When I graduated from college I really didn’t have any plans for “a career.” I just knew I wanted to ski and write and, if I was lucky, fall in love with a special girl. So I moved to Jackson Hole and taught skiing for the next four years.
When I tried out as an instructor I went to Pepi Stiegler’s office for my interview. His gold, silver and bronze Olympic medals hung on the wall. He had smart blue eyes and gray hat hair. I had seen movies of him dropping cliffs and heard the story of how when another skier jumped further off the ridge that bears his name, Pepi went and found the guy in a bar. When he later showed Pepi that giant gap, Stiegler demanded to know, “From where?” then hiked 20 yards further up the hill.
“Ski instruct-ah,” he said to me with that Austrian accent. “Not a lot of mon-ee,” and asked me what else I might do. I told him I wanted to be a better skier, then to share what I learned. I didn’t mention the $800 season pass the job would provide, or that I only had $25 in my checking account. But we both knew.
They tacked the names of the instructors who got hired on a Post-it note on the locker room wall. And when I went back to Pepi’s office to sign my contract, I told him that I only had one condition.
“You will not work Christ-muss?” Pepi said, then winked and pushed the paper across his desk for me to sign, too.
You alternate between kids and adults your first year. I told the kids to keep their hands out for balance “like surfers” and to lean into the front of their boots. They didn’t know to be scared. My first students, three fearless brothers from Wales, stood at the top of every black-diamond run and said, “Don’t care.”
But the adults had a million fears. They needed to breathe and to time their breathing to their turns. I had them hum Strauss’ The Blue Danube waltz and unweight their skis as they inhaled. It was only when I saw their faces under those heavy parkas that I remembered who they were: the ballroom dancer from New York City (“an old maid at 28” according to her), the handsome brothers (whose father was the oil minister of Amman with an Italian girlfriend), their friend from Saudi Arabia who liked me because the brothers wouldn’t touch the booze.
The Saudis left a $300 tip and box of cologne from the Polo store. But the young doctor from North Carolina gave me something sweeter when she suddenly took off her hat and goggles on the chair. Her name was Caroline. She said it like she was naming a river, then she let her brown hair spill down her shoulders as she shook it free and her high cheeks went pink in the cold. She stared straight at me with green eyes like emeralds I would never be able to afford and said, “I felt warm.”
You had to be careful with the special forces soldiers because they treated everything you said like an order. You learned to stay quiet with the couples when the wife would improve first and the husband would say, “Do you want to stop for hot chocolate? Are you cold?” The people off the plane straight from sea level—from Chicago, Manhattan or Atlanta—were so surprised by all the open space that they got vertigo. I had them roll snowballs down the slope to convince them that was as far as they would fall.
What I learned about skiing came from from the mountain itself, with its incredible vertical relief and constantly changing temperatures. It came from the other instructors as well—from guys like Tommy who climbed Everest as a rock-and-ridge expert for hire, Richie the Rhino, who said as long as the lifts are running then “Go” (he died on the Snake River one summer when his boat tipped over and his waders filled) and Robbie from Maine who never wore goggles and skied Corbet’s 10 times a day until he broke his femur (two months later, he passed me hiking Glory Bowl).
All of us drinking schnapps and shooting bottle rockets from the top of Apres Vous New Year’s Eve, and skiing down with torchlight flares. All of us waiting for the world to crumble around us because there was so much snow, as if the mountains might turn to water and explode in white waves and drown us.
I barely had enough money to eat one real meal each day. When the roommate who paid the heating bill left, we went nearly a month without hot water. But we never talked politics, and we laughed all day, every day, and if I was ever given the chance, I bet I would go back there right now.
—Elevation Outdoors’ editor-at-large, Peter Kray is the author of The God of Skiing. The book has been called “the greatest ski novel of all time.” You can buy it here: