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Skiing:The New Lure of a Supersport

21 minute read

¶ It looked like snow that winter day, and John Bintz was swept up with inspiration. An apple grower near Saginaw, Mich., Bintz had been searching for ways to use all the dirt left over from bulldozing a pond next to his orchards. Why not build a mountain? So with an earth leveler, he pushed the soil into a 60-ft. mound and named it the Apple Mountain Ski Resort. That was a dozen years ago. Today Apple Mountain has grown to 200 ft., and it bristles with eight ski lifts, an eight-nozzle snowmaking machine, an equipment shop, a ski school and a lodge. On winter weekends, as many as 2,400 people turn out to ski down what they call “Bintz’s Bump” or “Bintz’s Folly.” Some folly. Near by, Farmer Bintz is scraping together another 250-ft. slope.

¶ On the night before Christmas, all through the William Richardson house in Ross, Calif., there will be quite a stir. Besides trimming the tree and wrapping presents, the Richardsons will be waxing their skis, dusting off their boots and packing the Volkswagen camper. Richardson, 36, business manager of a private school near San Francisco, has taken his wife and four children to the Sierras, five hours away, every winter for the past six years. As usual, the preparations began in October, when the Richardsons attended a “ski swap” and exchanged with others the gear that the children had outgrown. The Richardsons had been setting money aside every month since last spring for the vacation, cutting corners wherever they could. Wife Betsy made casseroles and froze them so the family could dine cheaply at its rented ski house. Says Bill Richardson of the trip: “It’s costly but worth it. Betsy likes the fresh air. I like the speed and the challenge. The kids just have a good time. It’s wonderful for the family.”

From Bintz’s Bump to the Sierras, from the Tetons to the Tatras, ski lifts are rising almost wherever the ground does. Molehills are being made into mountains, and a significant segment of humanity is rushing to slide down them. This Christmas, start of the holiday week in which ski-area operators do about one-third of their business for the year, more people than ever will be heading for the hills. Michigan auto executives and plant workers will politely jostle one another for spots in the half-hour lift lines at some of that state’s 76 ski areas. In the South, where there are 15 ski resorts, young salesmen and account executives meet Atlanta college girls brushing up their parallel turns before heading for Aspen on semester break. Meanwhile, real estate developers in North Carolina are using ski hills as come-ons to sell lots for second homes. And near Milwaukee, executives of Continental Can Co. have proposed that the city build a ski area on a pile of pulverized garbage.

The nation now has nearly 700 ski areas, double the number a decade ago. Skiing passed golf this year as the sport on which Americans lavish the most money ($1.5 billion). At least 6,000,000 Americans are skiers, and the total is climbing 15% a year. Round the world, more than 20 million people ski. The fast-growing sport has become popular in such unlikely places as Spain, Morocco, Lebanon and Albania. Skiing has also caught on in the Soviet Union; a ski jump overlooks Moscow from the Lenin Hills. For the world’s resort owners, hotel operators, travel agents, equipment makers, clothing designers, real estate speculators and orthopedic surgeons, skiing this year will be a $10 billion enterprise.

Nonskiers cannot comprehend why otherwise rational people rise at dawn in order to buy a $10 ticket for the privilege of shivering in a slow-moving lift line to ascend slowly a hill that they will quickly slide down. Or to careen down a narrow, bumpy trail in a blinding snowstorm, watching for the hidden icy spot that could send them crashing into a tree trunk. The explanation is simple. Skiing is a feast for all the senses. It promises exhilaration, fresh air and muscle-taxing exercise; an hour of downhill skiing can burn up as many as 500 calories. Gisa Wagner, 34, a New Yorker raised in Bavaria, echoes a thousand similar rhapsodies. “There is something incredibly sensuous about skiing. The feeling of your body speeding down a mountain is like a narcotic.” Peter Seibert, chairman of the company that runs Colorado’s Vail area (see box page 60), puts it this way: “Skiing is a total experience. You can be completely absorbed in what you are doing. You can take a problem onto the golf course with you, but you can’t take it with you onto the slope. It’s kind of cleansing.”

Skiing also offers membership in a cozy subculture that nonskiers sometimes have difficulty understanding. Initiates speak their own language, a conglomeration of English, German, French and jargon. A rather hyperbolic example—”I was wedeling this head-wall loaded with bathtubs and decided to make a gelandy over a tree stump when I found myself in a mogul field, so I used my avalement and then tried an old-fashioned ruade, but caught an edge, slipped out of my toe piece, helicoptered down the fall line and wound up with a spiral in the tibia.”* Besides, there is the legendary ambience of après-ski, which has become something of a hedonistic cliche but keeps attracting people with its roaring hearth fires and hot spiced wine in the lodges, its hard rock and casual flirtation in the bars. Still another lure: some skiers insist that ultraviolet rays from the sun, relatively unfiltered in the rarefied mountain air, have an aphrodisiac effect —an assertion that doctors deny.

The sport that has changed so many landscapes is itself undergoing a transformation. There are new methods of skiing, new types of instruction, new equipment and fashions, even new controversies over the effect of the sport on the environment. Here, for armchair skiers, weak-kneed novices and perhaps some schussboomers who want to read between the lift lines, TIME chronicles the latest developments:

Learning the Ropes on the Slopes: The Rise of Laissez-Faire

Nowadays, almost anyone can learn to ski, and many people in their 40s and 50s are taking it up. New teaching methods have made it much simpler. Most important of them is the Graduated Length Method. A G.L.M. student starts out on skis as short as 2½ ft. and works up through increasingly longer ones as his skill improves. A beginner can do parallel turns after five hours of instruction, less than half the time required by older methods. At most areas where G.L.M. is taught, a skier can rent the graduated skis and buy five hours of lessons for less than $50—about the same as regular lessons.

Most schools teach G.L.M., but some do not because it is expensive to stock skis in all those different lengths. As a compromise between price and proficiency, many areas are adopting the American Teaching Method. The A.T.M. skiers learn on a single pair of 5-ft. skis, about halfway between the shortest G.L.M. equipment and the 7-ft. skis that experts use.

No matter what the method, instructors are adopting a more laissez-faire approach, in which form takes a back seat, as it were, to control. Once they used to insist that a skier keep his feet as close together as possible; today many say he can have them as far apart as his hips. Advises Robert Gratton, director of the Mount Snow, Vt., ski school: “If something doesn’t feel comfortable, don’t do it.”

Dress Right: How to Look Like a Champ in Burgundy

Looking good is half the fun. “Even though a guy isn’t a good athlete he can get all dressed up like one,” says Ken Sinclair, vice president of Questor Corp., an equipment maker. “And once he is inference?” the Guy lodge, who Chirico, a knows lodge the dif owner at Hunter Mountain, N.Y., observes:

“You know what made the industry?

Stretch pants. They cover up all the sins and hold it all together.”

The clothing designers who act as taste arbiters have laid down a few fiats for this season. Red, white and blue stars, which were so chic on many of last year’s parkas and pants, are out. In their place the hills are alive with this year’s color: burgundy. Also hot are matching pants-hat-and-jacket sets in zany prints dominated by purple.

Among the fashion unconscious, particularly skiers under 25, Army fatigue jackets continue to be popular, but they are slowly losing ground to down-filled, fur-hooded Air Force parkas. For the young, faded Levis remain high-status legwear; not being waterproof, they advertise the wearer’s confidence in his ability to stay on his feet. More sensible skiers give their jeans a once-over with Scotchguard to keep the water out.

One fashion on to the avoid is slopes the “wet look.” Popular on the slopes a couple of years ago, it is now banned in some European ski areas for safety’s sake.

The slick vinyl fabric offers too little resistance to slides when a skier falls. In Switzerland alone seven Europeans clad in wet-look outerwear have slid to their deaths over ledges and into crevasses.

Equipment: The Mysteries Of Buying the Best Boards

In a simpler age, a skier could equip himself handsomely for less than $150, but today the average initial outlay for gear and clothing in the U.S. is closer to $300. “This is the only sport in which your safety and pleasure depend 100% on your equipment,” says Phil Clark, a Georgetown, Colo., manufacturers’ representative for ski gear and a part-time ski instructor. “If you have a lousy golf club, it only damages your ego, but it doesn’t send you to the hospital.”

