The importance of ski heroes

Everyone needs a role model to look up to: for inspiration and to aspire us to be like, as good as, or better than, them. Our heroes can have a profound effect on our skiing path…

Hero: ‘a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities; a person who is greatly admired; a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability.’ That last definition seems particularly accurate when I think of some of the skiing heroes I have worshipped in my life.

Heroes are important (by the way, rather than use hero/heroine I’m going to use ‘hero’ to cover both sexes). They might be the reason we take up an activity or sport, go down a particular pathway or act and dress the way we do. For many of us who ski, they have had a profound effect on our lifelong journey in pursuit of fun.

Most people who know me well would probably say I’m a bit geeky (…or odd). Geek: ‘typically connotes an expert or enthusiast or a person obsessed with a hobby or intellectual pursuit, with a general pejorative meaning of a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual’. Yep, that’s me, and lots of ski instructors/coaches I know. So my heroes have tended to be those skiers who were very technical themselves. Although, funnily my first skiing hero didn’t fall into that category at all, he was just cool.

When I first started working at Sheffield Ski Village it was in the ski patrol, but I quickly worked my way up to ski school as an instructor, on the lowest rung of qualifications. But I was an instructor, in a red uniform and with a swagger, for a while… then I understood that compared to the best skiers there I had a pretty long way to go.

By the way this is important – you need to understand how good you are to improve; if you think you’re ‘shed’ hot there’s no reason or drive to improve, and I guess we all know people like this.

Anyway, one of the best skiers there at that time was Rich Birkby. Younger than me by a few years, he had a natural style that was impossible to reproduce. His holiday snaps were of him skiing impossible steeps in Italy and he got the prettiest girl in the ski school. Yep, he was cool and as he got better I tried to keep up, but never caught him. He’s still cool now, building his own house on New Zealand’s South Island and involved, somehow, with the very hip baselayer company Mons Royale. His new skis are 270mm underfoot and 163cm in length, achingly cool, and he blatantly finds enough powder to ski them regularly… yeah, he’s still a hero (but don’t tell him I said that).

My next hero fits with my geeky nature. In the 1988 cult classic The Blizzard of Aahhhs, there’s a sequence where Mike Hattrup skis bumps, grunting his way through every hit. When I first saw that a new star was born in my eyes, and it helped set me on the pathway to competing – and then coaching – moguls. That short sequence culminated in me coaching World Cup and World Champs halfpipe. It was the sheer skill in which he danced down that bump field.

Blizzard of Ahhhs produced Simon's next ski her0
Blizzard of Ahhhs produced Simon’s next ski her0

Hattrup was the unfashionable star of the film and other Greg Stump epics – a little stilted in front of the cameras when asked to speak, but technically strong in everything he did. I now wanted to ski like him. Every time I skied bumps I thought I was Hattrup. Somewhat a far-fetched fantasy – but I tell you what, that fantasy got me a long way and I drank in everything any coach said to me, and the performance of any good skier I saw.

My movement outside the boundaries of marked pistes and ski areas was a slow evolution. I can’t think of any key moment or person that led me to define a good day’s skiing by how much fun I had on anything that wasn’t pisted. But someone who accompanied me for many years as a coach in moguls and on a few magical trips, and who showed me what the mountains really had to offer, was Eric Berthon.

Eric was a World Champion in moguls, coached the French team and for many years worked with the England Moguls team in Tignes and on trips to the UK. Around the time he stopped coaching for England, I moved onto halfpipe. He set up as a guide in the Isère valley and myself and a group of friends would go out to ski with him at weekends. He was the first person to really get me on skins, to rapel into a couloir, show me in a practical way what is – or can be – dangerous about skiing, and he always had me out of my comfort zone at some stage. I’ve not skied with him for four or five years, which is much too long. I’m probably getting a little arrogant and dare-devilish, so I should go and see my sensei to bring me back to earth.

Many people impact our skiing memorably, whether it’s our first instructor or best skiing buddy. They shape and mould how we ski and how we see ourselves as skiers. Identify who your heroes are, and why, and you might just discover where you are going on this crazy skiing life adventure. FL