I’ve had more wonderful and memorable Christmas presents in my life than I’ll ever deserve, but I received an early one this year that might just top them all.
You see, on Dec. 11, I got to meet for the first time one of my true skiing heroes, and it was right here on a mountain in Maine.
John Woodward is, among other things, the most famous skier to ever come out of Iowa, the man who led the training in World War II of the famous, skiing 10th Mountain Division, and at 95 — yeah, 95 — the oldest retired ski racer in the world.
And he ain’t really retired yet, as he continues to be a member of the USSA Alpine Masters Western Regional Racing Team, based on World Cup points.
When a comparative youngster like me has a chance to sit and talk with John and his charming wife of 10 years, Lois, age 84 and a fabulous skier, I know I’m not just talking about ski history. John Woodward IS ski history.
Born in Iowa in 1915, Woodward moved with his family to the Pacific Northwest when he was very young, and his life in skiing began when he was 15, strapping on his first pair of skis in the deep snows of Snoqualmie Pass in 1930.
Four short years later, having mastered the technique to his satisfaction, he raced in what was then considered to be America’s premier downhill ski race, the Silver Skis, on forbidding Mount Rainier. This race featured a chaotic mass start and plunged some 4,600 vertical feet down the mountain to the town of Paradise.
Woodward recalls that he finished 30th, skiing most of the race with the tip broken off one of his skis. But he was hooked, and knew that skiing was going to be a very important part of his life.
He continued to race in West Coast collegiate competitions, and recalls that his best finish was a 5th place in the tryouts for the 1936 Olympic team.
He joined the Army in 1940, immediately volunteering for one of the several ski patrol units being formed throughout the country. With him as the lead instructor based on his obvious superiority on skis, his unit trained in the deep snows of the Cascade Mountains. Their preparation to join the fight in Italy involved multi-day summit-to-summit ski trips through deep snow and biting winter winds, sleeping in tents along the way.
One training mission involved a circumnavigation of Mount Rainier, about which Woodward observed, “The north side was a son of a gun because there was no nice downhill skiing. It seemed like you went across a level plateau, then you dropped down a cliff to the glacier, then you’d go flat across the glacier, then up a cliff at the other side.”
But all the training paid off, as the ski troops ultimately turned the tide of battle in Italy for the allies.
Following the war, Woodward became a leader in the ski industry, and was a partner for 25 years in Seattle-based A&T Ski Company. While there, he patented the first flexible heel-release ski binding, developed the world’s first laminated ski and pioneered a plethora of innovative technologies.
Now John and Lois spend their winters out on the snow.
When we were together recently, he had already skied at Bretton Woods and left us to spend a few days in the Mount Washington Valley. Then it’ll be off to Colorado and Utah, culminating with his annual trip to Sun Valley, Idaho — a tradition since 1937.
Sounds a lot like Maine’s John Chapman from Bangor, another hero of mine, who has skied Sugarloaf every year since 1948. And it was he who organized a gathering at there last spring of more than 80 people who had skied at Sugarloaf since the 1950s — a group I was proud to be a part of.
The Woodwards will be joined in Sun Valley at the resort’s annual Prime Time Week by more than 400 skiers over the age of 60 who constitute the venerable, Seattle-based Ancient Skiers Association, which John helped form in 1982 with some fellow racing champions of the 1930s and 1940s, veterans of the 10th Mountain Division and the founders of many of the Northwest’s ski areas.
My friend Jack Sibbich, Sun Valley’s director of sales and marketing, told me, “They don’t come here just to sit around. They come to ski, snowshoe, cross-country and party with others who are the same age. They go all day and well into the night!”
They’re my heroes and role models. And John Woodward is the recognized CEO of the whole crowd. What an honor to have spent a little time with him, at long last, on the hill.
John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son, Josh, will write ski columns on alternating weeks. John can be reached at: