There were several correct answers to last week’s trivia question on the first Stowe Derby. Certainly that was influenced by the fact the article about the Stowe Derby also in last week’s issue, contained the answer! Steve Edwards, Ed Gill, and Lyndall Heyer all correctly identified 1945 as the year of the first Derby.
Lyndall actually had the specific date, February 28, 1945! And she recounted the story of how it resulted from a challenge between Sepp Ruschp and Erling Strom. Sepp ran the alpine ski school at the mountain while Erling had a Nordic ski school he ran out of his home, the site of the former Cactus Café. So in some respects the original Derby was a challenge between the cross country skiers versus the alpine skiers. The course ran from the Octagon to the Akeley building.
Many traditions have started based on challenges or even bets on who could do something better than someone else. Here in Stowe there’s the “World’s Shortest Marathon” held on July 4th. As I understand it, that started as a bet on who could run from the Whip to the Three Green Doors the fastest!
There’s another Fourth of July tradition involving at least the word “Marathon” that has been around 110 years! No, it’s not in Stowe, but in Seward, Alaska.
Seward is located on the Kenai Peninsula at the end of Resurrection Bay. Seward’s official population is around 2,800 people. In the summers the population goes up thanks to the cruise ships that visit. However on the Fourth of July as many as 40,000 people crowd the streets! That’s because of the Mount Marathon Race.
On the Fourth of July in 1909, a bunch of the boys were whooping it up at the Malamute Café. Whoops, slipped into a little Robert Service there. But there was a group celebrating in a local Seward Bar and somebody offered $100 for anyone who could run to the top of Mount Marathon and back in under an hour! Actually it wasn’t called Mount Marathon back then. The name eventually came about due to the race that resulted from that bet.
The mountain in question is visible from almost any location in town. It rises steeply to an elevation just over 3000 feet and since Seward is at sea level, the challenge was to go to up-and-down 3000 feet in under an hour. Al Taylor took up the bet and took off in his Sunday best clothes and leather boots. Taylor missed making it back in an hour by minutes, but was still in such a good mood that he bought drinks for everyone.
Over the years the race has grown in popularity to where today the number of entrants is limited to 800. Any previous winners and the top 225 finishers from the previous year can get a slot if they choose. The remaining slots are determined by lottery and ten slots are auctioned off the day before the race as a fundraiser for local charities. A slot can go for $3000!
The race is difficult to describe. Racers run about a half mile from the starting point in town and then the scramble begins – first through a treed forest, then into thick scrub brush, and finally above tree line where most of the race occurs. Racers use both hands and feet to get over ledges, loose shale slopes, and even snow. The trip down can best be described as an almost controlled fall. Injuries occur and most competitors wear the resulting blood and bruises as a medal of honor. There has been one apparent death in 2012. I say “apparent” because they never found the body despite searching for almost a week. Such is Alaska.
As far as doing it under an hour, the men’s record set in 2016 is 41 minutes 26 seconds while the women’s record was set in 2015 at 47 minutes and 48 seconds.
Why are we hearing about a crazy Alaskan Fourth of July race in a column about skiing? I heard someone ask. One of the most famous winners of the Marathon Mountain Race is Kikkan Randall, the most decorated United States woman in World Cup Nordic racing. This includes competing in five Olympics and winning a gold medal as part of the sprint team at the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018.
Kikkan first raced Mount Marathon as a junior at the age of 10! She won the junior division for three consecutive years. Once she turned 18 she raced in the women’s division ten times finally winning in 2011 with a time of 52 minutes and 3 seconds. She was undoubtedly under a lot of family pressure since her mother, Debbie, won the race in 1975 and her aunt Betsy won three consecutive Mount Marathon races.
Kikkan was diagnosed with breast cancer in July of 2018. They caught it early so her prognosis is good. She is facing this challenge just as she did cross country skiing and the Mount Marathon Race. Her New Year’s update video reported that she’s about half way through radiation treatments and that she’s feeling good and recharged after the holidays. You can follow her progress at www.kikkan.com.
