Elite ski pros partying like its 1968 in Aspen this weekend
A group of ski instructors who survived the 1960s will hold a reunion in Aspen this weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of one their marquee events of the decade.
Ski pros from throughout Europe, Japan and North America converged in Aspen in April 1968 for the 8th International Ski Instructors Congress. The ski instructors get together every three years to show off their country’s distinctive teaching technique at an event known as Interski.
The 1968 gathering was the only time it has ever been held in the U.S.
David “Scooter” LaCouter was a 24-year-old, top-notch skier who was among the 24 men and nine women the Professional Ski Instructors of America picked for the demonstration team at the 8th Interski. The group was essentially the best of the best. Ski instructors from throughout the country tried out to qualify.
“It was terrifying,” recalled Lavelle Saier, then a 31-year-old ski instructor in her fourth season at Aspen Mountain.
Saier retired last season after 51 winters in Aspen as an instructor. LaCouter celebrated his 50th consecutive season of teaching skiing at Aspen Mountain this season. He had taught two prior seasons in Aspen, but they are not counted among his years of service because he went back East to teach for a while.
Once the PSIA demo team members were selected, the instructors got together regularly throughout the 1967-68 season to practice.
“It was practice, practice, practice,” said Kenny Oakes, then a 24-year-old ski instructor in Aspen who made the cut. They skied in tandem and also as part of a larger, synchronized group.
Oakes taught for a couple of decades and remains a resident of Aspen. Aspen Skiing Corp. had a fourth member of the team, Craig Jacobie, who has since died. Curt Chase, the longtime director of Aspen Skiing Corp. ski schools, was head coach of the team.
Interski was a big deal, the instructors said. Aspen threw a party as only Aspen can. There was a massive parade to start the 10-day event. An old film narrated by the late Steve Knowlton shows the parade resembled the grandeur of opening ceremonies of the Olympics. There were at least 10 participating nations, LaCouter said.
The American team wore cowboy boots and hats. All visitors received a hat.
“I remember the French guys all wanted our cowboy boots,” he said.
Ski instructors from throughout the United States who weren’t part of the demo team were invited to attend. An old brochure that LaCouter has managed to hold onto for 50 years laid out the activities for the “chance in a lifetime” event.
“Demonstrations by the participating countries will be scheduled for 5 of the 10 days,” the brochure says. “Lectures, films and slide presentations are scheduled for Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen.
“Special lodging rates of $5 per day, double-occupancy, have been arranged through the Aspen Association and Charlie Patterson for those attending the Congress. Special lift ticket rates of $3.25 for skiing on Ajax Mountain have been made through the Aspen Skiing Corp.,” the brochure continues.
A Ute Indian blessing punctuated the opening weekend, then the hotshots took to the slopes. It was a surprisingly cordial gathering designed to share trade skills rather than show up one another.
“The nations compare the way they ski with one another rather than compete with one another,” LaCouter said.
Saier said conditions were perfect. It snowed every day in April so the slopes were powder-filled for the demonstrations on Aspen Mountain.
“The Europeans couldn’t get over it,” she said.
As the host country, the Americans fielded the only women’s demo team, wearing tight, white outfits.
“They looked absolutely fabulous,” LaCouter said.
The public was invited to watch the activities, which featured the national teams strutting their stuff down the North American slope. The deck at Bonnie’s restaurant, then Gretl’s, was ground zero for spectators.
Oakes said the goal for the teams was to be precise in their skiing. There was no flexibility in individual technique. There was pressure on the instructors to do their peers proud.
“This is representative of the whole country,” he said.
The instructors recalled trying to adapt to the Rosemount ski boots, one of the first all-plastic models. They were side-entry so many instructors didn’t like them, Oakes recalled, but Rosemount was a sponsor. Oakes and LaCouter were both on Head 215cm skis.
At the end of the event, the ski instructors from the various countries met at the top of the slope, exchanged sweaters and skied down en masse. It was the only opportunity for individuality.
“You didn’t know who was who,” LaCouter said. “You weren’t handcuffed by your technique.”
Ski instruction started changing after 1968, Oakes said. It loosened up and techniques were blended. Then again, just about everything changed after 1968 — a seminal year in world history.
When asked what Aspen was like in 1968, Saier let out a drawn out, “Aaaahhhh,” like she was fawning over a movie star.
“It was the very best year,” she said. “Almost everybody in town had a pickup with a dog and a broom.”
Oakes recalled Aspen as a blend of Haight Ashbury and an upscale jazz scene.
LaCouter said it dawned on him earlier this winter that the 50th anniversary of Interski was approaching. He has been toiling trying to get ahold of as many surviving members of the U.S. demo team as possible.
The attendees are hitting the slopes today and gathering at the Limelight tonight. Current PSIA demo team members will be in town. The event coincides with the unrelated World Synchro Championships on Aspen Mountain on Saturday.
LaCouter is eager to see his old teammates. He credited Aspen Mountain manager Peter King for installing signs at the top of North American some seasons ago marking the historic Interski.
LaCouter said he is amazed at how many people still remember the event.
“I may be more recognized for it now than I was then,” he said.
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Mario Ruiz came to Aspen Highlands from Bariloche through the ski patrol exchange as part of the Sister Cities program last winter. He quickly ingrained himself with the Highlands patrol. Ruiz was killed July 27 in an avalanche while working at his home ski area. The Highlands patrol is raising funds for his family.