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Feature - Heroes, role models and twinkies

They draw on their experiences in long, productive lives to teach people the skills to slide down a mountain, and in this they find meaning

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By G.D. Maxwell

When I was 9 years old, I wanted nothing so badly in the world as I wanted to be Superman. Mind you I was not greedy about my desire. I didn’t care so much about Superman’s strength or his X-ray vision, although just a few years later, tormented by the knowledge only one thin wall separated the boys’ shower from the girls’ shower at my junior high school, I might have had second thoughts about X-Ray vision.

No. I wanted to fly. I wanted to fly so badly I could taste it. I was certain if I wanted it badly enough, if I put my entire body and soul into it, I could unlock Superman’s secret of flight.

I was wrong… painfully wrong. Eventually, I came to accept the limitations imposed by gravity, forgave my parents for not having been born on Krypton and gave up the idea of flying under my own power, settling uncomfortably for cattle class on Air Canada when flight becomes an unavoidable reality.

This is not to say my search for larger-than-life heroes ever disappeared. But rapidly chewing into my sixth decade, I’m no longer enamoured of the comic-book variety. Casting about for likely role models, I’m more inclined towards the possible – if exceptional – rather than the purely fictional.

I’ll happily settle for growing into the shadows of, say, a Doug Dixon… or Don Guthrie… or Lorne McFadgen. They can’t fly, though each of them glides gracefully on skis. They don’t possess super strength, though each has proven his mettle over a lifetime’s Ironman. And I’m pretty sure they don’t have X-Ray vision, though each can watch a skier and quickly see those annoying habits holding them back from breaking through to the next level of enjoyment.

Heroes? Maybe. Role models? Good enough for me. Twinkies? Without a doubt.

Doug and Don and Lorne share a passion for skiing and a passion for teaching others to ski. Collectively, they’ve taught skiing on Blackcomb Mountain for 52 years. This season past, they’ve taught nearly 300 days between them… each and every outing a private lesson.

Ask them what sets them apart in a ski school full of talented, hard working instructors, many of whom have been kicking around Whistler longer and teach to a more gruelling schedule, and they’ll tell you the unvarnished truth: "We’re old."

Only if you measure by the calendar.

* * *

On Jan. 10, 1929, a young reporter boarded a train for the land of the Godless Soviets. It proved to be the first of a long-lived series of swashbuckling adventures for Belgian writer Hergé’s alter ego: Tintin.

In Regina, Saskatchewan, Doug Dixon was born.

In a toque, you might easily mistake Doug for being much closer to 55 than his 75 years. The set of his jaw, the close-clipped moustache, keen steely blue-grey eyes – all that’s missing is a white silk scarf to complete the dashing image of a World War II RAF fighter pilot.

Without his toque, snow-white fuzz – more space than hair – gives him an aura of serenity and adds a few years to the estimate. Either way, you’d want to card him to believe the truth.

Like any good teacher, Doug’s a quick learner himself. It didn’t take him long, roughnecking in the oilfields of West Texas after high school, to realize there were easier ways to make a living. Studying business at the University of Toronto isn’t necessarily one of them but it probably isn’t a bad place to discover talents and learn skills for one that is, so that’s what Doug did.

Universities are where people go to become educated, to learn new skills, to prepare for a satisfying life… and most importantly, to discover the true meaning of summer – summer jobs. It was a summer job that led Doug to Lake Louise and it was Lake Louise where he found his Sheila.

Now, Sheila was smarter than Doug. Sheila was a student at UBC. Anyone who’s had an opportunity to (a) spend a winter in Toronto and (b) spend a winter in Vancouver, understands the edge Sheila had on Doug. Coupled with the fact that Doug was a guy in the prime of life, the payoff of that summer job was obvious. Doug followed Sheila to Vancouver in much the same way a puppy will follow anyone who holds out the prospect of either feeding or petting him.

Mountains, I have observed, have one of two effects on people who grew up in a place like Regina. My mother-in-law, a prairie girl, finds mountains a rocky and foreboding and thoroughly appalling waste of potentially good farmland. Doug, on the other hand, took to mountains like junkies take to smack. In short order, Sheila had him settled into a job, raising a family and, most importantly, volunteering for the Grouse Mountain Ski Patrol. Women are smarter than men.

Within the subcultures of mountain culture, there is a friendly rift between ski patrollers and ski school teachers. I don’t understand it; I only report it. "I used to think ski instructors were such a bunch of turkeys," Doug himself admits. So it is all the more amazing Doug crossed the divide and became a teacher after volunteering 15 years on Ski Patrol.

Or maybe it isn’t. Two of Doug’s children grew up to teach skiing. That would be two of three daughters. Yes, once again it was women who showed Doug the One True Path. There’s a pattern here, I think.

So at the age of 52, Doug began teaching as a weekender at the newly launched Blackcomb Mountain. Nine years later, faced with the difficult choice of continuing to work at Scott Paper, where he eventually put those business classes to good use for 30 years, or moving to Whistler to teach full time, Doug chose the only sane career path – become a full-time ski school teacher at age 61. I’m sure Sheila had something to do with that decision too.

In the years since then, Doug’s garnered Instructor of the Year a time or two, taught countless classes, made countless friends and skiers out of perfect strangers and always been near the top of the heap in the privates pod.

Doug’s known for two things around the Ski School. The first is sessions. Sessions are what Ski School does on the mountain before the public heads up. Teachers teach teachers in sessions. Sessions are often highly technical, geared towards laying the pedagogical foundation for instructors to climb the next rung on the CSIA ladder. Doug says he goes to learn. Well, actually he says it’s a great chance to rip up the mountain when no one’s up there. Doug never misses sessions. Sessions happen at an ungodly early hour. Sessions are not mandatory. Draw your own conclusions.

Perhaps as a concession to age, Doug limits his teaching to levels 1-5. "I can ski a good morning with a strong Level 5," he says. "They’re keen on getting good in bumps, powder and steeper slopes. The next level up, they’re already good in that stuff and are looking to be taken to terrain that will challenge and delight them. I’m just not there."

So what keeps a guy well past what most people think of as retirement age performing a job most people think belongs in the world of the young? Get Doug talking enough and you get the slightest hint of evangelical fervour, a keen desire to share the beauty and pleasure so integral to sliding on mountains.

"I was teaching a, shall we say, mature couple. It was a perfect Whistler day, blue skies, sunshine. They were low level skiers making reasonably quick progress when they could take their minds off the scenery long enough. I decided to take them on the grand tour through Burnt Stew Basin when, half way up the old Peak Chair, the woman burst into tears. I tried to calm her down but it was only when we got to the top I learned she was terrified of heights.

"By the time we’d skied back down to Green Chair, she was ready to do it again! She hadn’t conquered her fear of heights but reasoned if she kept her eyes shut until we told her to open them, she could handle another ride up Peak. It was worth that much to her to have the opportunity to ski through that scenery one more time."

The other thing Doug’s known for at Ski School is One More Year. It’s what he answers whenever he’s asked how much longer he’ll teach. He’s been answering that way for longer than most people last in Ski School. Next year’s no exception. "One of these years, I’m going to have to pull the plug on teaching. If I’m going to teach, I want to teach. I don’t want to end up going through the motions.

"As soon as October rolls around and I see a little dusting on the mountains, I’m keen to go back at it," he says. "One more year."

* * *

On March 26, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi was nearing the end of his 200 mile protest march to the sea where he and his followers were determined to defy their British colonizer’s monopoly by making their own salt. Gandhi arrived at his destination on April 5 th . The next day, Hostess Twinkies were invented.

Mrs. Guthrie gave birth to a boychild and named him Don while that was going on.

Don grew up in Vancouver and two things were in his blood from the very start – mountains and the culture of Japan. Florence Kamura was the love of six year old Don’s life. She was sweet and smart and polite. She wore neat, little white socks and Don speaks of her 68 years later much as Jedediah Leland in Citizen Kane spoke of the girl in the white dress on the departing ferry who he saw for just a moment in time but whose image stayed with him a lifetime. Don adored Florence. Florence knew nothing of this. That’s the way things are when you’re six years old embroiled in a cross-cultural romance.

As a teenager, Don would catch a bus or ferry and head for Grouse Mountain to ski, in a manner of speaking, a manner preserved now only in museums. Skis were long, bindings were primitive and the best skiers skied with a single pole between their legs to help them stop and change direction. Of course it was a blast.

A career with IBM that began with business machines and spanned the advent of the computer took Don and his wife Pat to Ontario, then to New York, then back to Ontario. In the intervening years, Don morphed from a marketer to a pioneering systems engineer.

But it was Don’s youngest daughter who got him back into skiing and, like Doug, into teaching. Thank God for women.

"Daddy, you’re going to be retiring soon," she told him. "Teaching would be a great thing to do in your retirement."

And so it has been.

Don is a rare ski teacher. He prefers, is in fact passionate about , teaching skiing to people who have never skied before and been saddled with doubt as to whether they ever could. He is perfect for that role. His eyes twinkle with anticipation. His voice is soothing and reassuring. His whole countenance whispers confidence. Taller and much better looking, Don nevertheless is Yoda, Jedi Master and patient teacher.

That doesn’t always work to his advantage. Twice during the past season, Don’s been scheduled for a whole week of private lessons with never, ever skiers. Twice he’s taken them from non-skiers to level 4 skiers in so few days he’s had to pass them on to other instructors for the second half of their ski week. It’s not that Don couldn’t continue with them, teach them to ski bumps and steeper pitches, he just prefers not to.

A dozen years ago, Don’s cultural bifurcation was made whole in one of those ironic life accidents. He noticed, almost too late, a call for ski teachers to go to Japan during the slow days of January. Too late to join the rest of the group, he finagled his way in and set out on his own.

The program is tailor-made for a systems engineer looking for a proving ground to hone his maverick teaching theories. For some time, Don had noticed that a significant segment of the population was physically incapable of moulding their physique into the CSIA’s pedagogy – they couldn’t snowplow.

The systems engineer in him sought fault with the system, not the user and thus was born the Guthrie Let’s Let Everybody Have a Skiing Experience Technique for teaching beginners: Carving from Day One.

"I’d been teaching groups of Chinese who’d come up on bus tours to ski. None of them had skied before and the lesson was part of their tour. I’d noticed in particular that many of the ladies just couldn’t physically point their toes in. Telling them to snowplow was like asking them to point their feet backwards.

"But with new ski technology – shorter skis with lots of shape – it was possible to get them to shift their weight and steer a bit through edging. When you’re not on a big hill, beginners can pick this up quickly and begin making rhythmic turns down the hill. This is the thrill of skiing!"

Unquestioned Sensei in Japan, Don-san put his technique to work with the school children he journeys to teach every year. Pitted against other instructors utilizing the standard snowplow, Don found his kids learning more quickly, progressing further, and most importantly to him, having way more fun in the short time he has with them. He’s convinced even if the Alliance remains skeptical.

"When I get to Japan, I have eight hours with people who don’t speak my language. What do I want them to do? I want them to get up on the hill and carve turns, which is what kids want to do. And get them there as fast as possible.

"It’s just a great experience when you’re the old bugger. Most people in Ski School don’t expect very much of you. It’s not necessarily overt but it just shows through. In Japan, all the liftees know me. They’re local farmers, not skiers. They’re probably younger than me but they’re hard working farmers. They’re wrinkled up, shrivelled up bastards and they look at me and they know I’m a lot older than they are and I can ski and they can’t. To them, this isn’t a matter of envy, it’s a matter of respect."

"Why teach?" he repeats the question when asked. "Passion. No other reason. Being a ski instructor is transporting other people to the most wonderful, thrilling experience they can have. I teach because I love it."

* * *

It’s a rare occupation that embraces workers ranging in age from 18 to over 80, workers doing essentially the same physical tasks. Rarer still when that job engages them in helping a cross-section of the public pursue a passion to more exquisite heights.

"With guys like Doug and Don," says Rob McSkimming, Whistler-Blackcomb’s Ski School director, "the life skills they have and bring to a lesson are hugely important. They’re also role models for some of the other people in the school. They see these guys and they figure teaching’s something they can be doing for as long as they want or something they can get back to later in life. It opens up possibilities as far as their long term thinking goes."

Doug and Don chose an unorthodox, but not unique, path to ski school. They both had "real" jobs, careers, and came to teaching in retirement, bringing a well-developed set of non-skiing skills to the task.

By contrast, Lorne McFadgen claims to have invented skiing.

(To be continued next week….)