My college roommate teaches me to ski (and broadens my horizons)
The day I arrived at Mullan Hall I checked in at the front desk, got my key to room 210 and went up to drop off my stuff. My Freshman college roommate had gotten there before me, but I saw no sign of his presence as I walked in. Mullan is an older dorm with relatively large rooms instead of those little ‘slots’ with the built-in furnishings that are found in the newer dorms. There were two real beds, two real desks, and two large closets. I opened a closet door at random and was surprised by two pairs of skis leaning against a duffel bag.
That was my first clue that I was rooming with a ski bum. Mike told me later that he'd chosen to enroll at Montana State University in Bozeman largely because of its proximity to the Bridger Bowl ski area. It’s only 16 miles from the campus to a pretty nice set of uncrowded slopes with a lot of powder snow. Mike and I hit it off pretty well in the fall of 1975, so it was no surprise that he insisted on teaching me to ski that winter.
I’d grown up in rural Montana and I was well accustomed to cold, snowy winters. My friends and I would often shovel off a frozen pond to go ice skating, but my experience of skiing was very limited. It began and ended with a pair of homemade cross-country skis that I found in an old shed when I was twelve years old. Like any curious kid, I just had to try them out.
Those old skis may have been carved out of a 4 x 4 timber, for all I know. They were quite heavy, and thick enough in the mid-section to accommodate a slot through the ski for a leather strap and buckle. There was a bit of decorative carving on the upper surface of each ski, but there was no varnish or stain; just a few traces of old wax on the bottom surface. The tips had just enough upward curve to look like ‘real’ skis to me but I had no idea at all of how to use them.
I found a couple of willow branches that were about the right size for makeshift poles and took the skis to the top of our sledding hill. I buckled the straps as tightly as I could over the toes of my winter boots and stood up on the long wooden skis (briefly) as I began my downhill run to disaster. I didn’t know then that cross-country skis aren’t intended for steep hills. Unfortunately, I was able to keep my balance long enough to gather quite a bit of speed before wiping out and ripping a strap through the top of the left ski. And that was that, the sum total of my skiing experience up until I met Mike.
The first step in my further education was to find a cheap pair of ski boots at a second-hand store so Mike could put me on his ‘rock’ skis for my first lesson. He used his good skis, of course, and I was to ski on the somewhat battered set that he used in the early fall and late spring when there was real danger of hitting rocks poking up through the snow. I didn’t have fashionable ski togs, or even a purpose-made pair of ski pants like Mike, just long underwear and jeans under my quilted winter coat. We hitched a ride with some other skiers from campus and I soon found myself stepping into ski bindings for the first time ever at Bridger Bowl.
Mike didn't believe in going slow, so we headed straight to the Alpine lift that led to both intermediate and expert level runs. My ice-skating instincts worked in my favor and I was able to negotiate the pickup at the bottom of the chair lift without mishap. The lift touched down at Midway to provide access to some less challenging runs and then continued on up to where black diamonds warned of the difficulty level of the upper mogul fields. Mike wasn’t completely unrealistic, so we hopped off at Midway, and again, I was able to exit the chair and slip-slide around to the top of the first run without falling down.
“Okay, here we go!” I thought eagerly, but Mike wanted to start with the basics.
“Here's how you stop,” he began.
“I don't want to stop,” I interrupted like a smart-aleck. “I want to go!”
“Okay then, just point your skis downhill and you'll go.”
That was quite the understatement. Unlike my first skiing experience, I was now on real downhill skis and racing down a much longer and steeper hill with a lot more snow. However, one thing was similar. I managed to build up an impressive amount of momentum before executing a high-speed crash about fifty yards down the hill. My flailing tumble popped both skis off my boots and left me buried in the powdery snow.
Mike skied gracefully down to the scene of the crime, making a sweeping arc just above where I was brushing myself off and sprayed me with a rooster-tail of icy snow. It was one of the best ‘I told you so’ moments ever. I didn’t even bother to complain.
“Okay, I changed my mind. I do want to stop,” I admitted as I clumsily stumbled back into my bindings.
Mike taught me to snow plow on that first day and I learned to shift my weight to steer left and right. I managed to go too fast, lose my balance repeatedly, and eat a lot of snow. Still, it was an exhilarating experience and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Mike didn’t have to push very hard to get me back on the hill many times that winter.
