The Snow Gauge

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The moment I knew my 52-year ski career was over

Posted by on Mar 16, 2017 in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, New Zealand, United States, World | 14 comments

Michael Sharwood

Michael Sharwood

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.

Michael Sharwood

Michael won’t make it back to Whistler in 2020 but there were plenty of great memories in Canada

January 1964

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.

Kimberley

Kimberley – the last remaining t-bar tower. Where it all began …

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.

Snow Basin

A powder journey is never complete without Utah.

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!

Borovets

Borovets, Bulgaria

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/
State
Heliskiing
1.                 Adamants 1990/91 Canada BC Yes
2. Alpbach 2009 Austria Tirol No
3. Alpine Meadows 1981 USA California No
4. Alta 1988 USA Utah No
5. Apex 2004 Canada BC No
6. Arapaho Basin 2006 USA Colorado No
7. Aspen 1983 USA Colorado No
8. Axam-Lizum 2011 Austria Tirol No
9. Bansko 2009 Bulgaria No
10. Beaver Creek 1981 USA Colorado No
11. Big Sky 2008 USA Montana No
12. Big White 1999 Canada BC No
13. Bobbie Burns 1999 Canada BC Yes
14. Borovets 2009 Bulgaria No
15. Breckenridge 1987 USA Colorado No
16. Bridger Bowl 2008 USA Montana No
17. Brighton 2007 USA Utah No
18. Bugaboos 1986 Canada BC Yes
19. Cardrona 1985 New Zealand No
20. Cariboos 1988 Canada BC Yes
21. Castle Mountain 2009 Canada Alberta No
22. Copper Mountain 1995 USA Colorado No
23. Courchevel 2012 France Savoie No
24. Crested Butte 2011 USA Colorado No
25. Deer Valley 1983 USA Utah No
26. Falls Creek ? Australia Vic No
27. Fernie 2004 Canada BC No
28. Galena 1992/93 Canada BC Yes
29. Glungezer 2012 Austria Tirol No
30. Gothics 1995/96 Canada BC Yes
31. Götzens 2011 Austria Tirol No
32. Grand Targhee 2008 USA Montana No
33. Grouse Mountain 1994 Canada BC No
34. Guthega ? Australia NSW No
35. Heavenly Valley 1981 USA California No
36. Hoch Füge 2011 Austria Tirol No
37. Hoch Zillertal 2011 Austria Tirol No
38. Höchgurgl-Obergurgl 2012 Austria Tirol No
39. Hochkrimml-Gerlosplatte 2012 Austria Tirol No
40. Jackson Hole 2008 USA Wyoming No
41. Keystone 2006 USA Colorado No
42. Kicking Horse 2004 Canada BC No
43. Kimberley 1964 Canada BC No
44. Kirkwood 1981 USA California No
45. Kitzbühel 2011 Austria Tirol No
46. Lake Geneva 1971 USA Illinois No
47. Lake Louise 1981 Canada Alberta No
48. La Tania 2012 France Savoie No
49. Les Menuires 2012 France Savoie No
50. Meribel 2012 France Savoie No
51. Methven 1996 New Zealand Yes
52. Mjolfell 1965 Norway No
53. Monashees 1996/97 Canada BC Yes
54. Moonlight Basin 2008 USA Montana No
55. Mt Buller 1966 Australia Vic No
56. Mt Hood Meadows 2011 USA Oregon No
57. Mt Hotham 2002 Australia Vic No
58. Mt McKenzie (Powder King) 1999 Canada BC No
59. Mt Norquay 1980 Canada Alberta No
60. Mt Washington 2007 Canada BC No
61. Mutteralm 2011 Austria Tirol No
62. Nakiska 1988 Canada Alberta No
63. Nakusp 1997/98 Canada BC Yes
64. Near Oslo 1965 Norway No
65. Niseko 2005 Japan No
66. Orelle 2012 France Savoie No
67. Panorama 2004 Canada BC No
68. Park City 1983 USA Utah No
69. Paskapoo (Canada Olympic Park) 1980 Canada Alberta No
70. Perisher (including Blue Cow) 1967 Australia NSW No
71. Powder Mountain 2007 USA Utah No
72. Red Mountain 2004 Canada BC No
73. Revelstoke 1990 Canada BC Yes
74. Revelstoke Mt Resort 2008 Canada BC No
75. Rusutsu 2005 Japan No
76. Schweitzer Basin 2008 USA Idaho No
77. Seedorf Rosshütte 2012 Austria Tirol No
78. Selwyn snow fields 2011 Australia NSW No
79. Serfaus-Fiss-Laden 2011 Austria Tirol No
80. Silverstar 2004 Canada BC No
81. SkiWelt Brixen im Thale 2012 Austria Tirol No
82. SkiWelt Hopfgarten-Itter-Kelschau 2012 Austria Tirol No
83. SkiWelt Söll 2012 Austria Tirol No
84. Snow Basin 2007 USA Utah No
85. Snowbird 1981 USA Utah No
86. Solitude 2007 USA Utah No
87. Spieljochbahn Fügen 2011 Austria Tirol No
88. Steamboat Springs 1987 USA Colorado No
89. St Martin de Belleville 2012 France Savoie No
90. Stubai Glacier 2011 Austria Tirol No
91. Sun Peaks 2004 Canada BC No
92. Sun Valley 2007 USA Idaho No
93. Sundance 2007 USA Utah No
94. Sunshine Village 1980 Canada Alberta No
95. Telluride 2011 USA Colorado No
96. The Canyons 2007 USA Utah No
97. Thredbo 1966 Australia NSW No
98. Treble Cone 1985 New Zealand No
99. Vail 1981 USA Colorado No
100. Val Thorens 2012 France Savoie No
101. Wanaka 1985 New Zealand Yes
102. Wells (Silvertip) 1999 Canada BC Yes
103. Whistler/Blackcomb 1999 Canada BC No
104. Whitefish 1981 USA Montana No
105. Whitewater 2004 Canada BC No
106. Winter Park 1971 USA Colorado No
107. Zermatt 1988 Switzerland No
108. Zillertal Arena Gerlos 2012 Austria Tirol No
109. Zillertal Arena Königsleiten 2012 Austria Tirol No
110. Zillertal Zell 2012 Austria Tirol No

 

 

 

 

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14 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing Michael. I would love to ski half as many hills as you have when my skiing days are over. You have been blessed, and I am impressed that your tone is not too miserable. I know I would be. Cheers – Brett

    • Thanks Brett. Who could possibly be miserable after TMF (the mantra of an Austrian fellow heli-skier, who kept on, and on, AND on with Too Much Fun)

  2. It’s funny in skiing how your most memorable days or even runs are often at resorts nobody has heard of. It’s snow, it’s weather, it’s your mood, it’s the vibe! Great story, and well played on your 52 years of skiing. Shame you couldn’t make it 55 but still a pretty good innings.

    • Well said. One day will stand in my memory. Sundance is a tiny resort, with only two, old, slow chairs. We struck 30 cm or more of fresh, with snow still falling heavily. We skied a great line through trees, over humps, through gullies, all untracked. The falling snow and gentle breeze were enough to restore the line so that the second run on the same line was again untracked; and the third and, it seemed, forever. All this at the senior’s rate of US$12 for a day pass. (Too bad that by winter 2010/11 the price had risen to US$15.)

  3. hell I’ve been skiing for 51 years now & am 55 years old now. Had a knee op last year to remove a torn cartilage, but have skied 3 weeks since CAREFULLY, with no dramas.

    Hopefully I can ski til I’m 77 or 80 plus.

    • Go for it. But when its over, you will know. And no regrets!!

  4. Oh man! Have you not heard of sitskiing? If not look it up. I had been skiing since I was 16 and after a motor accident in 2012 I am now a paraplegic and I still get up the hill.

    • Thanks James and good on you for still getting up the hill. My issue is not a disability – I am almost fully recovered. However there comes a time when enough is enough and it took my little accident to crystalise a feeling that I inwardly knew, but wouldn’t accept, that it was time to quit. No regrets just memories and an awareness of how privileged I was for which I will ever be grateful

  5. Super Michael, it was sooo god and great fun to Ski with you several times. Wonderful memories and wonderful friends we met!!

  6. Michael Sharwood’s statement that Atomic Fatboy skis “led inexorably to the development of parabolic skis” is false.

    The ski industry’s appropriation of snowboarding technology was what actually led to the development of parabolic skis.

  7. I am very happy to stand corrected by Chucky and Jurij Franko So sorry I can’t produce the correct spelling of Jurij

  8. Great story.
    Salute.
    Small quibbles:
    -Orange lifts (@ Buller) was Austrian Blue lifts French
    -Wanaka is a town not a ski field

  9. Lauren if u look closely you’ll see he’s listed Wanaka as a heli skiing destination. That’s why Revelstoke is on the list twice.

    Enjoyed this story Michael and congrats on a fantastic ski career.

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