The T-Bar was invented by Ernst Constam of Switzerland. Actually he invented the concept of an overhead circulating cable lift which started as a J-Bar. In Vermont we tend to give Fred Pabst of Bromley credit for inventing the J-Bar, but actually Pabst’s design was based on photos of Constam’s lift. By the late 1930s, Constam extended his concept to the T-Bar which could transport two skiers up the hill.
Brad and Janet Mead, founders of Pico, had seen T-Bars when they were in Europe. When they heard that Ernst Constam was interested in coming to the United States, they made sure Pico would have the first U.S. T-Bar. Constam himself oversaw the installation and it began operation in January 1941. At the time it was the highest capacity lift in North America!
I also heard from regular contributor Gary Tomlinson who mentioned that the first surface lift in the United States was the rope tow on Gilbert’s Hill in Woodstock. By the way, Gary is at Fernie, British Columbia. He says the skiing is great there and the Epic Pass is good for 7 days at Fernie!
Most RetroSkiers began their skiing careers on some kind of surface lift. However now several generations of skiers have come along that never had the “pleasure” of riding an old-style surface lift. No, magic carpets don’t count!
So as a public service to those who never rode one, let me first show you how to use a rope tow.
Since our rope tow loads from the left, your right hand will be the lead hand so put both pole straps on your left hand. Good! Now step up to the rope.
Let the rope slip through your right hand, but don’t….
Here, let me help you get your skis back on. Yeah, don’t just grab the rope. Let’s try again.
This time let the rope slip through your right hand and gradually tighten your grip much like using a clutch on a standard shift.
Here, let me help you get your skis back on. Don’t drive standard shifts much down there in New Jersey, eh? Let’s try again.
Once you’ve got the right hand grip and start moving with the rope, reach behind you with the left hand and grab the rope.
Here, let me help you get your skis back on. Yeah, you can’t let go with the right hand, but look how far we got this time. Let’s try again.
Good job! Now stay in the track!
Here, let me help you get your skis back on. You may want to tighten those bindings until we get this mastered! Yeah, those ruts in the track do get very deep and bumpy!
I’ll stop here, but getting off the rope tow also presented challenges!
So now let’s try your first T-bar ride.
This is much easier than a rope tow. The lift operator will hand you the bar, you position the cross bar just below your butt and let it pull you up the mountain. Just remember that you don’t sit on the cross bar, you let it pull you! So you’re ready, put your poles in your outside hand, step out, get the bar from the lift operator, ….. Great you’ve got it!
Here, let me help you get your skis back on. I did mention about not sitting on the bar, didn’t I? Let’s try again and this time I’ll ride up with you.
See that wasn’t bad. You got it on the second try! Yeah, I don’t know why they don’t have these on the beginner slopes either.
We’re getting near the top and I’ll get the bar. That means you just ski away from the lift and I will take care of releasing the T-bar. Here we are so get off. Now….Now….NOW!
Once I get my skis back on I’ll help you with yours.
All right, you’re ready to try your first rope tow or T-Bar. Back in 1968 it was easy to still find surface lifts, but now there aren’t too many around. One place that still provides the retro experience that drew so many of us to skiing is Cochran’s! Watch the kids ride the T-Bar or rope tow and enjoy lap after lap of skiing. And now I’m old enough to ski there for free!
The first time I skied Jay Peak was in January 1969. Someone at work had discovered that Jay offered discounts for groups of 10 or more. So we were able to gather a group of about 15 people who headed up to Jay on a Saturday in early January.
As I remember the discount was a dollar off the day ticket price. Now before you guffaw at that amount, let me review the economics of that era. Most ski areas in New England had day ticket prices between $6 and $8 (I think Jay was $8.). As a young professional I was making about $10,000 a year or roughly $200 a week so a weekend of skiing amounted to about 10% of my weekly take-home pay. According to Payscale.com, today’s engineers’ starting salaries are around $70,000, or seven times my starting salary in 1968. Day lift tickets have gone up by a factor of 16!
