Skiing became my passion and obsession. Every chance I got, I would go. Oftentimes this meant a fairly short drive to the Harz mountains where we skied at a small area that was bordered by the fence between East and West Germany. There was a good sized ski-jump there and the joke was that nobody under 150lbs in weight could use it because they might end up in East Germany.
The Harz mountains was a pretty small skiing area and it wasn’t great skiing but it was certainly convenient. There was also a marvelous little restaurant that served the best Hungarian goulash soup in the world, and it was not uncommon for us to devour several bowls for lunch.
One weekend we decided to go tobogganing for a change, and rented sleds for the day. They were wooden with a curved runner and went exceptionally fast. The best way to ride them was to lie face down on the sled with your legs hanging over the back and steer by putting one foot or the other onto the ground. There were about half of a dozen of us having a wonderful time racing down the hill.
Things were going exceptionally well until the front of my ski hit a, very well, concealed, tree stump. The sled stopped dead; I, on the other hand, didn’t and flew through the air with the greatest of ease, landing head first in a snow drift from which I had to be pulled out by my legs. Apart from the injury to my pride, I was completely unharmed and within minutes was back on the sled.
Some time later I was skiing in Italy at a resort called Sauze d’Oulx, commonly referred to as ‘SuzieDo’. I discovered a road full of hairpin bends that went for the best part of a mile. It was snow covered and had high sloping banks. I immediately saw the possibilities; all that was left to do was to try it.
To get onto the road, I first had to go down a short steep run, thread through a couple of dozen trees and then make a sharp left turn onto the road itself. Taking a deep breath and uttering a short prayer, I set off. It was fantastic; just like riding on the Wheel of Death on a motorcycle. I hurtled around the bends, most of the time halfway up the bank almost horizontal, getting faster and faster until I was completely out of control; that is, if I had had to stop immediately. However I made it down in one piece. What a rush! I must have done it about 50 times in a row and only came a cropper once, dislocating my thumb which was extremely painful, however, as they say, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. The best part of it was that nobody else knew it existed so I had it all to myself. Of course, if I had fallen and hurt myself badly, I might have not been discovered until the spring but, like all young people, I considered myself to be immortal!
Eventually, of course, other people wondered where I was heading off to and discovered the run at which point it became crowded and dangerous and I went off in search of pastures new.
I was up on the slopes on another day when a severe blizzard blew up. The danger, in these circumstances, is not necessarily the snow itself but the complete spatial disorientation that comes with it; you often don’t know whether you are moving backwards or forwards or even at all and determining which way leads to the bottom of the hill is very difficult. For some strange reason, I don’t suffer from it and always know which way to go.
There were a lot of people milling around, confused and starting to get frightened and no ski patrol in sight so I started gathering them all up into a group. I then split them into pairs and told the one of the left to focus on the person on the right and the one on the right to focus on the person in front of them. I then led off, skiing about 30 yards down and having the next pair ski to me when I would ski the next 30 yards and the group behind them would ski to the group behind me, etc. In this manner, we managed to get everybody down to the safety of the restaurant at the bottom of the slopes. It was no big deal, but everybody made a big fuss out of it and wanted to buy me drinks. After twenty minutes of this, I went to the restroom, snuck out through a window and went back to my hotel.
On another occasion I was skiing in Spain at a resort called Sol-Y-Nieve (Sun & Snow) in the Sierra Nevada. I had gone with an old school friend of mine. We were staying at a very nice hotel; it must have been nice as the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, was also staying there. I had just had breakfast and was heading back to my room for my gear when I saw the elevator door starting to close. Quick as a flash, I leaped in and found myself penned in by four of the King’s bodyguards who, no doubt, that thought my leap into the crowded elevator was an attempted assassination. I nodded to the King, he nodded to me; the door opened and I was shoved, unceremoniously, out into the corridor.
Later that day I saw the King again. He was skiing with the Queen and his bodyguards. Although I couldn’t see his face, I knew that it was him as the 8 men skiing with him all had Uzi sub-machine guns slung over their shoulders.
