Graceful aggression is a specialty with John Schultz, 22, who abandons the regular runs at Vermont's Mad River Glen to go for high-speed slaloms through the thickets of closely set trees. A daring, strong-legged skier, Schultz prefers cutting his own path, because "it's never predictable like the manicured slopes. And besides, you can always stop on the way down to appreciate the perfect silence."
College dropout and resident hippie at Aspen, Jim Biebl sweeps out a restaurant to pay for lift tickets and is now the area's No. 1 exponent of the superjet turn, a lean-back, skis-out, full-speed-ahead maneuver. Free spirit Biebl, 23, says that some buddies learned this stunt on mescaline: "You hear music and when you jump, man, you stay up a long, long time."
A skilled sailor, private pilot and mother of four, wealthy Bostonian Anne Francis is the foremost stylist of Sugarbush, Vt., slicing smoothly through the racing gates at weekend competitions. Such power turns take constant and unrelenting practice. "I've been at this since the '30s," she says, "because my family made me get out there and learn how to ski."
She set out to become a political science major, but Barbara Amick, 27, was sidetracked by the skiing at Sun Valley—where she works as a waitress to support her habit. Now, before admiring onlookers, she charges into her own special thing: bursting down the mountain with lovely, ladylike parallel turns, punctuated with unladylike bursts of explosive speed.
Denver restaurateur Tim Kohl, 24, is the celebrated Whoopee Jumper of Vail, high-bounding off cornices to altitudes some 50 feet off the snow, then racing through the small snow-slides he touches off when he lands. The esoteric thrust behind all this derring-do is simply that "you find that you get bored just skiing down the regular runs, both feet on the snow."
Looking less like a best skier than anyone in this assemblage-he is 53 years old and wears a bit of a potbelly-Aleut Indian Pete Totemoff is nonetheless the premier powder performer of Taos, N.Mex. When all others are banned it is Pete—and Pete alone—who is given rein to run Longhorn Chute, a terrifying mountain notch where avalanches await the unwary.
Only a few people can pull off the forward flip on skis, and certainly the prettiest is Debbie Mead, who is 26 and the pride of Jackson Hole, Wyo., a huge haven of bold experts. Not only is this move tricky, it is hard on the joints. "After six flips in a row I can't walk," she says, "but it is such fun—and I feel like a real daredevil."
Few folks can handle nonstop dashes down Snowbird's No Name Chute: Salt Lake City stockbroker Darm Penney (above) is one, and Gordon Yates (below) is one other. Known at Alta as The Crasher for his spectacular performances, Yates broke his leg warming up for a special appearance in the photograph at left—so instead of two skiers on the slope there is one.
IT'S DOWNHILL FOR THE SUPERSKIER
The boys in the highway department over to Montpelier used to get together and ski weekends then. No lifts in all of Vermont—or anywhere else. That was 1931, I believe. Yes, 1931. We'd climb the mountain for one, two hours, then make a run. Oh, we'd take lots of turns; big, wide turns. Stemming was the big technique then. We'd make that run last as long as we could—like an all-day sucker. When you got down, you knew you'd have to climb back up again. If skiing reverted back to those days, 99.9% of all skiers would quit and never go out in the snow again."
Charlie Lord, 69, of Stowe, Vt., his eyes streaming in the wind, his face the color of cherries, stands at the top of Stowe's antique single-chair lift. Right there is where the trails break off into several runs, and one is named the Charlie Lord, affectionately known as The Lord, after this pioneer of recreational skiing in America. Charlie and the boys over to Montpelier, yes, they were doing it long before the East's first rope tow was installed at Woodstock, Vt. in 1934, long before the first Western chair lift went up the mountain at Sun Valley in 1936.
Nowadays Charlie Lord is only one of five million American skiers. (He still takes a couple of careful runs every day—and stem turning is still his most obvious operative move.) The techniques of skiing have vastly improved since Charlie and the boys first strapped on their leather harnesses. New equipment has done a lot for the game—skiers now come covered in plastic and foam from head to toe—but time and constant trial have done most of the job. And suddenly one no longer has to look to Europe for the ski stylists and hot-turn technicians. They're here among us, all homegrown. And as sure as every hill has its king in this day of the mass schuss, the top skiers are identifiable. It is an arbitrary but rarely disputed choice; one skis from coast to coast and gets the judgments of experts, area managers, ski-school directors, instructors, bartenders and resident ski bums. Such a survey is so notably unstatistical, so utterly lacking in scientific method, that there is no point in quibbling over the names.
The result is a fascinating composite of the American skier—the good American skier—in the '70s, 40 years after Charlie Lord and his friends started it all. The diversity of personality and the variety of life-style among the experts in the Top Ten is as profound as the style they bring to the sport. Importantly, they're not pros—everybody knows that a paid ski instructor should be able to carve a particularly pretty turn—but skiers who have set out to conquer their sport. They include the ragged and the rich, the young and old, the rebel and Establishmentarian.
And to anyone looking for the ultimate ski tip—that one key secret in style or stance that will turn him into an overnight sensation—there is both good news and bad. First the good: it could happen to anyone. There is no single factor that makes one a member of the Top Ten. Now the bad: making the list takes as much practice as making, say, Carnegie Hall. That's it. The top skiers range from the strong and superbly athletic to those who have simply skied since near infancy. Others are either employed in such a manner that they can ski up to 60 or 70 days a year, or are essentially unemployed and thus can ski even more than that.
For example, 23-year-old Jimmy Biebl is a powerful hotdogger who turns all the heads on the hills of Aspen, Colo. when he flashes into one of his shooting-star superjet turns. This is the turn the French first made famous—lean back, hang by your ankles and toepieces, thrust your feet out. The effect is like an accident taking shape. It is the niftiest new move in the sport today. Biebl can run a mountain, never fall down, and still come up with snow behind his ears. Jim skis every skiable day of the season because he is a willing and happy dropout. A native of Oshkosh, Wis., he made it to the top in only five years of skiing, and his secret is there for all to see: he has put in so many miles on the mountain that he is without equal even in Aspen. Off skis, the secret of young Biebl's success is—well, it is his willingness not to succeed in the nonskiing straight world: he subsists on a handyman's pittance from an Aspen restaurant, with a total income in 1970 of $1,900. For the moment, he has no interest at all in pursuing anything much more ambitious. And he's particularly not interested in being an instructor. "Who wants to wake up on a great sunny day—with perfect powder—and then have to go teach old ladies how to put on their boots?" he says.
Another of the Top Ten whose employment schedule is a boon to his skiing is Bob Jensen, a 39-year-old fireman from Los Angeles. Brawny from weight lifting and as handsome as a beachboy movie star, Jensen has driven an 85-foot aerial ladder truck for the past 15 years and loves it—in large part because he is given alternate two-day, four-day weekends that allow him to speed the 300 miles to Mammoth Mountain for long skiing periods. Another late starter, Jensen did not begin to ski until he was in his 20s; he now has a style like that familiar old pro, Stein Eriksen, smooth as marshmallow syrup. He developed his technique by endless hours of studying home movies of Stein in action, followed by endless hours of imitation on the slopes.
Of course, it also helps to have started at an early age. Donald Armstrong (Darm) Penney, 32, a prosperous stockbroker in Salt Lake City, began seriously attacking the nearby powder hills when he was only six, grew up to ski for four years on the Junior National Team, competed for the University of Utah, then tried out for the 1960 U.S. Olympic team. He now skis just twice a week, but the skill he developed so early has remained.
Another one of the sport's foremost stylists, Barbara Amick, 27, began running the trails of Sun Valley when she was three; her father, now president of a Seattle sheet-metal fabricating firm, was on the 1948 Olympic ski team. If Barbara's expertise is a result of intense instruction and long practice, it also has been greatly enhanced lately by her decision to drop the pursuit of a career in political science so she can ski every day. She says of her style, "I concentrate on carving my turns; I don't like radical, flashy moves."
Neither radical nor flashy is Nigel Jones, 27, a rangy, broad-shouldered fellow who has mastered the most difficult steeps of Alpental outside Seattle with a smooth grace also born of an early start in the sport. His father, an ex-R.A.F. pilot, ran a mountaineering lodge with nearby rope tows, and Nigel began at eight, skiing every winter day for four or five years in his childhood. Now a restaurant manager with daytimes reserved for skiing, he considers Alpental "the most difficult area per square foot in the U.S." But he advises, "You can't be a really good skier by skiing in one area all your life; you must try all the different conditions and altitudes and mountains that you can."
It helps to be able to travel, to expand skiing horizons. For example, Anne Francis, 44, a statuesque mother of four, ordinarily skis the tough and crusty slopes at Sugarbush, Vt., where she owns an elegant home of her own design. A New Yorker by birth and a Bostonian by current residence, she began skiing in the mid-'30s. She attended Vassar, graduated from Cornell and is wealthy (after a recent divorce, she took the family's racing yacht, her husband took the family airplane). As a rule, Anne Francis skis a time or two each winter in Colorado, and in Europe once or twice, as well as spending most other available weekends at Sugarbush.
Also a seeker of differing conditions is Tim Kohl, 24, a lithe, freckled athlete who conditions himself in the summer by running miles up and down the snowless ski trails. Part owner of a Denver restaurant, Tim skis mostly on the heavily groomed slopes of Vail but sometimes hunts out the strange and often dangerous areas where he can venture even more than he should, schussing a mountainside in the middle of a small avalanche, or flinging himself 50 feet into the air from the Whoopee Jump. "You just cannot keep skiing the same ground over and over," he says, "or you will turn stale. You must try new things."
Perhaps that is as good a general requirement as any for the Top Ten, a constant demand for something new, something refreshing. Debbie Mead, a fearless 26-year-old who makes her everyday living designing pottery and knitting ski caps in Denver, finds her thrills in the extremity of doing a somersault flip on skis. She did not start skiing until she was 11, but has always excelled at acrobatics and now likes nothing so much as to seek out slopes "where nobody else skis." The same, in a less spectacular sense, is true of John Schultz, 22, a pure-math major from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who skis at least 100 days a year on the often-icy moguls of Mad River Glen, Vt. Though he is a powerful skier on the toughest groomed trails, Schultz most loves drifting off through dense woods where there are no tracks and zipping at what seem like mad speeds within inches of tree trunks. Besides his adventurous spirit, the secret of the burly John Schultz's great skill is to "eat up the mountain in your legs, take the shocks and kill them at your knees."
Another who uses purest power is Pete Totemoff, 53, an Aleut Indian with impressive belly girth and low center of gravity (he stands 5'7", weighs 210 pounds). Totemoff began skiing in Alaska at the age of four and now is known as the very best skier of the knee-deep powder of Taos, N. Mex. Pete is a fire fighter and ski-area inspector for the U.S. Forest Service and manages to ski nearly every day of the season.
And that's it: given the time to practice and polish technique, it could happen to anyone. One week of learn-to-ski instruction isn't going to bring one much beyond a self-conscious parallel turn or the scary jump off a very small mogul. The top skiers got that way because, more than anything else, they ski. One thing is true of all 10: each of them is, in effect, a stepchild and heir of Charlie Lord and the old boys in the highway department over to Montpelier. Should the lifts all stop and the tows all run down one day, surely at least these experts would not be among the 99.9% who would quit and never go out in the snow again.