Max Dercum wears a helmet now when he skis, courtesy of a fall he took while training for the International Masters championships two years ago. "I hooked a tip," he says, describing a racer's nightmare in which the skis straddle both sides of a slalom pole. "The thing fly-swatted me down the hill."
He grins sheepishly as we ride an old double chair lift on a bluebird day at Arapahoe Basin, Colo., the stubbornly anachronistic ski area he helped start 49 years ago. The hard fall detached the retina in Max's left eye. He had it fixed and came back this year to win three silver medals at the Masters.
Max is 83. He is one of a dwindling number of American ski legends who still ply the slopes they pioneered in the years after World War II. California's Dave McCoy is another one. Dave is 80, the father of two Olympic ski racers, founder and still sole owner of the Mammoth Mountain ski area.
Both Arapahoe and Mammoth are true skiers' mountains. That is, image is nothing. Wild snow, dramatic terrain and a practical, unadorned grace are more than enough.
You may not actually get to follow Max or Dave down the hill as I did last winter, but you can ski in their tracks, down trails that bear their names and evoke the skiing they knew 50 years ago.
At the top of Arapahoe's Lenawee Lift, Max and I stand on a treeless white wave at 12,450 feet. It is the highest lift-served point in North American skiing. Max adjusts goggles over his thick glasses and gazes at the rocky peak another 600 feet above us. "I owned that!" he marvels, pointing to the North Pole Chute. "That was one of the abandoned mine claims I bought for $50 back in 1945. I laid the first ski tracks in there in '47." Then he's off and I follow over the edge onto Lenawee Face and down the serpentine scoop of Dercum's Gulch.
Max skis fast, a small figure upright and wiry, with hands pressing forward as he sweeps through the turns. Halfway down the namesake run he stops; we're at the base of the vast West Wall, like a soft iceberg looming above.
"I remember when you could come over here and lay down a set of tracks and come back and [figure] eight your own tracks before anybody else came along."
There is no bitterness in his statement, hardly any nostalgia. Things have changed, that's all.
Max and his wife, Edna, came out to Colorado in 1942 when he was a Pennsylvania forester and she was carrying their first child. They bought an old log cabin, a former stage stop on the west side of Loveland Pass. And then the war came along.
When the fighting ended, Max set about scouting ski terrain. What he found was one of the purest, made-for-skiing alpine shapes in the Rockies, Arapahoe Basin.
Right on the Continental Divide, it resembled a cupped hand filled with snow. Wind-sculpted cornices curled over the ridge lines. Perfect slopes peeled off to the east and north and all the way around to the west.
Max pictured a rope tow and a couple of chair lifts crossing the wrinkled palm of the basin and climbing to the finger tips at over 12,000 feet. At that time Colorado skiing boasted but a few rope tows and T-bars. Aspen had plans for a single chair. The sport, like the Dercums' two children, was barely out of diapers.
By Christmas 1946, A-Basin was open for business. It was an instant success.
Meanwhile, five miles down the pass, the old stage stop evolved into the Dercum family home and a kind of de facto ski lodge for visitors from around the country. They called it Ski Tip Ranch.
As Edna wrote in her memoir, "It's Easy, Edna, It's Downhill All the Way": "We had no door knobs. They were hard to find and expensive. Since all skiers had wooden skis in those days, we would come across broken ski tips on the mountain, left there by some hapless skiers. After discovering how well they worked as door handles we became scroungers of broken ski tips."
Now on the latest unbreakable composite skis, Max leads me onto the scimitar sweep of Cornice Run. From here we look down over Ski Tip to the Keystone Resort, which Max also founded in the late 1960s as a kind of beginning skier's paradise, to the newer resorts at Breckenridge and Copper Mountain and farther west to Vail.
"Isn't this great!" Max asks, and then answers his own question. "Absolutely! I wanted to come to Colorado, and I wanted to do something. And that was the time to do it, by golly. You have this dream, and it comes true! Not many people have the opportunity to say that."
Arapahoe is now owed by Ralston Purina Co., which also bought nearby Keystone in the early 1970s. Ski Tip Ranch is slated to become a kind of clubhouse/museum in the center of Keystone's new $400 million ski village.
Max and Edna, who no longer have any official ties to either ski area and have long since moved to new digs up the valley, appear in the multimedia slide show now playing at the project office as "Keystone pioneers." Their dream, if not co-opted, has certainly been exceeded.
What hasn't changed, thankfully, is A-Basin itself. Five chair lifts have replaced Max's two originals, but they cover the same untamable ground. The same squat little warming hut, the one Max built with his portable sawmill, still hunkers into the Midway meadow. There are no real estate developments or trendy shops and restaurants at the base, just a sensible day lodge and free parking for the faithful.
The mountain remains an unrepentant, natural beauty, with a minimum of polished routes and a loyal cadre of mostly good skiers who crave the challenge of snow in its sparkling, unimproved state.
Max squints into the brilliant white light. "Isn't it great!?" he says to no one in particular, and points his tips into the West Wall.
Mammoth's Dave McCoy is a little harder to pry out of his office and onto the slopes since he is still running the show seven days a week. He has seldom set foot outside the eastern Sierra since his mother brought him, at age 12, to the stark, vertical, barely inhabited back side of the range, and he knew for certain he would spend his life there.
Dave can say he embraced his destiny. He knew he would marry Roma the first time he set eyes on her in 1935 when he was a soda jerk and she was a cheerleader from Bishop. He knew he wanted to ski, and today he still slices a mean arc on the mountain he knew early on he wanted to develop. Under Dave's stewardship, the mountain became the busiest (and some would say flat-out the best) ski mountain in the Far West.
Dave began by exploring the eastern Sierra as a hydrographer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He found one mountain, an extinct volcano plugging a low spot in the Sierra Crest, that caught twice as much snow as the surrounding peaks. Pacific storms funneled up San Joaquin Canyon to the west and poured their crystalline trove on Mammoth's nearly treeless north side.
Not just big snows, monumental dumps. Some years folks in the tiny (population: six) summer resort of Mammoth Lakes had to tunnel down through the snow to their front doors or go in and out through second-story windows.
Dave and a group of skiing friends put in the first chair lift themselves in 1955. They built their own crane, dug the tower holes by hand, mixed the cement. Chair 1 opened on Thanksgiving Day to a lift line of skiers that snaked back on itself again and again.
Since then Dave and his crew have built 30 more lifts, an average of one a year, to stay one step ahead of the snow-hungry throngs who caravan up the back side of the Sierra from Southern California.
Dave has never needed to advertise. Mammoth is L.A.'s ski mountain despite the 300-mile, one-way drive. On a big day the area may sell 20,000 tickets. More than 1 million skiers ride the lifts every year.
But the mountain is so enormous and the web of lifts so vast, the trails themselves rarely feel crowded. In fact, in Mammoth's broad-shouldered bowls, it's difficult to imagine anything like L.A.'s Hollywood and Vine.
Off-slope, some decry the dominance of the automobile here, the self-serve ambience of the town. But Dave is proud of this Everyskier atmosphere, and of the area's relatively modest ticket price.
"I'm not an educated man," he says swiveling from his desk to the view of the mountain's bald crown at 11,053 feet. His father worked in an oil refinery in El Segundo. Dave never went to college. "I think if you're an ordinary person, it makes you feel uncomfortable, the atmosphere at many ski areas today."
Perhaps this is why he shuns the ostentatious luxury, the jTC obvious class structure. "This is any person's town, anybody's ski area. We're about feeling comfortable no matter who you are or where you came from."
On the hill, Dave demonstrates his working-class paternalism. He has a word for every ski patrolman and lift operator we see. He leans out from the chair lift and calls to strangers below: "Anybody having any fun yet?" When we get off Chair 1, the wind drives stinging grains of snow into our faces. "Pepper!" he shouts before launching into upper Broadway.
Dave skis with a compact elegance, legs pressed close together in the old style, hands forward piercing the wind. He is wearing new-style reflector shades and, despite the wind, no hat; his hair lies flat back from the speed. At the bottom he bares all of his teeth in a straight-across grin and says, "Hey, this is great, guys. Thanks for getting me out."
He begs off after a second run. "I've got a meeting with (oldest son) Gary," Mammoth's chairman of the board. Son Randy is the company pilot; daughter Penny is head of employee relations. "Come see me after skiing."
I grab a bagel and a brew from the cafeteria and without the founder, but still feeling his spark, ride the gondola to the summit. I want to ski Dave's Run, a gentle black diamond off the mountain's crown. Snow spits from lowering clouds. The view has vanished; I aim my skis into a monstrous white bathtub. Turns follow the feel of the snow underfoot more than any visual clues.
I imagine I am following Dave circa 1950, when his skis were made of wood and he would have walked up here for the treat of sliding down. Down through a series of porcelain bowls, through Dry Creek and Sanctuary, mile after mile of sinuous terrain and empty snow.
Back in the office, Dave's swimming-pool blue eyes sparkle. "So. Did you have fun? Where did you go? Did you ride that new People Mover? Fantastic! It's a prototype; we're still tinkering with it. We have a lot of work still to do. If you want to call it work. Not to be the biggest, the best but to give people the gift of fun. I wish Ski magazine would add a 'fun' category to their ski area rankings. I'd like to be No. 1 in fun."
How often has he used the word fun today? To Dave McCoy it means something pure, something rejuvenating at the heart of skiing. "How many times today," he asks rhetorically, "have you heard laughter? I believe I was placed here to do this."
If you go
Arapahoe Basin is part of an ownership and ticket-sharing triad with Keystone and Breckenridge resorts in Colorado's Summit County. All are connected by free shuttle bus. There is no lodging at A-Basin -- just the oldest, highest and possibly the best skiing of the three. The closest rooms are six miles away at the Four-Diamond Keystone Lodge or any of 800 condominiums and private homes managed by Keystone -- (970) 468-4242. Denver is 70 miles east via Loveland Pass and Interstate 70. Snow report: (970) 468-4111.
Mammoth Mountain offers slope-side lodging at the classy Mammoth Mountain Inn, (619) 934-2581. All other lodging is down the road in the town of Mammoth Lakes, which offers a mix of mostly modest motel and condominium rooms. Call Central Reservations, (619) 934-2712. Two of the ski area's three base facilities rim the west edge of town. Free shuttles link town with the Main Lodge and Mammoth Mountain Inn several miles up the hill. Snow report: (619) 934-2571.