Over the past decade the ski has gone through about as much technolog ical change as the computer. Wood skis were superseded in the early 1960s by metal skis, which are now being replaced by lighter and more flexible fiber glass; in general, these flexible skis provide better control than stiff ones. Fiber glass skis with wood cores predominated until they encountered competition from fiber-glass skis with plastic-foam cores, which are lighter and have superior “torque,” or propensity to twist along the ski’s axis.

A beginner should rent skis until he learns the sport fairly well. Then he will have a better idea of his needs. His first pair of store-bought skis should be about as long as he is tall. Once he has mastered parallel turns, he can buy a pair that reaches six or eight inches over his head. Only experts should get anything longer than 200 cm. (6 ft. 7 in.), and intermediates should stay in the 170-to-195-cm. (5 ft. 7 in. to 6 ft. 5 in.) range, depending on their height and weight. Wooden skis are still the cheapest (approximate price range: $25 to $80), but they have a tendency to warp and may not last more than a season or two. Metal skis (about $75 to $200) are more durable, but they do not perform as well as fiber-glass skis ($60 to $250), which hold well on ice and turn quickly and easily.

Boot Fetishes and Binds That Tie

The wrong pair of skis might make skiing a bit more difficult, but ill-fitting boots could make it pure agony. Bootmakers have started a technological foot race. Most new boots have outer shells of plastic and innards of any number of soft, pliable materials. Then, for anywhere from $70 to $190, there are “foam injected” boots; the salesman pumps plastic foam from a dishwasher-size machine into each boot, and the foam stiffens around the foot for a close fit. In the Hanson boot, hot wax is injected instead of foam. Next month Head Ski Co. will start selling “air boots” ($145 a pair), which have an air bladder that the wearer inflates with a hand pump every time he puts them on.

Foam, wax or air boots can be a needless extravagance for most Sunday-afternoon sliders. But they offer the only means for a skier with irregularly shaped feet to get a good fit—short of sending plaster casts to the Strolz boot factory in Lech, Austria. Families can pass foam boots down from child to child simply by buying new linings for about $25 each time.

Actually, beginners can use anything that feels snug and offers plenty of ankle support, whether made of leather, plastic or solid gold. Only racers should buy racing boots; for other skiers they have too much forward lean and too high a back, and they could be dangerous. Billy Kidd, former Olympic and professional racing star, advises: “Whatever you buy, put the boots on and wear them around the store for 15 minutes or so to find out where the pressure points are and whether they wear off.”

The most important piece of equipment for safety is the binding. A skier cannot spend too much money on it; bindings are cheap compared with bones. The bindings must be strong enough to hang on at high speeds but sensitive enough to release the skis the instant a skier takes a bad fall, so he will not break an ankle, or worse.

One of the most promising safety innovations in years is the Spademan binding. Designed by a California orthopedist, it prevents injury in slow, twisting falls that may not spring open many regular bindings. Instead of being attached at heel and toe, the Spademan fastens only beneath the arch of the foot. At ski areas where the Spademan is in experimental use, accidents have been cut by as much as 80%. Some area operators predict that their insurance companies may soon require Spademans on all rental skis.

Broken Bones of Contention

The new equipment has done much to keep people out of the hospital, but there are still some bone-cracking problems. With the spreading popularity of higher, more rigid boots, orthopedists report an increase in “boot top” fractures. These mishaps are more serious and take longer to mend than the more common ski injuries, a simple fracture of the anklebone or a low-level spiral fracture of the tibia and fibula.

Downhill skiing remains a dangerous sport. Dr. James Garrick, head of the division of sports medicine at the University of Washington, says that there were more than 105,000 skiing injuries reported in the U.S. last year, and probably twice as many that went unreported for reasons of pride. For a raw beginner, the chances of incurring an injury serious enough to need medical attention are about one in 100 every time he goes skiing. After a week of instruction, the figure drops to about one in 200. A study by the Canadian Ski Pa trol showed that students have nearly three-quarters of all accidents; house wives account for only 11%. Younger skiers tend to push themselves beyond their capabilities. Dr. Seymour Epstein, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, profiled the accident-prone skier: he is more daring, more boastful and more absent-minded on the slopes than off.

Hot-Dogging for Baroque Tastes

For advanced practitioners, a whole new style of baroque skiing has developed. Known as “free-style,” “exhibition” or “hot-dog” skiing, the form emphasizes acrobatic stunts rather than downhill speed. Hot-doggers build up repertoires of twists, turns, spins and somersaults. Four Utah ski resorts will sponsor hot-dog exhibitions this season. Last winter 110 hot-doggers got together at Waterville Valley, N.H., for the second annual Eastern Regional Exhibition Skiing Championship. The winner tooled off in a new Chevrolet.

At the other end of the spectrum, more and more skiers are switching to cross-country, also known as ski-touring. The participant simply strikes out through forest and farmland as he pleases. With the proper waxes, cross-country skis can be made to stick to snow and allow a skier to climb hills fairly fast and easily. Cross-country is much cheaper than downhill skiing: the soft boots and long, thin skis can cost less than $50, and there are no lift fees. The sport is easy to learn; a day’s instruction will make a proficient ski-tourer.

No Business Like Snow Business: The Computerized Tram

Commercially, skiing is being transformed from a folksy, country-store business into a serious and well-financed industry. In the past, an enterprising farmer or a ski bum whose legs were growing old would dip into his savings and put up a rope tow on a nearby hill. Today large corporations are cashing in on snow business. Ralston Purina has bought a 62% interest in Keystone, Colo. Subsidiaries of LTV, the conglomerate, own the land, lodges and lifts at Steamboat Springs, Colo. Abroad, some of the world’s most famous wealth—that of the Aga Khan, the French Rothschilds, Greek Shipping Magnate Stavros Niarchos—is invested in ski resorts.

A new class of ski entrepreneurs, who combine a love of the sport with hardheaded managerial techniques, is rising. Backed by banks or syndicates of investors and aided by business-school-trained executives, they are building whole new ski towns. Eighty miles west of Denver, for example, Charles D. “Chuck” Lewis opened the Copper Mountain area last month. Lewis, a onetime Vail executive, first got a land-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, which controls most of the mountains in the West, and issues permits for a percentage of the area’s gross receipts or fixed assets. Then he raised $5,000,000 from a Denver real estate developer and the United Bank of Denver, which finances more than half of all ski-area development in Colorado. Typically, Lewis’ executives are specialists; the construction manager has several engineering degrees, the mountain manager has an M.A. in agricultural engineering, and the assistant lift superintendent has a degree in recreation. “Ski resorts are becoming refined, structured businesses,” says Lewis. “They can’t be run by the seat of one’s pants any more.”

They cannot be run for quick profit, either. Ted Johnson, onetime manager of a ski lodge at Alta, Utah, last year opened Snowbird not many miles away. Johnson and his principal backer, Texas Oilman Dick Bass, have dumped $17 million into Snowbird, including $2,250,000 for a Swiss-built aerial tram that carries 125 people at a time up an 11,000-ft. incline to the main peak. The tram, most capacious of its kind in the world, is started and stopped by a computer. Johnson and Bass do not expect to be in the black for another ten years.

Economics: The Ecstasy And the Agony

Operating a winter resort can be as tricky as schussing blindfolded. “Two or three years ago people were saying that there was white gold in those hills,” says Baron Edmond Rothschild, who owns part of France’s Megeve resort. “Well, there isn’t any to be found. The trouble with skiing is that the season is too short.” In the West, the season often lasts only from Thanksgiving to late April, about 150 days. In milder climates the business is even more precarious. Tennessee’s Viking Mountain area folded last year after trying to survive on a 50-day season. Everywhere, snowfall can vary capriciously from one year to the next. Many of Vermont’s major ski areas skirted bankruptcy in 1964-65, when the snowfall was only 14 inches instead of the usual 42 plus. Snowmaking equipment can help. At many areas, when temperatures drop below 32°, snow guns shoot pressurized water over the slopes in droplets that crystallize before they hit the ground. Skiing on artificial snow is like skiing on icy pebbles, but at least it is skiing.

Owners of ski lifts and lodges do not have to pay lofty wages (except to high executives) because they can offer employees free skiing and sometimes free room and board. Still, they have payrolls the size of small telephone books—and for every job there are ten eager applicants, many of them temporary college dropouts looking for a fling on the slopes. The average pretax profit margin for the nation’s ski areas last year was about 4% on revenues, or less than their owners would enjoy if they put their money in savings accounts.

Some ski operators figure that they will never make a fortune. Says Ernie Blake, chairman of New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley: “Fortunately, I am blessed with stockholders who are more interested in maintaining the enjoyable atmosphere we have here than in making money.”

Ecology: This Land Is Whose Land?

To zealous environmentalists, ski-area developers have become abominable snowmen. Those beautiful patterns of milk-white ski runs cut into the side of a mountain seem to be networks of disfiguring scars in the view of some critics. Increasingly, they charge that ski developments cause soil erosion, leak sewage into rivers and streams and lead to the rise of tacky pizza parlors, motels and gas stations. Colorado conservationists recently played a major part in the successful campaign to ban the 1976 Winter Olympics from the state. The California Supreme Court earlier this year slowed construction of high-rise ski condominiums in the southern Sierras. Bavarian officials have squelched a plan to open for skiing the 8,901-ft. Watzmann Mountain near Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountaintop retreat.

One of the most resolute steps against developers has been taken in Vermont, where the legislature has adopted stringent measures requiring that all ski-area construction be approved by state planners and that developers submit environmental-impact studies. As a result, the Stratton Corp. must spend $500,000 this year—three times as much as its profits—to build a sewage-treatment plant. Officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say that ski resorts do no serious ecological damage, provided that trails are sensibly designed to follow the natural contours of the mountain, that the proper grasses are planted on ski trails to prevent soil runoff during spring thaws, and that sewage is well disposed of.

Ski-area operators themselves are becoming the most avid environmentalists—especially when it comes to forbidding new (and competing) developments. Some local and state government officials are also beginning to object to the idea of being “developed” by outsiders. Maine Governor Kenneth Cur tis is cool to the offer of John Marden, a Boston real estate man, to turn Bigelow Mountain into what Marden calls “the Aspen of the Northeast”—even though he says that it would pump $100 million a year into the state’s economy. Curtis may be wise to refuse. Ski developments undoubtedly put cash into some local pockets. But the Vermont Public Interest Research Group’s economic study of Warren, Vt., which is near three major ski areas (Sugarbush, Glen Ellen and Mad River Glen), showed that 88% of all the full-time jobs created by the industry went to people who moved in after the ski boom began. Overall, 83% of the town’s businesses are now owned by such outsiders.

The cool chiefs of the ski business occasionally wonder if the downhill sport can continue to grow at its present pace. Many people go skiing to get away from crowds, noise and pollution; they may lose their enthusiasm if those problems follow them to the trails. In New England, some ski resorts have become so mobbed that operators limit the sale of lift tickets on busy days. But the opening of new ski areas and the tightening of environmental controls are likely to keep the skiers happy. All they need is the pinch of cold, clean air in the nostrils, the exquisite balance of terror and confident control, the sense of accomplishment after a drooping, swooping, heart-plucking rush. As two characters in Ernest Hemingway’s story, Cross Country Snow, sum it up:

“There’s really nothing can touch skiing, is there? The way it feels when you first drop off on a long run.”

“Huh, it’s too swell to talk about.”

* Translation: “I was making a series of close parallel turns along this steep incline full of depressions in the snow made by fallen skiers and decided to vault over a tree stump when I found myself in a field of large bumps, so I used my ability to absorb irregularities in the terrain by leaning back on my skis, and then tried to turn by lifting the ski tails off the snow and pivoting around their tips, but caught the edge of a ski on some ice, and my foot came out of my binding, and I tumbled head over heels straight down the hill and suffered a spiral fracture in one of the bones of the lower leg.”

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