A Wee Legend of Schweitzer
The beauty of skiing a great mountain is we may all weave our own legends
By Sandy Compton
Schweitzer has its share of legends; the hermit whose name is lent to the resort, snow snakes, Six Percent Saturday, the old day lodge, Whiplash, Ski Patrol stories, the Ninja Waiter and a few having to do with aprés ski activities that might better go untold.
If truth is a fire-blackened snag up on the Selkirk Crest, legend is the snow that surrounds it, building up and piling itself upon the ebony remains until they are transformed. Some legends are spectacular, flaring up from time to time. Others are quieter stories of coincidence that run deeper in the stream of life. Consider how I came to know I am meant to ski.
Half-way to my 40th birthday, an episode involving leather boots, rental skis, blue jeans, a suede coat and a rainy March day fully convinced me that I was not meant to ski ever. By the end of that day, my feet were 44° F all the way through, my legs were blue and made of Silly Putty, the coat weighed more than I did and I was convinced two women of my acquaintance hated me, though the only way it ever manifested itself was in their offer to take me skiing. I married one of those women, but I did not ski again for 20 years.
Nearly 10 years after the divorce, I went to work at Schweitzer Mountain Resort as a member of the "A Team;" as fine a crew as ever worked a ski resort restaurant. It turned out I was the only non-snowrider in the place. The rest of them, not knowing about the Great Ski Disaster of '71, couldn't understand how I, with a free pass and some of the Northwest's best skiing outside the door, could refuse to ski. They cajoled, they threatened, they begged. Finally, in self defense, I said, "I'll try it."
Thanks to the great people at the Alpine Shop ("Here. These 160's are just the thing you need"), the much-tried patience of an instructor from Schweitzer's incredible Ski School ("Don't worry about the five-year-olds. They don't have as far to fall"), and the user-friendly terrain and lift operators of Musical Chairs, I learned the basics: wedge, fall, get up, wedge, fall, get up. Then, glory be, wedge, wedge, wedge, fall, get up.
One snowy day, I underwent a transformation. After putting together four wedge turns in a row, I came to the conclusion skiing was as much fun as a body could have. "Eehaw!" I said, and the five-year-olds fled from me.
It then became absolutely essential that I learn better how to ski. I became crazed, obsessed, driven. I found increasingly more challenging terrain to try. I graduated to 170s. Finally, I got off Musical Chairs and went to Midway.
And that is how it goes. After Midway; the Great Escape, the Great Divide, Down the ("Oh, my G-o-o-o-o-d!") Hatch, and Cat Track home. Then, to Colburn Basin for the first time, Chair 5, Chair 6. More lessons. Step turns. Steeper stuff. Scaring myself spitless. Finding those little places like the cutoff to Snow Ghost from Midway on Chair 6 or the end of Charlie's Run, where the choices are to make the turns or slide (but not too far.)
There was sublime frustration, when the body would not do what the spirit had in mind, but there were also moments that captured me to the sport, such as when strangers picked me up and saw to it that I was put back together again. There were moments of triumph over terrain and fear when I found myself laughing aloud for joy; moments of peace and silence spent standing alone in falling snow and white splendor in one of Schweitzer's glorious out-of-the-way places.
So, I learned to ski that season, but that was not the end of it.
On my 40th birthday, near the end of the season, my friends in the restaurant bought me a pair of skis; used Precision SX 200s with Salomon bindings. They were real skis. I was impressed and pleased. They did not say "rental" on them, but they did have a name on them, a name I knew. The very next day, I happened to be talking to the owner of that name.
"Jimmy," I said, "My friends bought those skis for me."
Jimmy said, after a puzzled pause, "What skis?"
Uh, oh. It seems I was in the possession of stolen property.
I was bummed, but I searched out the person who had sold the skis to my friends, made a few suggestions, and as if by magic, that person came up with my friends' money, and I gave Jimmy his skis back. My friends, sad and somewhat embarrassed, told me to keep the money.
That very night, Jimmy came to dinner at the Green Gables Lodge, and I had the good fortune to be his waiter. Halfway through dinner, he looked at me and said, "I never ski on those things anyway. Why don't I just give 'em to you."
"Amen," I said, and we agreed he would deliver them to me at the beginning of the next ski season. Now, I had the skis and the money. My friends were amazed, joyous and somewhat jealous. I was grinning big time, and I was also beginning to suspect something was afoot that was bigger than logic could explain.
Throughout the following summer, I looked for a pair of boots, but not until the first hint of snow appeared on the Great Divide in October did a properly appealing ad appear in the paper: "For Sale: Ski boots, size 10."
They were Langes, bright orange racing boots, beautiful. They were also a half-size too small. I pried them off my feet, disappointed, and the woman said, "My other son has some boots for sale, too. Would you like to see them?"
There was only one thing wrong with the pair of boots she brought out, a superficial flaw, really, but it made them useless to a fashion-conscious teenage boy. He had left them too close to a heater, and the padding at the top of both boots in the back was slightly melted. They fit as if they had been custom-made for my feet in the Nordica factory.
I asked, trying to keep my voice from squeaking with excitement, "How much?"
She named a price so low, I gave her $10 extra so I wouldn't feel guilty.
A pair of poles at the ski swap, ski gloves from Alpine Shop, and I was equipped for a negative $10. Amazing.
It wasn't until Christmas Eve day that I went to pick up the Pre's from the Alpine Shop on the hill, but Jimmy hadn't delivered them yet. Not wanting to waste a day or look gift skis in the bindings, I headed for the rental line. As I stepped outside, Jimmy came walking across the Plaza with the Pre's over his shoulder.
He handed them to me and said, "You'll probably need to get the bindings reset so your boots will fit."
I laid them down on the snow and stuck the toes of those darned-near-new Nordicas in the bindings and stepped right in. "Click. Click." It was Christmas Eve, then, presents and all. Thanks again, Jimmy, wherever you are.
That's the legend of how I got my first pair of skis and boots. A year later, a bright red Gerry down parka came into my life unexpectedly through the good graces of my friend Judith, further convincing me of my manifest skiing destiny. And it seems to continue. Those old Pres are in my brother's care now, after a pair of nearly-new Volkls found their way into my life last year. A friend of mine made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Thanks, Charlie.
That's why I figure I was meant to ski - that and Schweitzer itself, the way it whispers to me each year, "Welcome back. There are places you haven't been yet. Come see, come see."
Braid the mountain's song with the collective thoughts and urgings of all the friends and strangers who helped me overcome the Great Ski Disaster of '71, and how can I not think such is the case?
It is just a small legend. How much is it like yours? ·
Sandy Compton is editor of the River Journal in Sandpoint, and is sure to be carving new legends on the mountain this winter.