it was called the “Last Resort”, but I could be making that up. The next day I found John Stirling, who was living with two others in a ramshackle tarpaper shack in town. It had a couple of chairs and mattresses on the floor, and rented for $60/month. The others were Dirty Dorie and Baxter Dye. The former got her name from wearing beige stretch pants with a blood-stained crotch. The latter was a real piece-of-work, having recently returned from New Zealand, where he was a government hunter. He hunted a variety of introduced ungulates, whose numbers had grown huge in the absence of predators. He got paid by the tail. I moved in with them, and thus got a pad for $15/month.
I found employment as a busboy at the Christiania, a fancy restaurant with piano bar, a little ways out of town. The restaurant served a very high-class clientele, who often did not finish their meals. In particular, when served a steak, guests might cut out the innermost square inch or two of rare meat, and leave the rest over. This was just fine with me. At my workstation in the back, I kept a number of plates on a shelf above me, each dedicated to a particular entree. And I kept a glass each, for red and white wine, beer and liquor. After bussing a table, I would replenish the particular dishes and glasses, thus eating and drinking my way through the shift. At the end of the evening, I would roll out of there stuffed with the best food imaginable, and drunk. My most illustrious guest at the restaurant, for whom I poured water, was – you guessed it – Ernest Hemingway. I also saw Hemingway on the lift. He was then walking with a cane, and took his life the next summer. Often, after my shift at the Christiania, I would visit the Leadville Espresso House, where I washed glasses for beer. It occupied an old church, and had a swing that arced up and down the aisle between tables.
We resorted to various stratagems to sneak onto the mountain. The skiing was, of course, great. When Sun Valley closed, I returned briefly to Salt Lake City and then headed to Mammoth Mountain, in California, which had an extended season.
I got on as a dishwasher and volunteer ski patrolman. We were housed (again!) in the unfinished upper-most floor of the lodge. Also washing dishes was Paul Ryan, who became a longtime friend. And I met my first sociopath – Dan McG – who, later, got me in trouble from time to time. It snowed like crazy at Mammoth, and I recall one occasion when I skied into a little hollow, and went under! We also had some great jumps – in one case the uphill-facing side of a small hill that had a cornice on it. After a little preparation, it gave us a vertical take-off. We would go up and up, and then finally way down the far side of the hill. What a blast!
Then I hitch-hiked up to Seattle, to join David Hiser for a summer of snow and ice climbing. That summer is covered in the following post: