The moment I knew my 52-year ski career was over
Michael Sharwood had the last ski run of his life all worked out: a run down the Blackcomb Glacier on his 80th birthday.
Like many of the best laid plans it didn’t eventuate as what seemed to be the most innocuous of falls ended his skiing days three years short in January this year.
But Michael doesn’t want your sympathy. He’s skied 110 resorts over 52 years. He’s travelled the world. He’s made life long friends. He conceived (well, conceived of!) his only daughter on a chairlift in Aspen.
This is his story. And a thank you to the sport he loves so much.
It is 11 January 2017, approaching my 77th birthday, I am enjoying a bumper season at the small, laid-back resort of Crested Butte, Colorado. Once again, I am excited about the eight inches or more of fresh powder that has freshened the mountain, as so often this season. As usual, I am the first skier off the first chair, cruising down a gentle, untracked groomer to the East River Express, gateway to a treasure of freshies.
Suddenly, without warning, I find myself spreadeagled in the snow, my left binding released and my right ankle painfully pulsing. Always the optimist, I am certain it is only a bit of a sprain. After an X-ray with boots and all still on (perhaps my last ski photo ever) and a call to an Orthopaedic surgeon I know, the operation to fix the ankle broken on both sides is scheduled for later in the day. After 52, years 110 mountains and only minor injuries until now, I know my skiing career is over.
Kimberley, British Columbia, is a town of about 6000 residents nestling in the foothills of the Purcell Ranges on the western side of the Columbia River Valley looking over the magnificent Rockies to the east. In 1964 it was a thriving mining town which happened to have a nice ski hill, Northstar Mountain, proudly proclaiming “Blue Skies and Powder Snow”. In January of that year, at the ripe young age of 24, I arrived in Kimberley to take up my first full-time job. I was to be a geologist at the large, underground Sullivan Mine.
During my years of graduate study in the mid-western USA, but born and raised in South Africa, I had seen lots of snow but never a ski hill or, for that matter a pair of skis. On arriving in Kimberley and driving up to Northstar I thought: “This looks like fun. How can I get involved?” It was a month until my first pay-day and my limited funds were needed for rent, food and work clothes. I found my way to the only ski shop in town and explained my predicament.
“Help yourself to what you need”, the owner said. “Pay me when you can”. So I bought the lot.
What wonderful devices the boots and skis were. The former were leather but the very latest model; no longer was there an inner boot and an outer one, both requiring hours of lacing. No, these had buckles, the very first of their type! And the all-wooden skis had metal edges, screwed on in sections. No more “bear-trap” bindings either; there was even a swivelling toe-piece. This was really high-tech stuff.
But then, the let-down. I had no cash for lift tickets or lessons. So there I was with the six-year olds, herring-boning up the beginner slope and trying to ski down. I soon discovered that I had no talent; none, not a hint. But I persevered and eventually, after that life-saving first pay-cheque, I could ride the one and only lift on the great Northstar Mountain. And what a lift! It was a home-made T-Bar, with wooden towers and the ride took 12 thigh-burning minutes. It took a lot longer to ski down, but I was hooked. For life.
Sadly my season was short as within just two months I was transferred to a mine way up in the Northwest Territories where I lasted until year’s end before spending my accumulated earnings on a nine-month trip to Australia, the long way round.
On the way I tried out my new-found, although limited, abilities at a couple of small resorts in Norway. After finally arriving in Australia and first living in Melbourne I was initiated into the intricacies of Mt Buller. With two independently owned lift systems and two fiercely competitive ski schools, one French and one Austrian, it took half a day to decide which lift tickets to buy and in what school to enrol. Blue lifts and Austrian? Or perhaps Orange lifts and French. Or French one week and Austrian the next; that was a perilous choice, because everything learned the preceding week was “wrong”!
Moving to Sydney I began to ski at Thredbo and Perisher and with perseverance I developed some skill without any talent. But this was enough to define my personal joy in skiing: the feeling of flight; the intangible freedom. And above all, that ephemeral thrill that demands repetition. To me it felt like soaring on thermals while, at the same time, trying to grab the notes as they emerged from a symphony orchestra in full crescendo. It was still like that until my last run.
