Roger Marolt: Earning a lift ticket while packing in a memory
I don’t believe it is an awful thing that a tragic event can trigger good memories, even though saying that makes me feel like I am wandering into some sort of sacred space in my mind where silence customarily would be appropriate.
I just finished Tim Cooney’s excellent piece in the Aspen Daily News on the Highland Bowl tragedy of March 31, 1984, where three ski patrolmen lost their lives in a massive avalanche.
One of them was Chris Kessler, whom I knew for many years by reputation, but spent time with just once in my life. It is a memorable and indelible experience that would have remained with me even if he had lived to a ripe old age.
It was the fall of 1983, my senior year at the University of San Diego. Although we were in the heart of our fall baseball schedule there, as usual, my heart was not far from the thought of skiing here. The previous spring I turned 21 and that was the cut-off point for being included in the free family ski pass offered to my mother as a perk for selling tickets at Little Nell. How was I going to pay for three weeks of skiing during my three-week Christmas break?
Not being able to do much directly about the dilemma under the sunshine of Southern California, I turned the problem over to my peeps on the ground back home. On my weekly Sunday evening call home the week before Thanksgiving, I talked it over with my parents. My dad had arranged the possibility of me working with the packing crew at Highlands over the upcoming four-day holiday. It didn’t sound like the greatest plan, but it was the only plan other than spending the outrageous sum of $21 per day for tickets, so I mentally began to humble my attitude for the menial on-mountain labor.
I skipped classes Wednesday and got into my ’68 Chevy Concours (a rare classic now reportedly worth nearly half a million dollars in someone else’s hands, but that’s another story) and began the 1,000-mile odyssey home to my sentence of hard labor in exchange for turns.
I headed left on the outskirts of L.A. when I should have turned right and ended up on the shore of the Pacific Ocean before sunrise. Crap. I righted myself and it was full speed ahead, which was legally 55 mph, even across the great expanse of the Mohave desert back then.
There were caffeine pills called “No-doze” in those days, and I used them to ensure my safety making the long journey alone. I’m not certain how many I swallowed during that 18-hour cruise, but I arrived in Aspen feeling tired as a dog on an August afternoon trying to sleep on a trampoline at a 10-year-old’s birthday party.
We met early the next morning in the patrol room. I was assigned to Chris Kessler’s group. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, when my turn came around he instantly reintroduced me as “college boy” in the most derogatory tone. I smiled and decide then that I was going to live up to all the insolence he implied.
Was I lazy in carrying out my duties? Not exactly. I just had a different idea about packing deep powder that didn’t include hiking sideways down the mountain. My technique was to hold back next to the tree-line while the group moved downhill. When they got a few hundred yards away, I would link a few turns on my way down to join them again.
The effect on Kessler was the same as a child behaving badly in a way that makes parents want to laugh while also being completely maddening. I knew what I was doing was exactly what he would do in my position but also was completely irritating to his present purpose. He asked me what I was trying to prove. That I’m a college boy, I told him. He punched me in the shoulder, and I knew he liked me.
At the end of the day we both admitted to having a great, fun, productive day. By the end of the long weekend, the memory had set itself firmly as a good one. I never spoke to him again.
Back in San Diego that spring, I got the news that he, Tom Snyder and Craig Soddy had been killed in a massive avalanche on The Bowl. It’s a funny thing now; almost every time I hike The Bowl a memory of Chris Kessler pops warmly into my mind.
Roger Marolt has a great appreciation for the pioneers of skiing, even the ones who gave him a hard time. Reach him at email@example.com.
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