Matters of Style
Tuesday, September 17, 2019
Written by Peter Oliver
Any righteous young dude who strapped on a pair of skis in the mid-1960s wanted to be like Stein Eriksen. The helmet of impeccably coifed hair, the erect posture, the translucent eyes, the deeply tanned skin stretched as taut as cellophane across a face of sculpted Nordic perfection—Stein had the look all other guys envied. He epitomized the infusion of glamorous virility that a wave of European ski instructors brought to American ski culture at the time. But while his irresistible manliness may have been a carnal siren to women around the globe, it was Stein’s skiing style that elevated him toward godliness in the sporting world. With feet inseparably locked together, he created balletic angles, with his upper body cantilevered toward the inside of every elegant turn he made. During his three seasons at Sugarbush in the 1960s, Stein was a poster boy for the style and technique that all skiers, beginners to experts, aspired to.
But as a stylistic trendsetter at Sugarbush over the years, Stein was not alone. John Egan, one of two fall-line-charging brothers who helped to radicalize and glamorize mogul skiing and extreme skiing in the 1980s and ’90s, got his start in front of Warren Miller’s cameras at Sugarbush. Shaped skis, which revolutionized turning technique, were in large part introduced to the world through instructors at Sugarbush in the early ’90s. Before that, Denise McCluggage, author, former race-car driver, and Mad River Valley resident, tapped into a 1970s fascination with the mental and emotional aspects of sport with her groundbreaking book The Centered Skier. All the while, students at the Green Mountain Valley School in Waitsfield were at the cutting edge of Olympic-caliber racing technique while training at Sugarbush, Glen Ellen (now Mt. Ellen), and Mad River Glen. In other words, if you spent any time at Sugarbush between 1960 and 2000—and beyond—you were likely to encounter something seminal afoot in the Darwinian evolution of skiing technique and styles.
But first, a little background. All modern skiing technique must count as a principal progenitor the so-called Arlberg technique, pioneered by an Austrian named Hannes Schneider in the early third of the twentieth century. Schneider codified technical fundamentals while skiing in the Arlberg region of the Alps, before fleeing war-ravaged Europe in the 1930s to settle in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He identified ways to make downhill skiing safe, efficient, and even elegant—not easy on the long, wooden skis of the day—and then developed ways to teach those same things. Techniques taken for granted today—the snowplow for speed control, weight transfer from ski to ski, knee flexion, and so on—derive from the Arlberg playbook.
During the Stein era at Sugarbush in the 1960s, the Arlberg technique had reached its stylistic apex with “wedeling” (literally meaning “wagging” in German). To be a good skier was to be a good wedeler, and nobody mastered the slinky, squiggling style with more proficiency and grace than Stein. Wagging his skis back and forth in dance-like turns, Stein’s wedeling style was iconic, especially when he threw in his own signature component, the “delayed-shoulder” technique. Leading through a turn with his inside shoulder, Stein looked like he was trying to slip sideways through a half-open door, albeit with his characteristic elegance and panache. Soon, figurines atop ski trophies everywhere were re-creations of a delayed-shoulder Stein in elegantly cantilevered action. Stein was fluidity personified. He himself described his skiing style as a linking of “movements with my lower body that were almost independent from my upper body. . . . I let my skis flow.” Indeed.
The 1960s were a transformative decade at Sugarbush. With Stein—the embodiment of ultimate skiing cool—at the helm of the ski school, Sugarbush rocketed into the big time as the ultimately cool place in the East to ski and be seen. But the ’60s were, of course, culturally transformative in a larger, national context. Integral to that transformation was entry into a realm of soul-searching introspection, empowered by psychedelic drugs, transcendental meditation, Eastern mysticism, a back-to-nature sentiment, and all sorts of other out-of-the-box behavior. That introspective trend continued well into the 1970s and filtered into sports of all kinds. Suddenly, sports weren’t just about athleticism; they were also a mind game. Tim Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, published in 1974 and destined to sell more than two million copies, was one of the first to address the mental aspects of sports. Similar books, by Gallwey and others, followed. The Centered Skier, published in 1977, tapped into that vein, promoting the idea that integrating psychological energy into the physicality of skiing was a pathway to improved technique. The book arose from centered-skier workshops that McCluggage had been conducting at Sugarbush, under the auspices of Sigi Grottendorfer's ski school. The focus was on such stuff as the inseparability of mind and body in skiing; visualization techniques; and redirecting the anxious energy produced by fear toward positive ends. McCluggage was heavily influenced by her own foray into Eastern philosophy, especially tai chi and Buddhism. “Centered Skiing,” wrote McCluggage, “is skiing . . . in harmony of movement, emotion, and thought.” The Centered Skier, says Sugarbush Ski & Ride School director Terry Barbour, “was definitely on the reading list of those in the know. To me, the biggest thing was how our minds blow things out of proportion and hold us back. And visualization became a huge teaching tool.”
Along about the time that McCluggage was conducting her workshops and writing her book, a curly-headed kid from Massachusetts arrived in the Mad River Valley to embark on a ski bum’s life, with hopes of making a name for himself in the sport. John Egan brought with him his own characteristic style, just as Stein had brought his. Quick-footed speed was at the heart of the Egan way, and it was so visually striking that pretty soon Egan became a favorite of Warren Miller, the esteemed ski-film maker. The attacking style translated well into a definitive expression of eastern mogul skiing at a time—the 1980s—when mogul skiing was at the height of its popularity. But a whole new school of skiing was gaining ground: extreme skiing, later to be redubbed freeskiing. Extreme skiing first announced itself to the world in Europe in the late 1960s, when French mountaineers began skiing big-mountain lines that carried a no-compromise maxim: If you fall, you die. But as it migrated to the United States in the ’80s, it became less death-defying and more cinematic. Filmmakers like Miller and Greg Stump began turning their lenses on skiers like Scot Schmidt and Glen Plake jumping big cliffs and skiing deep powder in exotic locations. John Egan was at the forefront of the extreme skiing movement in the U.S., and in the late 1980s joined forces with his brother Dan on the original North Face Extreme Team. Soon Miller was sending John and Dan to take on big-mountain challenges all over the world—but Sugarbush continued to define who the Egans were and how they skied. The title of the 1993 Miller movie Black Diamond Rush seemed a perfect description of Egan-style skiing and included a memorable segment of John and Dan bashing through bumps and powder at Sugarbush. And even when they were far away in exotic corners of the world, the brothers’ cinematically engaging style derived from skills honed at Sugarbush. “Castlerock Lift Line taught me more than any other trail in the world. You learn how to be precise and use the energy given to you,” says John. By comparison, “couloirs at places like Verbier [Switzerland] and Chamonix [France] seemed wide open.” In other words, if you could ski here, you could ski anywhere.
Any skiing style, of course, is dictated at least in part by equipment. Stein might have skied very differently had he had access to twenty-first-century equipment, and Egan might have been a different skier had he learned on the long stiff skis that Stein grew up on in the 1940s. Similarly, techniques taught in ski schools worldwide have evolved as equipment has evolved.
Perhaps no equipment development in the last half century has had a greater impact on skiing technique than the introduction of shaped skis, in the early 1990s. But the new technology got off to a rough start, before finding a launch pad at Sugarbush. When Elan introduced its
revolutionary SCX skis (often called parabolic or hourglass at the time), ski equipment retailers were unimpressed, according to Bill Irwin, who was the assistant ski school director at Sugarbush and a top Elan representative. The skis were “weird-looking . . . too different and too new,” he says. So instead of focusing initially on getting stores to buy into what were considered goofy toys masquerading as skis, Irwin enlisted instructors in the Sugarbush Ski School to experiment with the SCX as a teaching tool. Instructors tried the ski and reported favorable results back to Irwin, and the SCX gained a toehold at Sugarbush and in the national skiing consciousness. In 1995, Les Otten added Sugarbush to his growing American Skiing Company portfolio and made the SCX a major part of the rental and retail offerings throughout the ASC family of resorts. Soon, all the other ski manufacturers jumped on the trend, and the rest, so to speak, is ski equipment history. “We were calling them ‘cartoon skis,’” says Barbour, who was an instructor at Greek Peak in New York at the time. “But the sensations were unbelievable. The ski just wanted to turn, with less effort. It made skiing way more efficient.” Skiing technique and instructional pedagogy were reinvented. Instructors, says Barbour, were “able to introduce tipping movements.” All you had to do was tip the skis up on edge just a little bit and—shazam!—you were turning. Even lower-level skiers were able to experience carving, previously the exclusive province of much more skilled skiers.
Meanwhile, ongoing at Sugarbush since the founding of the Green Mountain Valley School in the mid-1970s was the continual push of the racing-technique envelope at the highest level of the sport. Since 1982, twenty-six GMVS athletes have gone to either the Olympics or the Paralympics, so the race training happening almost daily at Sugarbush for more than forty years (mostly on Inverness at Mt. Ellen these days) has Olympic proof of being of the highest caliber possible. “Those of us who are into technique love to watch what racers do,” says Barbour. “And it’s cool to have that level [of skill] that close and on such a good hill.”
As stylistic trends wend their way through Sugarbush history, they connect in cross-generational ways. In addition to his inimitable turning style, for example, Stein was also famed for doing flips, putting on regular shows at Sugarbush and elsewhere. While his flipping might today seem like innocent horseplay compared with the rowdy stunts freeskiers now pull off in the backcountry from 100-foot cliffs, it was at the radical, extreme edge of skiing at the time. “He was a pioneer in pushing the limits,” says Barbour, talking about Stein, although he could be talking about Egan thirty years later. Interestingly, however, Stein’s original calling card wasn’t in stylistic flourishes like flipping or wedeling; Stein launched his career as a racer, winning the 1952 Olympic giant slalom. Had he been born a generation or two later, he might well have been a student fine-tuning his racing craft at GMVS. And Egan is connected not just to Stein but also to McCluggage. Egan sees McCluggage’s The Centered Skier as formative in the development of his big-mountain skills. “It really influenced my skiing and my love for the sport, and has allowed me to go as far as I have. The awareness factor—of being aware of avalanches and things happening around me—I owe that to The Centered Skier.”
What’s next? Perhaps this winter, some unheralded kid will be executing mind-blowing tricks in one of Sugarbush’s terrain parks, or a future Olympic champion will be redefining racing efficiency on a GMVS training course. Perhaps Barbour, a bright star in the national ski-instruction firmament, will devise some new teaching method that will reshape the way skiers everywhere learn the sport for years to come. He certainly has the talent to pull it off. If past is prologue, something innovative and cool will be going on this winter at Sugarbush. The next Stein or Egan or McCluggage—or Barbour—may just be on the cusp of making some bold, stylistic statement, and the skiing world will, once again, be forever changed.