Coincidentally or perhaps not so, the Spanish Army was out in force on the ski slopes doing one of their winter warfare exercises. To say they were ill-equipped for the effort would be a colossal understatement. They were all wearing their standard military uniform and had boots, bindings and skis that were almost prehistoric in age. They weren’t much better at skiing and it didn’t seem that their instructors were particularly proficient. During our skiing breaks we often watched, with great amusement, their efforts to stay upright.
After lunch that day, Paul and I had gone to the top of the mountain for a fast run down the longest piste on the hill. I was travelling about as fast as I could when I flew over the brow of a hill and saw the entire Spanish Army contingent in front of me. They were in a long line going down the slope waiting, no doubt, for an instruction to begin skiing.
I skidded to a halt, sending out a gout of fresh snow towards the topmost soldier. He lost his balance and toppled over, knocking the man next to him down who in turn knocked the man next to him over. As we stood there transfixed, the entire line went down like a row of dominoes falling. It was wonderfully amusing. As we stood there, laughing so hard that our sides hurt, it occurred to us that we might be safer out of the area so we quickly skied off, and then switched jackets and hats to disguise our appearance.
I met Martin and Micho Greene on that trip. I saw Micho take a bad fall and skied over to see if she was alright. We started talking and she invited me to join her, her husband and some friends for a drink that evening. There were a couple chess boards set up in the bar so Martin challenged me to a game. Their friend Des said he wanted to play the winner. Since there were two boards, I said I would play them both at the same time and promptly won both games. Martin immediately started calling me Spocko, which caught on faster than a dose of clap, and some 40 years later I am still known as that by a number of people. No, it didn’t have anything to do with my ears.
The worst skiing accident I ever had was one of those freak occurrences that should never have happened. This was in the days before ski brakes when the skis were attached to the boots by means of a strap. I was skiing down a fairly innocuous straight piste when I wiped out. As I fell, my foot popped out of the ski binding and the ski spun around like a samurai swordsman warming up. The metal edge of it caught me just above my left eye and knocked me absolutely cold as well as opening up a 4” gash. I was probably unconscious for a couple of minutes; the good thing was that it had missed my eye and also the cold had cauterized the wound very quickly. Ski Patrol insisted on taking me to the hospital and having me checked for concussion.
Many years later, I was living in Kings Beach, Lake Tahoe, in my cousin George’s A-frame. I skied almost every day at Northstar where the skiing was incredible. It wasn’t the most advanced area but there were some glorious long runs and it was literally around the corner. Many weekends during the winter, George would bring group of kids from his school up. Most of the kids were about 14 or 15 and beginners, so I would go with George and help him teach them. It was a lot of fun.
One weekend he brought a youngster of 13 named Oban, who was said to be a really gifted skier and George asked if I would take the boy skiing with me. I said ‘Sure.” and off we went. On our first ride, it was very apparent that he was sensational and although I was faster (longer skies and more body weight) he kept up with me.
I asked him if he liked to race. He nodded his head and as we went up the chair lift I pointed out the course we would be running on. It was a good test of skill with a very long and steep downslope to begin, which then veered hard right through a tree lined piste and then straightened up for the final section, a mogul field.
We set off and within seconds were at full speed. As we came to the turn, I could see him, out of the corner of my eye, coming up fast. We slid through the turn, our skis sending a crackling noise through the air and echoing in the trees but still we were close together. I realized that he was gaining on me and that unless I did something special, I was going to lose, and I don’t like to do that. The mogul field loomed large; hundreds of large mounds of crusted snow and on my left, the boy made the first turn ahead of me.
There was nothing for it. My only chance was to go straight down so I aimed the points at the bottom of the slope and took a deep breath. I hit the top of the first mound and took off, landed, narrowly missing the top of the next one and then I was up in the air again. A short, heart-wrenching, spine-jolting, knee-destroying while later, I skidded to a stop and looked back to see a pile of snow rolling down the hill towards me; the boy had fallen and I had won the race.