The exception to the $6-$8 lift ticket in 1968-69 was Stowe which was charging $10 a day. Who did they think they were! When we get to March I’ll be writing about my first time skiing Stowe. I had to be talked into skiing a place that charged $10 a day!
Back to Jay Peak: On that first visit I wasn’t too impressed with Jay, but that was because we started at the Tram area. A Tram is certainly a “featured” lift so it made sense to park there and start our day there. However trams aren’t the most efficient lift for uphill capacity. There was a long liftline that moved forward in bursts. Chair lift lines usually have a steady forward pace that gives you a sense of progress, but in tram lines you stand in one spot for long periods of time. When you did get to the top there seemed to be only two trail options. Granted those two options led to other trails, but still it seemed somehow limited. Also the only other obvious lifts from the Tram base didn’t go much of anywhere.
I wasn’t a student of ski area history back then or I would have known that the Tram was a relatively new addition to Jay Peak. It was built in the 1966-67 season thanks to a large investment by timber giant Weyerhaeuser Co. who eventually would take over the area. So I was there in only its second full season. Over the years since then, Jay has built-up the Tram base area and redesigned the lift structure to reduce the Tram effect.
Eventually I would learn what the locals still know: the Stateside area is the best place to use as your base of operation. In those days it put you closer to the Jet T-Bar which fed some of the more interesting trails. And no, they didn’t call it “Jet” as a tongue-in-cheek spoof. It was considered fast at the time it was installed. While the lines could get long for the T-Bar, you felt the wait was worth it. The Kitzbuhel trail is still one of my favorites anywhere.
I may have been disappointed by my initial skiing experience from the Jay Peak Tram, but I was very impressed with the après ski offerings in the Tram Haus! There was a German style beer hall complete with an oompah band. There was also a lounge that offered a quieter atmosphere better for conversation. And then in the basement was a full-blown discotheque complete with light show. I was going to say it was the kind of club you’d find in New York City, but Montreal would be a more accurate choice. English did not seem to be the prevailing language. However the volume of the music meant that verbal communication was limited anyway.
Other than ski areas where I’ve had a season pass (Stowe, Sugarbush), Jay Peak is probably my most visited Vermont area. Jay Peak was way ahead of its time in opening up their woods which made it a far more interesting place to ski. When the snow is good, the Valhalla glades are fantastic and only accessible from the Tram!
The fourth area I skied in 1968 was Madonna. That’s what Smuggs was called at that time. Rick Rock had the answer to last week’s trivia question. Rick’s a long time Smuggs skier, and Stowe skier for that matter. He’s younger than I am, but I’m betting Rick started skiing Smuggs when it was called Madonna.
In the early 1980s I lived in Underhill and skied Smuggs. I’d arrive early and be one of the first cars in the upper lot. However Rick was always in the first spot! Skiing with Rick meant never skiing a marked trail. That’s not quite true, because he always liked to take a couple of cruising runs with his 220 downhill skis before switching skis and heading for the woods.
Back to my first experience with skiing Madonna which was in the Christmas and New Year’s timeframe. I remember it was a very cold day with wind. We took our first run on Sterling, probably because the Madonna lift was on wind-hold. I skied down Rum Runner and stopped at the junction with Black Snake. I was waiting for my friends when a stranger skied up to me. He took one look at me and told me I had frostbite on my nose! I had never knowingly had frostbite while skiing. Thirty seconds later I was warming up in the Madonna base lodge. I did not wait to tell my friends where I was going. They eventually joined me in the base lodge. I think we only took four runs that day!
Over my 50 years of Vermont skiing I have worn the frostbite badge of honor many times. The good news is that today’s gear protects you so much better than what we had 50 years ago.