I didn't notice it on that first day, but on our next visit I spotted a bunch of skiers on a gentle slope off to the left. They seemed to be skiing up the hill, rather than sitting on a chair lift and they were definitely moving a lot slower on their downhill runs than I was.
“What's that run over there?” I asked.
“Oh,” Mike replied “That's the bunny slope. They ride the T-bar up a little way and coast back down.”
“Well, why aren't we over there?”
“Aaah,” Mike said dismissively. “That's for beginners.”
Gee, thanks, Mike!
It took only a couple of trips before I was able to put my skis parallel and use the edges to carve big sweeping turns. Mike tried to get me onto the upper slopes with the black diamond runs, but I never got very good at the quick, tight turns that are necessary to conquer those bumpty-hump mounds of snow known as moguls.
I did try, and I could understand their appeal, but it was too much work for my taste. At my best, I could hit six or eight moguls properly before landing at a bad angle and then rocketing off the top of the next one and crashing. Mike, on the other hand, was really something to see in the mogul fields. He would plant and turn around the sides of the bumps at an extreme pace, spending as much time in the air as on the snow. He’d make a graceful dab with his skis and poles at each passing bump to maintain the proper line. It looked like a stone skipping over a pond.
Skiing the moguls just wasn’t my thing. What I liked best was to go as fast as possible straight down the slope and then catch my breath while riding the lift back up. My rush came from high speed on long, smooth, well-groomed runs. I tried to lean back and maintain top speed as much as possible. Mike was an accomplished ski racer and I’m sure he understood my love of speed even as he shook his head at my spectacular crashes.
I never learned to ski as gracefully as Mike, but he was still impressed with my unique style. He started calling me ‘Keeley’ after the famous French ski racer Jean-Claude Killy, who won three gold medals in the 1968 Winter Olympics. Mike said that Jean-Claude won because he was always on the very edge of losing control. And he said that I reminded him of Killy, because I was always on the very edge of gaining control. Ha, Ha, very funny.
Mike was an expert skier and he had other tricks in addition to skiing moguls like a pro. He was pretty good at getting air off the bumps and jumps, and he loved the deep powdery snow that could be found off of the groomed trails. One of his favorite gags was to have me slow down and spread my skis apart as we traversed a gentle section of trail directly under the chairlift. He’d come screaming along behind me, sit down on his skis, lean back, and zip between my legs. The idea was to scare folks looking down from the lift and make them think they were seeing an accident unfold. Oddly enough, I don’t remember any big crashes resulting from this goofy trick.
Mike’s rock skis were actually too long for my height and skill level so we went back to the second-hand store and I got a pair of Head Standard skis with Cubco step-in bindings. I didn’t know it then, but these were the very first of the ‘modern’ downhill skis. I was buying history and I didn't even know it! They had a plywood core and steel edges laminated between two layers of aluminum with a plastic surface layer on both top and bottom. The new ‘metal’ skis were so much easier to control than the older wooden skis that some people called them ‘cheaters’.
Those Head skis (see cover image) were more than a decade out of style, but still very serviceable. They had obviously been set up for someone small, so we borrowed an electric drill from somewhere and Mike reset the bindings on the skis for my larger feet. Then I put my ski boots on and spent about half an hour lunging out of the bindings while Mike adjusted the release point to perfection. It was pretty cool to have my own personal ski tech! I skied on those Head Standards all the time I was in college and they stood up to some hard use and a lot of high-speed wipeouts.
One spectacular tumble had me doing a complete cartwheel in a full layout position. My right ski drove itself straight down into the snowpack almost up to the binding. It released, as designed, but the safety strap brought me up short with my full weight pulling on the ski. I wasn’t hurt, at least not very much, but about 14 inches of the ski delaminated between the binding and the tip. I was still able to ski down to the lodge with the top layer of the ski flapping and rattling, but that was the end of that ski trip. I was reminded of how I had destroyed those old cross-country skis on my very first downhill run and I figured that this was the end of the Heads.
