Early last winter SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Ski Editor Fred Smith, surveying nothing more alpine than the snow cover on New York's Central Park, suddenly was struck by an idea. Think, thought Smith, how intriguing it would be to produce a story about the 10 best ski runs in the U.S.
Certain difficulties immediately came to mind. There are more than 300 ski areas in this country, most of whose devotees are firmly convinced that their mountain is best. Frequently this home-chalet chauvinism is based on mere ignorance about the area down the road; more often, it simply reflects the hazard of who happens to be where when the powder falls. But Smith was undismayed by such fragmentations of opinion. After all, that was what the story would decide. It was very simple, really: SI just had to be in all the best places at all the best times.
First off, Smith sent Associate Editor Bob Ottum to survey the early winter snows. Then he called Photographer John Zimmerman, who first learned to ski on an SI assignment eight years ago. "This isn't going to take all winter, is it?" asked Zimmerman suspiciously. "Of course not," said Smith, laughing. Zimmerman shot his last picture for this feature, the one at Crystal Mountain, Washington, in July.
Zimmerman and Writer-Reporter Paul Stewart stayed on the trail for six weeks at one stretch, and Ottum traveled almost 25,000 miles. The three other reconnaissance volunteers—Smith himself, Reporter Felicia Lee and Assistant Managing Editor Roy Terrell—were just as conscientious. Between them they skied some 500 runs.
Plainly, everyone who worked on this story is a skiing zealot—including Artist Don Moss, who created the striking diagrams—but Smith tops the lot. Alabama-born, he was first exposed to skiing in 1958 at Mt. Hood, Oregon, where a racing camp was being held. "Get on the back of my skis and I'll take you downhill," Racer Linda Meyers offered. Smith, who had little idea that this was anything but normal procedure, accepted. "Afterward, I vowed I would never go down another ski run except on my own skis and under my own power," he says. Now a modest expert, Smith has since skied everywhere from Portillo, Chile to Quebec, from Alpine glaciers to a bamboo field on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
None of our 10 ski runs are quite that exotic, of course, but Smith is firm on one point. "American skiing is the best in the world," he says. "Our lifts are better, our patrolling is better, our snow is better kept, and we have four mountain ranges to choose among. Timberline goes up to 11,000 feet instead of 6,000 as in the Alps, with the result that most of our runs are protected ones. Above all, our snow is usually better than Europe's. European snow often has a higher moisture content than snow in the U.S."
And, though short on bamboo, our 10 have their own color. Wasatch-trained Ottum happily writes of Martini Trees, 45° drops and runs ending amid the ore hoists and old saloons of resuscitated ghost towns. It is enough to make someone who can't tell a piste from a pistol want to jump on the back of Ottum's skis.
SKI EDITOR SMITH AT PORTILLO