One of the reasons I planned this column for the Christmas holiday week was that last year at this time we were experiencing record cold. So my insurance policy against a repeat of those temperatures was to write about frigid weather. You can thank me later for the forecast of more seasonal temperatures for this week.
One of the cold weather related topics that comes up is gloves versus mittens. Yes, I know that mittens are warmer, but I’m a glove guy. I don’t feel comfortable gripping my poles with mittens. Over the years I’ve used various techniques to keep my fingers warm in gloves: arm windmilling really gets the blood back into your fingers and curling your fingers into your palms while riding up the lift also helps. Notice I didn’t mention hand warmers, I’ve never used them. Of course you can now buy gloves or mittens with electronic heaters!
Another habit I developed to keep my hands warm is sitting on my poles on the chairlift. You’ll see most “experienced skiers” doing this and I’m not sure if that’s for the same reason or just because it’s “cool!” Anyway, holding your ski poles on the ride up the chair is a quick way to get cold hands.
The Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol traces its beginning back to 1934. Roland Palmedo made sure that the articles of incorporation for the Mount Mansfield Ski Club included a committee in charge of organizing a ski patrol for the 1934-35 season. The Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol is the oldest ski patrol in the United States and still going strong.
A couple weeks back the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum hosted a presentation and panel discussion about the MMSP as part of the Museum’s Red Bench series. Historian Brian Lindner organized the evening and provided a presentation on the history of the MMSP. Brian is a member of the patrol as was his father.
Ed Billings shares some memories.
What made the evening very special was the panel Brian assembled for the discussion. There were three past patrol Directors as well as the current Director, Karen Wagner. The past Directors were Phil Tomlinson, Bill Westermann, and 97 years young Ed Billings! Through their anecdotes you could connect the links back through the years to the first patrol leaders, Charlie Lord and Craig Burt Sr. You could feel their pride in being part of an historic organization and carrying on the high standard of service that has been set. (Of course there were also the fun times including the legendary MMSP parties.)
The MMSP can claim many firsts over its long history. They were the first to require first aid certification for all their patrollers. They worked with medical professionals to invent new splints and traction devices for on-slope injuries. The MMSP was also one of the first patrols to welcome women members. However it wasn’t until 1976 that a woman passed the Mansfield toboggan test.
The toboggan test for a patroller on Mansfield is to bring a loaded toboggan down the National solo under the watchful eye of a tester. Complete four such runs in a day to the tester’s approval and you passed the test. Gayle Oberg was the first woman to pass the test. She became the first fulltime paid woman ski patroller in the MMSP.
So Gayle was the first woman paid patroller. Who was the first paid patroller on Mansfield? I did not receive any correct answers to that question. I know there were a lot of people at that Museum event who heard the answer to the question so maybe everyone was too busy doing their Christmas shopping! In 1940 the head of Vermont’s Department of Forests and Parks, Perry Merrill, became concerned that with the addition of the single chair, there was a need for a fulltime patrol. He arranged for the state to pay for this position. Austrian Fritz Kramer got the job and would spend the 1940-41 ski season living in the Stone Hut. Kramer would come down to town for supplies and a shower once a week.
Coming out of last season there were some concerns on whether the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol would continue to be the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol! For some of us that concern continued when the season opened, but the MMSP sign on the ski patrol building at the top of the quad was nowhere to be seen. I am told the sign will be back. I also asked if the Mansfield toboggan test will remain a requirement under the new Vail management. The answer to that was a little less confident so we’ll have to see.
I was a Stowe host for over twenty years and got to witness the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol in action on many occasions. The medical attention they gave those who were injured was always professional and efficient. They always demonstrated an ability to work as a team based on what the situation required. They also were very customer friendly in non-injury situations. I often came across customers on trails beyond their ability and called the patrol to provide a rider sled. The customers’ moods ranged from embarrassed to angry to absolute panic! The patrol always handled the situation with the appropriate amount of empathy for whatever the customer was feeling.
The Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol is to be complimented on 84 years of outstanding service! Long live the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol!