AS ONE grows older, particularly in the West where the pressures to be macho seem more endemic, one skis faster until there are dreams of vanishing at 80 years like a blip on the edge of a radar screen. At least that is a fantasy indulged by some of us who ski faster as we grow older. The question, of course, occurs, "How fast did we ski when we began to grow older?" In many cases, the 80th year projection becomes ominous.
The man who inculcated the sense of relaxed, controlled speed that has become a kind of way of life in skiing for a good many of us was a legendary figure out of Megeve in the Haut Savoie of France. Emile Allais was the world champion in downhill in the late thirties, the developer of a systematic approach to skiing that became known as the Technique Francais or the Allais Technique; and a man of such consummate modesty and good humor that he inspired several generations of world class racers on their way up. Emile went first to Sun Valley, Idaho, and Mount Baldy, California, and later completed his American tour at Squaw Valley.
Emile Allais embodied a love of speed with a grace of execution that was almost imperceptible except in slower sequences. His shy, deferential way allowed him to be playful with those he taught or coached. Instead of ego, there was much mirth and a sense amongst the younger skiers of, "What the hell!" when confronted with the challenge of one of his blinding bursts of acceleration or when alone and embarrassed and much too high in the air off an unanticipated bump. The sum of these experiences was a love affair with skiing that goes on and on.
Others followed Emile; some like Friedl Pfeifer and Fred Iselin had pioneered even earlier and made their fluid marks at Sun Valley and Aspen. These other inspirational skiers came from national and international competition and they came out of nowhere, but they continued the romance. What is important is that they continue to ski at speed and with style that provides a linkage with history enjoyed in very few sports.
The theory and the fantasy can be put to test in the western United States on long, moderate-to-steep undulating runs such as Northwoods at Vail, The Burn at Snowmass, Spar Gulch and Copper Bowl at Aspen Mountain, Warm Springs at Sun Valley, Latigo at Beaver Creek, The Sun Bowl at Squaw, Bassackwards at Snowbird, St. Anton at Mammoth and the Palavacinni at Arapahoe Basin. Throughout the West, there are many more such fast, pleasing trails. The list is not exhaustive; these runs are just what some older skiers out there do when they get a chance to pull out the stops, put themselves on cruise control and head down, nonstop, to the net lift terminal.
To get a sense of that tradition of speed and aging, one only needs pick a quiet, clear morning in Aspen on Ruthie's or FIS and watch Anderl Molterer whoosh silently by with his spare, erect style. Equally aesthetic and totally Aspen, see Max Marolt carve effortlessly down Strawpile. Or one might be midway down Hoback at Jackson and witness the precision and awesome knees of Pepi Stiegler at work. Then there are days at Snowbird where there is not only wo feet of new snow, but blue skies as well, and you could be at the bottom of one of the steep gullies when Junior Bonous and Ted Johnson come blasting out of the waves of powder as if deep snow was the only medium they had ever lived in. At Deer Valley, the incomparable Stein still keeps everyone honest, whether in gates or in the glades, and his cheerful countryman, Trygve Berge, does similarly at Breckenridge.
At Squaw Valley, a flat, sharp rattle of fabric might be all that announces the passage of the great speedster, Steve McKinney, followed closely by another generation and a universal beard named Dick Dorworth. Similarly, they all stop to watch at Sun Valley when Kenny Corrock lets one go down Flying Squirrel. Vail has literally dozens of superb skiers, but none has more panache on the steep and fast than ex-Olympian, Les Streeter. Way up north, in the shadow of glaciers at Whistler Mountain, Jim McConkey continues to dazzle off the cornices, one of the most joyful of skiers.
And at Steamboat Springs what can one say of a trio like Billy Kidd, Loris Warner and Moose Barrows churning through virtually everything in their paths. Winter Park is distinctly more lively with the presence of Otto Tschudi, who tries to pass on his vast knowledge of racing and turning to the youngsters. Finally, among those growing older and going faster, few have better sustained strength, speed and grace in everything from big bumps to crud than Jon Reveal at Arapahoe Basin.
It is all part of the pageant of continuity provided as the older greats, still going strong, link up with the present entourage of phenomenal World Cuppers, the somehow fading but certainly not untalented freestylers, and the promising platoons of junior hopefuls. And what can one say of the somewhat dispersed and disorganized, but brilliant, world and regional pros who almost constitute a category of their own? The mix becomes richer by the year as former luminaries achieve a kind of elegant anonymity, and speed and negligible motion become a quiet and acceptable way of life.
A typical western cruising run begins at the top of the mountain at Vail. Northwoods is not a continuously steep trail, but rather a series of big, reasonably wide rolls, that are plenty long and steep enough, that give way to spacious 20- to 25- degree pitched corridors in between. It is a generous run; there is plenty of room to go fast and yet avoid classes and slower skiers along the way.
Let's do Northwoods. Push off down a short schuss into the saddle that separates the north side from Sunup and the other back bowls. No turns. Plenty of speed to carry the cat walk and then lift softly, turning left with a little air into another short pitch. Speed is building and you must make a strong pre-jump as the next roll comes up. Next, a long carving, well-savored turn left, another shorter turn, edge pressure building and releasing straight into the next roll. It is steep here and there is a reasonable, brief hesitation: turn or shoot it? Turn. Twice. Bear left and then into the long corridor.
You are going fast now, fairly erect and loose and soon must make a decision whether to ease into Lift No. 11 or slow down in the congestion, hit the catwalk and continue on down the mogul field of Logchute to Lift No. 10. In all of this, there is a miraculous sense of time suspended, everything is in place, no one is in trouble and you are just there. You are moving well through a world you know and trust and there is a fleeting sense of guilt that this is almost too good.
Speed and aging goes on everywhere there is snow. In New England, the cradle of so many great American racers, on the magnificent steeps and rolls of alpine Europe, the vast Andean slopes of Chile and Argentina, but there are few places in the world where year in and out, snow lies so deep and dependable as in the western United States and Canada.
And so it is out there one should watch for quiet figures hurtling along, relatively close to the ground, high and relaxed, often even graying, a Geritol decal here and there, descending somehow into the memory of all the great turns, air and acceleration of skiing history.