Ode to the Ski Master

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This is my personal accolade to the late Don Bilodeau (1950-2013). He was my skiing coach. His instruction was delivered in a way I’m sure is unique to me.

I was working as a liftee at Lake Louise in the early ’80s. I was assigned to Eagle Chair, a center-pole fixed-grip old double. My great good luck was the terrain served by Eagle. During breaks on a workday, liftees were required to stay within the bounds of our assigned lift, in case we were suddenly needed. For those of us hoping to raise the level of our skiing, one’s lift area had a huge impact on the potential experience. Eagle served a complete variety of terrain, an ideal training ground. I just needed some coaching in order to take advantage of the learning opportunity.

Before opening to the public each morning, the top station lift operator first performed safety system checks, and then swept the chairs as they came by at slow speed. It was a great warm-up after two long lift rides up from the base lodge. When my chore was done, I’d sit down in a beach chair outside the top hut with my thermos and pour a steaming cup of tea. My view was fantastic. Alone, high in the Rockies, I waited for the sun and the first customer. It was sublime.

Every Tuesday morning, my first “customers” were the ski instructor staff, led by their boss, Don Bilodeau. He always responded to my wave. Don had his team out there for a good reason; he was improving and standardizing their instructional technique. Exiting the lift, they glided a short distance and assembled on the slope above Strawberry Flat.

Far enough not to hear clear voices, I could see Don addressing the class. As he spoke, he would shift his weight or move an arm to emphasize his points. Then he would demonstrate: he skied one turn in each direction and stopped to wait while his instructors, one after another, skied down to join him, doing their best to perfectly emulate him.

At the time, my skiing was poor at best. I was all enthusiasm and zero skill or understanding. I was also keen to learn. I had just read a copy of the manual the ski school taught from. It had been written in part by Don himself. The photos in the book illustrating the exercises were all of him.

As I watched Don ski his two demo turns, I completely understood the intended technique and its effect. Watching his staff attempt to duplicate the exercise taught me a useful lesson in human variation. All that remained was for me to use my next break to slide over to the slope above Strawberry Flat. I’d then ski two turns, striving to copy the finesse that Coach, as I came to think of him, had just shown me.

One silent lesson at a time, Don Bilodeau taught me how to ski. I’m sure he never knew. Thanks, Coach.


from Dec/Jan 2022 issue

Ski Canada Staff
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