A few seconds later he skied up to me. “That is the fastest I have ever skied. It was great,” he said “but you are one crazy motherfucker!” I didn’t know that 13 year old’s knew that sort of language! It was also the first time I realized that ‘mother’ was only half a word.
On another occasion I wanted to do some powder skiing which requires a completely different style. I knew how to do it in theory; I had just never practiced. Anyway I found a patch of deep powder and set off through it. I ended up going much faster than I had expected, straight down a slope towards a bank of fir trees. My first attempt at a turn met with complete failure as did my second and third and I was rapidly running out of room with the trees getting larger and closer by the second. I tried to stop and that didn’t even slow me down so there was nothing for it but to fall over!
The next thing I knew I was upside down in the air. I then landed on my back knocking the wind out of me. I still don’t know what had happened but I suspect that the skies had stopped moving as my body was still going and the jolt had propelled me out of them. I lay there in the snow, fighting for breath. A ski patrolman came up to me skidding to a halt.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” I replied.
“Good,” he said. “I gotta tell you, that was the funniest thing I have ever seen in my entire life!”
If only he had captured it on video; it would have gone viral for sure.
One of my most spectacular stunts on skies was when I went over a jump only to find somebody standing in the way. To avoid hitting them, I leant forward quickly and jabbed both my ski poles in the ground. This had the unexpected, to me, at least, effect of throwing my body down and forward. I executed a full somersault, landed cleanly and stopped right by the obstacle.
The woman’s mouth opened to say something but I got there first. “Are you looking to get killed?”
“No,” she said.
“Well in that case, I suggest you find somewhere else to stand. Go on now,” I replied, shooing the stupid cow away down the slope.
My skiing style was best described when a ‘run’ with a friend of mine, who had trained with the US Olympic team, culminated with him asking me the question “Is it that you don’t know how to turn or just don’t like to?” I did know how, and would often be seen jinking left and right, listening to an incredible piece of New Age music called Transfer Station Blue, which I still have in my collection. When I listen to it now, it brings back those days in a surge of memories. However, whenever I could see a clear path from top to bottom, I liked to go straight down as fast as I could. People who ski like that are known as Kamikazis because we would yell Banzai just as we took off.
As you have probably gathered by now, I was addicted to speed and the ultimate rush, for me, was racing. I was out doing this one day with a friend. We had worked out a route and had run it a couple of times but there was one short flat section in the middle that really slowed us down. As we were heading up the mountain in the chairlift, I pointed out something. “Rich,” I said “when we come down that slope there, if we go to the right, towards the other lift, instead of going straight down, we can use the downslope from the lift to maintain our speed. What do you think?”
He looked at me a little strangely and agreed. I didn’t pick up on it but he knew exactly what would happen if we did what I was suggesting. I, obviously, didn’t but was about to find out!
We hit the upslope to the lift at about 50mph. What I had failed to take into account was that the speed would launch us like a rocket into the air. I was probably 15’ up when I realized my error, and, for a split second, panicked. That was enough to shift my balance irretrievably and I wiped out with a flourish. I hit the ground hard and bounced two or three times before ending up lying flat on my back with one ski still on and the other standing vertically about 20’ behind me. I was laughing so hard that it took about 2 minutes for me to stop.
I lived in Tahoe for 6 years, and every winter would ski as many days as possible, so every season I would get between 60 and 70 days of skiing. It was a lot and I skied hard and fast all the time. After 6 years though, I started to have a lot of knee pain, and consulted a doctor who told me that I had worn out my cartilages, and needed surgery if I was going to continue to ski. I thought about it, but decided that I had skied enough for several lifetimes, and in order to avoid the surgery, gave it up.
Every winter though, when the snow starts falling, my thoughts turn to skiing.
I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed reading or listening to this chapter as much as I’ve enjoyed writing and recording it.
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