Column: “Goodbye to G-pop”

Rocky Mountain News, April 17, 2007

G-pop never grew tired of mountains, skiing

My grandfather died last month. He was 97, and he was a hero to his large and scattered family.

G-pop, as we called him, was an energetic, joyous man who loved the mountains in which he grew up and grew old. He lived most of his life in New Mexico, and early on, he discovered fly-fishing and camping. But of all his outdoor passions, skiing was the one that really hooked him.

He learned the sport while he was in the East for school, and when he returned to New Mexico to run the family business and practice law, he immediately took to the slopes.

In 1936, he became president of the Albuquerque Ski Club, climbing and descending the Sandia Mountains with primitive skis that used toe straps and inner-tube bindings. In 1941, he heard the Army planned to establish a ski division to train troops in mountain warfare, and he immediately signed on, helping to organize the newly formed 10th Mountain Division in Camp Hale, near Leadville.

After the war, 10th Mountain veterans started a number of ski areas across the West. My grandfather helped found Albuquerque’s Sandia Peak ski area and Ski Santa Fe, and in his free time, between running two ski resorts, a burgeoning law practice and the family business, he skied all over the West. When I was a kid, I raced after him in Aspen and Taos, struggling to keep up.

Sometime after he turned 75, though, he underwent a difficult heart surgery and never completely recovered his strength. He still skied, and while he didn’t slow down a bit, he was, frankly, a little out of control. Worried for his well-being, the family would form a protective phalanx around him as he skied, a flying V of grandchildren in front of and behind him.

I was more than a little relieved, then, when his doctors told him that, at the age of 85, he should stop skiing because of his weak heart. But I was also worried: I thought this might be the blow that ended it for him.

I underestimated my grandfather, however. Barring him from the slopes couldn’t dim his remarkable enthusiasm and engagement with his life. Every time I called or visited, he’d ask how the snow was, where I’d been skiing, and give me a report on the snow and the ski business in New Mexico. As much as he loved skiing, he also loved the idea of skiing.

He loved it so much, in fact, that somewhere around his 90th birthday, he decided to give the sport one more crack. At a 10th Mountain reunion at the base of Sandia Peak, he booted up in his ancient Langes and borrowed a pair of shape skis.

He stepped into the bindings, attached his oxygen tube to his nose, sidestepped up the hill some 15 or 20 feet (I suspect I’m being generous here), made two or three perilous turns, then stepped out of the bindings and declared to anyone who would listen, “Boy, those shape skis sure are something!”

That was the way G-pop lived – with utter enthusiasm, no matter his limitations. He persisted for another seven years, and although he never skied again, he never gave up his interest in all things skiing – and outdoors-related.

When I spoke with him a couple of weeks before he died, we talked again about the snow, and as always, he asked about my latest adventures. He also offered a bit of advice: Since I was more than six months pregnant at the time, he thought that perhaps it was time to stop skiing until I had the baby.

But being G-pop’s granddaughter, I tend not to heed counsel when it comes to skiing. So the weekend after we scattered G-pop’s ashes over the Sandia Mountains, I visited Ski Cooper, the ski area just above Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division built a rope tow to assist them in ski training, in the same location where the main chairlift runs today.

It was one of those cloudless, intoxicating March days, and from the top of the lift that replaced the rope tow that G-pop once rode, I could see all around me the mountains where my grandfather satisfied his insatiable appetite for skiing and the outdoors.

It had snowed 4 inches the night before, and the snow was creamy and soft. I turned down the hill, crisscrossing the spot where G-pop had, some 65 years ago, carved his own turns. In his tracks, I said my own goodbye.