Or was it? Being a poor college student, and maybe not showing the best judgment, I went to the hardware store for some epoxy and c-clamps. I told the guy I needed to glue aluminum onto wood and he gave me the right stuff. I scrounged a couple of pieces of scrap lumber to protect the ski surfaces, applied a liberal dose of epoxy, and then tightened the c-clamps until a mess of glue oozed out. After cleaning it up and waiting overnight, Mike and I tugged and yanked and decided that the epoxy just might hold. So, we went back to the ski slopes. Surprisingly, the ski seemed to perform just fine, at least as far as I could tell. I continued to ski on those Head Standards for another three seasons until I could finally afford a newer pair.
Skiing wasn’t Mike’s only interest. He’d already earned a pilot’s license while still in high school and he knew quite a bit about photography. He even knew how to use a darkroom to develop film and make prints. I was intrigued when he suggested that we take a class together, Physics 480 Holography.
It was an independent study class that consisted of trying out the professor’s ideas to advance practical uses for holography. They were really big in the 1970’s. Everyone thought the technology would lead to 3-D television and everyone wanted to cash in. Mike used his knowledge of photography to talk the professor into letting us enroll even though we were just freshmen. I was happy to go along for the ride.
It was the most fun I ever had in school. We were given a key to the professor’s lab that allowed us to work on our own schedule. And that lab was like a toy store for engineering nerds. We got to play with real lasers! There were intricate setups that used mirrors, lenses, and beam splitters to make 3-D images on photographic film. Then we’d develop the film in a chemical bath and show it to the professor. And it was all done in the dark! I’ve forgotten the details of Mike’s experiment, but I remember that he spent a considerable amount of time teaching me how to handle and develop film so I could do mine.
I was working with what’s called ‘white light holography’ to make images that can be viewed in natural sunlight. You can see an example of a white light holograph on some credit cards or on the ‘genuine merchandise’ tag of your authentic team jersey. My experiments were intended to determine how much we could expand the laser beam and still get a reasonable quality image. It wasn’t quite 3-D television, but I can tell myself that I had a tiny part in making sure your NFL gear is officially authorized.
During that spring quarter, Mike and I also started hanging out with the guys at the Pi Kappa Alpha frat house. We were enjoying ourselves on their dime and having a good old time. Up until the day we were gently advised that we should either join and start paying dues or hang out somewhere else. Mike chose to join but I didn’t. I sometimes regret that decision, but I’ve always been a bit too independent-minded. I guess it was like the old Groucho Marx gag: “I wouldn't join any club that would have me as a member!”
Mike and I started to drift apart, but we still partied together from time to time. The following year, he invited his good friend Pat and me to visit his family in Wisconsin for Thanksgiving break. Pat had a little Chevy LUV pickup with a topper and someone ‘found’ an old mattress to put in the back. The plan was to drive straight through from Bozeman to Madison. We’d rotate positions with one person sleeping in the back and two in the front, driving.
The trip to Madison took 26 hours on winter roads and it provided us with an adventure as soon as we left Montana. We hadn’t gotten an early start, so it was the middle of the night when we got to South Dakota. I was at the wheel on a snowy Interstate 90 when the headlights blinked once and went out. I was instantly lost in an inky blackness on an overcast night with snow flurries. I was scared, but didn’t panic. I just eased my foot off the gas and held the wheel in a death grip, hoping that we’d stop before running off the road.
Mike was in the front seat with me and, thankfully, he reacted quickly, reaching over and hitting the emergency flashers. The light from the flashers revealed that we had drifted slightly to the left and the pickup was coasting almost straight down the middle of the freeway. I breathed a sigh of relief and pulled over to the side of the road.
Montanans are resourceful folks and Pat carried a small tool kit, so he started looking around with a flashlight to see what was wrong. He didn’t even consider trying to find a service station at that time of night. Somehow, he figured out that a screw had come loose inside the turn signal box. It had bounced across the contacts of the dimmer switch after it fell out and that blew the fuse for the headlights. But one thing that Pat didn’t have was a spare fuse.
Did I mention that Montanans are resourceful? Pat took a look at that blackened fuse and went “hmm.” Then he rummaged around in the glove box and came up with a loose .22 shell, left over from some hunting trip. It was just about the perfect size to replace the headlight fuse!
“Wait,” Mike asked, “what if it goes off while we’re driving?”
Pat gave him one ‘those’ looks. “What do you think I am, stupid?”
He pulled the bullet out of the shell casing with a pair of pliers and dumped the powder on the shoulder of the freeway. Then he inserted the casing into the fuse holder, reassembled the turn signal box, and we went on our way as if nothing had ever happened.
That morning provided me with another sight I’d never experienced before. I was still up front at dawn and I was awestruck by the orange-red fireball I saw in the east. I’d grown up in the shadow of the Mission Mountains and this was the first time I’d ever been as far east as the Great Plains. It may be an ordinary, everyday occurrence for billions around the world, but I’ll never forget the impact of the first time I saw the sun come up from under the horizon instead of rising over the mountains.
We made it to Madison without further difficulties and Mike’s family was very gracious and welcoming. We had a very nice family meal on Thanksgiving, and his parents didn’t even give us a hard time about partying every night. This was during the disco era when 18-year-old kids could drink legally, and liquor cost significantly less in Madison than it did in Bozeman. I still remember drinking dollar sours and listening to Rubber Band Man on the sound system at the bar. In fact, the booze was so cheap that Pat bought ten cases of Coors beer to resell back in Montana to help defray the cost of the trip. Coors wasn’t officially for sale in Montana at the time and it was in high demand around the frat houses.
Mike wanted to show off his local ski area while I was there, so he borrowed a car and we drove out to Tyrol Basin one afternoon. Pat wasn’t really a skier and lacked any real interest in sightseeing. He soon asked how much longer this would take. He didn’t want to miss out on happy hour back in Madison!
“Oh, it’s just up ahead,” Mike said. “We’re almost there.”
“Almost where?” I demanded. “I don’t see anything.”
“Oh, that’s because it’s behind the trees!”
I have to say that I was not impressed with the big hill that dropped into a narrow ravine and tried to pass itself off as a ski area. I could hardly believe that you actually had to walk downhill from the parking lot into the ravine to reach the bottom of the lift. We didn’t actually ski there, but I’ll bet a run would have taken about one minute.
On our way back to Bozeman, we decided to take interstate 94 and the weather became bitterly cold as we drove through Minnesota and North Dakota. I remember passing a time and temperature sign in Fargo that read minus 10 degrees. Mike and I were driving and Pat was in the back under the topper, wrapped up in most of his clothes and a couple of sleeping bags. We stopped for gas in Bismarck and, as I recall, it was Mike’s turn to crawl in the back. He opened the topper and found Pat sound asleep, worn out from our good times in Madison.
“Pat’s asleep and I don’t want to wake him up,” Mike said as he climbed back into the front.
“You mean you don’t want to freeze to death,” I replied with a grin.
“You want to get in the back?” he challenged.
“Nope, not me,” I laughed and stepped on the gas.
Pat might have slept the rest of the way back to campus if we hadn’t needed another rest stop in Livingston. By that time, we were feeling a bit guilty and I was seriously wondering if Pat might have succumbed to the cold. He emerged slowly and shakily from the topper, teeth chattering but still alive. I won’t repeat what he had to say to us as we helped him to the cafe for some hot coffee. Pat got some small satisfaction the following week when I developed one of the worst colds of my life, despite having hogged his heater.
That trip to Madison in 1976 was our last big party, although Mike and I skied together a few more times that winter. I got together with my future wife in the spring of 1977, we got married a year later, and I started working 20 hours a week at Summit Engineering. In addition, I’d fallen behind with my coursework during my Junior year, so I didn’t have time for skiing the next couple of seasons.
I got back into skiing again after finishing college in 1979 and going full-time at Summit. My wife, Debbie, also learned to ski. I bought a pair of used Rossignol Montana skis and passed those battered, but indestructible Head Standards on to Deb. She treated them much more gently than I ever did! We skied at Bridger Bowl regularly for a few years and occasionally went to the Big Sky resort near Yellowstone Park. Then the kids came along and life happened. We moved to the Seattle area where we didn’t know the ski areas or anyone to ski with. Money was tight and skiing seemed like an unnecessary luxury. For more than twenty years I kept telling myself that I should get some new gear and get back on the slopes, but increasing weight and bad knees eventually made me give up even the idea of skiing.
I miss it, but I doubt I’ll ever repeat those good old days at Bridger Bowl with Mike. I’m old, overweight, out of shape, and I wouldn’t trust my ancient knees. And the ski area is a very different place now, with a new lodge and new lifts that serve a lot more runs. But I’ll always have the memories.