In 1980/81, I spent six months on secondment from my job in Sydney to Calgary, Canada, and began to enjoy some much bigger, mountains: Lake Louise, Sunshine Village, Norquay, a nostalgic return to Kimberley and even an excursion to Whitefish, Montana. At Xmas, my pre-teen sons joined me in San Francisco from where we drove to Denver, skiing en route at Lake Tahoe, Snowbird, and Vail. Returning to Australia I decided that my skiing had to move up a notch, so for each of the next three northern winters I joined a three-week guided trip taking in Vail, Aspen and Park City.
By then I could (or thought I could) manage most slopes and conditions so decided that heli-skiing was logically the next challenge. The southern winters of 1985 and 1986 took me to Wanaka in New Zealand’s South Island where we skied Cardrona, Treble Cone and on suitable weather days, the heli. That led inexorably back to Canada and my first trip in late 1986 with Canadian Mountain Holidays, to the Bugaboos.
This was a new dimension; and I was well out of it. Yet, the following winter I returned, this time to the Cariboos, for a second dose. I felt glimpses of true flight and the orchestra was in good voice, but I still wasn’t nearly technically good enough. At the commercial resorts, this problem was highlighted by the introduction in about 1988 of high-speed detachable chairlifts which made so much more time available each day for skiing rather than for sitting on the chair creeping along at snail’s pace. Middle-aged, as I was, my technique was not up to all that extra ski-time.
Here then was another bullet to bite, so the next year I signed up for five weeks of Mike Dempsey’s ski improvement course at Whistler and the rest, as they say, is history. In the years that followed, I racked up another 20 weeks of heli-skiing before retiring on account of its increasingly physical and financial demands.
The best week of all was at Easter 1999 when miraculously I was invited along with my friends from Australia, Canada, Germany and the USA in our R(itual) H(ydration) Ski Club* to join a group of eight skiers, two guides and all the required support staff for an exploratory week in an area south of Prince George in British Columbia. Imagine skiing peaks never skied before; imagine the feeling of being totally in the wilderness effectively alone with your own conception of the Universe; imagine knee deep, untracked powder day after day – to share with just a few others!
By the late 80s the heliski operators had introduced the Atomic Fatboy skis and these led inexorably to the development of parabolic skis. I bought my first pair in Whistler in about 1992 and felt as though 10 years had been shaved off my knees. After 3 days on the oh-so-wonderful Salomon X-Max skis, I thought I would try the old ones, just for comparison. What a silly idea! I had a miserable day with knees and other parts of the body sore and irritated by day’s end. The point was proved. Now, of course everyone is into the reverse camber models for powder skiing and their hybrid offspring for on-piste adventures. My latest and last love was my K2 Rictor 82XTi – definitely the best all-round ski I have ever used.
By 1995 I had discovered the miracle of home exchanging and was able over many years to arrange suitable exchanges in Whistler, Steamboat Springs and Park City. Free accommodation and travelling on frequent-flyer points made for very affordable ski trips. And then, blissful retirement allowing ever longer trips; my heliskiing mate from Vancouver and fellow RH Ski club-founder, Wes, was in the same position, so we started undertaking road trips in Canada and the USA; the first was in BC only, skiing Big White, Silverstar, Panorama, Kicking Horse and another return to Kimberley, finishing off at Red Mountain, Whitewater, Apex, Big White, Silverstar and Sun Peaks.
The second trip took us from Vancouver to Steamboat via BC, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah for a total of 14 resorts. The third trip was from Vancouver to Oregon, Utah and Colorado. No itineraries, just a laptop and a daily decision on where to ski, based on reported snow conditions and the location of other RH Ski Club members with whom we hooked up here and there. In 2014, to the great sadness of our tight-knit group, Wes succumbed to a long illness and the road trips were over. Wes, we miss you. Just a glimpse of a yellow North Face jacket like yours on the slopes is enough to revive those wonderful memories.
The RH Ski Club has undertaken a number of “World Tours” meaning a trip to a country in which none of our members lives. Fun was had heliskiing out of Methven in New Zealand; experiencing the champagne powder of Niseko in Japan which unfortunately is not matched by the mountain which suffers from a lack of vertical and steep pitch. Exotically we also went to Bulgaria after reading an article which described Bansko as the new Aspen, at a much more affordable price. I can only conclude that the author of that article had never been near Aspen! Bansko is less than half the size of Aspen; five times as crowded and not nearly as challenging. And Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk equivalents are not nearby.
We tried Borovets also. No comment!
The best of Bulgaria was the Balkan cuisine: great lamb, sensational salads and sheep-milk yoghurt as thick as ice-cream. With a spoonful of honey this was heaven on a stick!
When my 70th birthday approached in 2010 I thought it would be fun to list all the places I had skied. I was amazed to find a total of 83! That number immediately ignited thoughts of reaching the magic century. Where best to do this? It had to be Europe with its unlimited skiing of which I had tasted so little.
To my delight I was able to arrange a home exchange in Götzens, a little village 5 km outside Innsbruck for the month straddling 2011/12. I discovered the availability of the Tirol Snow Card, which for €630 gave access for the season to 82 ski areas, many of them linked, thus enabling the Century target to be reached very easily. It was early season, but a good snow-year so I managed some nice powder days.
Highlights included a beautiful sunny day at the Stubaier Glacier which to my eyes has the most spectacular scenery of my whole wordwide ski experience; top cruising at Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis, fluffy powder at Muttereralm, a tiny local hill just minutes from Götzens and touring the whole of the region called Zillertall Arena which links the four resorts: Zell, Gerlos, Konigsleiten and Gerlosplatte. However, the real highlight was the day I reached 100. And where did I do it? At a rinky dink little gem of a resort called Glungezer with 1,528 metres of vertical, two very old slow double chairs and three T-bars, one of which is longer than the old one at Kimberley – a 13 minute ride and of course faster than that old thing at Kimberley, so it’s a long trip as my knees kept reminding me.
In winter 2013/14 I spent most of the season at Whistler where I celebrated the 50th anniversary of my first ski outing in Kimberley in 1964. What a pity it was the worst snow year I had ever encountered there. By then, I had had enough touring and aimed to keep going to North America where, in general, I have preferred the snow conditions but especially the trees to ski through or alongside on poor weather days to alleviate the flat light and poor visibility. And I had only one final goal: To ski the Blackcomb Glacier on my 80th birthday in March 2020. Alas, this is not to be!
It pleases me to note that my obsession has not been without fruit. My daughter, the youngest of my 3 children was conceived of on the chairlift at Aspen where one of my friends convinced me to try for a daughter, 14 years after my younger son was born. That daughter and younger son have spent part of their lives as ski instructors in Canada and Australia and now my grandchildren are getting into the sport. And I would be remiss if I did not mention my dear wife who, never a dedicated skier, gave it up in about 2004. Nevertheless she generously and lovingly supported all my trips, often travelling with me and enjoying the ambiance of the mountains. There are no words sufficient properly to thank you, Helen.
Michael Sharwood’s 110 (and out)
|Name of area||Year first skied||Country||Province/
|56.||Mt Hood Meadows||2011||USA||Oregon||No|
|58.||Mt McKenzie (Powder King)||1999||Canada||BC||No|
|69.||Paskapoo (Canada Olympic Park)||1980||Canada||Alberta||No|
|70.||Perisher (including Blue Cow)||1967||Australia||NSW||No|
|74.||Revelstoke Mt Resort||2008||Canada||BC||No|
|78.||Selwyn snow fields||2011||Australia||NSW||No|
|81.||SkiWelt Brixen im Thale||2012||Austria||Tirol||No|
|89.||St Martin de Belleville||2012||France||Savoie||No|
|98.||Treble Cone||1985||New Zealand||No|
|108.||Zillertal Arena Gerlos||2012||Austria||Tirol||No|
|109.||Zillertal Arena Königsleiten||2012||Austria||Tirol||No|