Alive in America: What ever happened to grass skiing?
It started on a Friday afternoon about a year ago. I was mining for story ideas in the bound issues of old Tahoe World newspapers when I came across July 27, 1978. There was nothing particularly special about it until I got to Section II, Page 5. There he was, doing it: mesmerizing, perplexing, strangely alluring and aching for sardonic research. A man with winged blond hair and a moustache, grass skiing. Skiing in the summertime. On a grassy mountain. On skis.
I had to find out more about this forsaken sport. Where was it? What happened to it? Who was doing it?
This is my story. My grass skiing story.
In the long list of bygone, ignored or forgotten sports, one of the more mildly amusing concepts is grass skiing, an activity that still exists – barely – in the United States.
Currently popular in Europe and parts of Asia, grass skiing made a brief appearance on the American ski scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, not just as a training tool for the real thing, but as a sport in its own.
Imported by a California company, the European manufactured skis used a rolling nylon tread system to slide down grassy slopes. Skiers wore winter ski boots and gripped their regular ski poles as they carved their way down Slalom, Giant Slalom and Super-G courses at events such as the U.S. Grass Skiing Championships, first held in 1977. The following August, Kirkwood Mountain Resort hosted the championships and East Coast skiers dominated the choppy, patchy course.
“There were a lot of complaints from the competitors because it wasn’t the cleanest run,” said current Kirkwood Mountain Manager Dave Myers. “It was also pretty comical and a little scary at times. You saw some pretty good crashes.”
Only one Tahoe-area grass skier – Donna Silva of Tahoe City – managed to podium, finishing third overall. The U.S. sent teams to the world championships three times in the 1980s. The last time an American team competed at the world-level was 1993.
But like a Le Tigre sport shirt to Izod’s alligator, grass skiing was an 80s knock-off fad and faded away in the U.S. Still, someone in Tahoe had to have something to say about grass skiing.
Local retailers don’t stock grass skis, but at least the employees I spoke to knew something about them. David Hanys, a 28-year-old employee at Porter’s Ski & Sport in Tahoe City, saw them in the Czech Republic in the late 1980s. Mark Sanders, an employee at The Back Country, carved a grassy New Zealand slope five years ago after finding a pair in a box in the back of a ski shop.
“They turned OK,” Sanders, 31, said of the grass skis that range between 60 and 100 cm and cost around $400. “There was one big revolving track on each foot, super high off the ground. You had to go fast to make them work. They were pretty fun, I guess. You couldn’t get in the back seat with them.”
Undeterred by these informative yet unfulfilling anecdotes, I went after other ski pundits. Former James Bond ski stuntman and Squaw Valley legend Rick Sylvester said he had never tried it. U.S. Ski Team spokesman Tom Kelly said he wouldn’t know where to begin to get information on the sport. Squaw Valley USA spokesperson Katja Dahl said the Olympic Valley resort doesn’t have grass skiing because “that wouldn’t be environmentally friendly.”
I continuously heard about sand skiing : filmmaker Scott Gaffney told me skiing the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in southcentral Colorado was “pretty cool if it rains. The sand gets firm and skis like slow slow corn.”
But I wasn’t interested in sand skiing. I thanked Scott and went after another lead – Shane McConkey.
The freeskier extraordinaire, who’s attempted river skiing, hasn’t tried grass skiing, though he said he’d “be totally into it.” When informed that this year’s Grass Skiing World Championships, listed on the International Olympic Committee’s Web site, were being held in Forni di Sopra, Italy, Sept. 4 to 9, McConkey asked incredulously, “They do that?”
They do everywhere but in the United States, it seems. I found only two local skiers who had grass skied locally. Icon of the spread-eagle 80s Glen Plake has two pairs of grass skis. When he goes, it’s on the hills outside of San Francisco. Former Lord of the Boards Bill Hudson said he grass-skied in a Warren Miller movie around 1995.
“When I go back-country skiing in the spring I hate to take my skis off, so I’ve trashed my skis going over rocks and some grass,” Hudson admitted.
Out of local resources, I turned to the Internet. Duh. The Great Britain Grass Skiing Racing Association, Bryce Resort’s Horst Locher and Chinese grass skiing courts were a few of the things uncovered.
Grass skiing is popular enough in countries from Australia to Iran (the world’s fourth-ranked team in 2000; Italy was first) that the International Federation of Skiing recognizes it. Yet it is in Europe, particularly in Great Britain and in the birthplace of the sport, the Alps, that grass skiing has its strongest participant base.
A Stuttgart, Germany, toolmaker named Meyer is considered to be the founder of the modern summer schuss. According to Locher, the director of skiing at Virginia’s Bryce Resort and a grass skier for 27 years, Meyer developed the first grass skis in 1967 after realizing alpine skiing was something that could be done on grass. Originally a way to stay in shape for winter, the first competitions happened in the late 1960s. While grass skiing is, if anything, a recreational sport today in the U.S., competitive grass skiing persists in Europe and the Far East. Part of the reason grass skiing never caught on in the U.S. like it has elsewhere is because of the terrain.
“There are few areas suited for grass skiing. Most areas are too rocky,” said the one man who has managed to keep grass skiing alive in America – Locher. Bryce Resort is the only commercial place in the U.S. for grass skiing. According to Locher, 20 to 40 people try the summer sport a day and 600 each summer at the Washington D.C. area resort, depending on what tour bus passes through. Bryce will open for grass skiing June 17 as the resort approaches its 20th year of grass skiing.
In the U.S., money and poor design killed grass skiing, said Locher. Grass skis in the 1980s required too much maintenance. But with improvements in the skis, some interest in mountainboarding (“Grass skiing is much more difficult,” Locher maintains) and the mystique of grass skiing itself, Locher sees American potential in the sport, helped by a new generation of 6-, 7- and 8-year olds coming up.
“Those who love to carve should love grass skiing because grass skiing is pure carving,” said Locher.
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As seniors from North Tahoe collected diplomas this week, a group of Lakers continued another local tradition — capturing first place at the boys’ regional golf championship.