Next to sending Ted Williams to a batting clinic for a little brush-up on technique, a requirement that forced one of the world's leading skiers to pass an examination proving that he could ski would seem to be one of the truly superfluous ideas in the world of sport. Yet, ridiculous or not, that is precisely what happened to Stein Eriksen, the flamboyant Norwegian who in 1954 was World Ski Champion and was called the greatest Alpine skier in the world.
But rules are rules, especially when the United States Forest Service makes them, and maybe in this case they aren't so bad. Eriksen was going to run the ski school at Aspen Highlands in Colorado this year. Since the Highlands are partly on Forest Service preserves, the Rangers have a say in what happens there, and it was their opinion that Eriksen would have to be certified as a ski instructor, just as everyone else who hoped to teach skiing in Colorado.
While in the case of Eriksen this might seem like chauvinism gone rampant, the Forest Service stand makes good sense. Just 20 years ago American skiing was an esoteric sport that boasted a few experts and not many more enthusiastic neophytes. Today there are 4 million Americans who ski, and they ski, on the average, better than the Swiss who have the advantage of tradition and natural terrain. This spectacular rise in performance can be traced directly to the quality of American ski instruction.
The Forest Service, of course, has had nothing to do with this. The backbone of U.S. teaching is a system based on instructor certification schools which are conducted by the regional instructors' associations (there are six) of the National Ski Association. All skiers, to qualify as instructors, must pass an exacting series of tests, thereby proving two things about themselves: first, that they know how to ski and second, that they are able to pass their knowledge on to those who don't.
The system has worked so well that even in the case of Eriksen the Southern Rocky Mountain Ski Association, which counts the peaks around Aspen as part of its extensive domain, was no more disposed to waiving its requirements than the Forest Service had been. Eriksen, ski medals and all, would have to appear before the Certified Instructors Association of the SRMSA and prove that he could teach up to their standards.
So last season at Arapahoe Basin Ski area in Colorado, where SRMSA exams are usually held in late spring, Eriksen went back to school. His teacher: Willy Schaeffler, who in any year is one of the region's chief examiners. Schaeffler, if he needs any introduction, is Ski Coach for Denver University. He also heads the Arapahoe Basin Ski School, is in charge of all ski race preparations at Squaw Valley for the 1960 Olympics and is the author of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's series of articles on the Austrian short-swing (Dec. 16 & 23, 1957).
At Arapahoe, Schaeffler's usual task is to examine new instructors who have been teaching on a trial basis, or, as with Eriksen, candidates who have come from other states where not all instructors are certified. Schaeffler has plenty of company in his work: George Engel, head of Winter Park ski school, Ernie Blake of Taos, New Mexico; Max Dercum of Arapahoe, and from Aspen Ski School, Co-Director Friedl Pfeifer, plus Robert Craig, Sandy Sabatini, Maurie Shepheard and practically every other top instructor in the region.
As it turned out, Eriksen took most of his examinations in Schaeffler's classes. Just to make everything beautifully clear, Schaeffler talked to Eriksen ahead of time and gave him a semiserious warning that Eriksen had better be sure of his fundamentals. "I think I got him a little worried," Schaeffler confided before the sessions began.
There is no doubt that Eriksen worked on the tests. When time for the first tests began, he mushed in line with the rest of Schaeffler's class and headed for one of the peaks just above the upper end of Arapahoe's highest lift. Schaeffler swung along in the lead, lecturing on the surrounding mountains as he went. "Mt. Albert," he said at one point, indicating a peak in the west. "An instructor should know the country. That's part of the appreciation of skiing." On top, Schaeffler said, "Now we go down. First we ask ourselves, 'Where can we have a little fun?' "
Schaeffler's idea of fun was a lilting drop over a cornice (he tested it first to make sure it wouldn't avalanche) down a mirror-glass wall into a gully and up the opposite side. There he used his momentum to spring into the air, turning as he flew so that he came down running parallel to a boulder field that ranged across the crest like a little Stonehenge. Eriksen and the others followed. Eriksen went easily. Some of the others went a bit uneasily.