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Still going strong after 71 years

KEN PIERCE, Special to the Sun

If you picked up the November 1963 issue of Skiing Magazine and turned to page 13, you would find a pictorial about a family who takes a ski vacation in Aspen, Colo. The article takes the reader on the “perfect ski vacation” with the Ernie Gray family, and includes an hour-by hour account of the young family’s weekend at “one of the oldest well-developed resorts in Ski Country USA”.

The focus of the issue is none other than now Tahoe Donner ski instructor Ernie Gray. Gray has been skiing longer than most of us have been living. His name is known throughout the ski industry. Many of his personal friends, former teammates, coaches and working partners are legends. Most are inductees to the Colorado Skiing Hall of Fame, where, in the Spring, Gray will be nominated.

Gray, now 71 years old, began skiing at around six years of age in a small town outside of Evergreen, Colo. Later his family moved to Berthoud Pass, Colo., which had only a rope tow. As a teen, Gray was able to travel to Winter Park, Colo., where he began to develop his love of skiing. He first took an interest in and became a ski patrolman at his home hill in Berthoud Pass, but is wasn’t long before he was able to move to Winter Park, Colo., and took a job as ski patrolman there.

It was at Winter Park where he developed a keen interest in racing. While still in high school he was asked to join the Zipfelberger Ski Club. There he began his competitive career along side skiing greats Thor and Gery Groswold. Colorado was the place to be and Gray was in the thick of skiing history, racing against some of the great names in the skiing world. Later, he represented the University of Colorado at the National Downhill Slalom Championships at Sun Valley, Idaho where he was coached by Barney McLean. His next race was in the Rocky Mountain Regional Downhill Slalom Championships at Winter Park. There Gray raced against the world’s premiere racers including Stine Erickson, Molitor and many others who were in the United States to compete in the FIS Championships at Aspen. Gray tied for sixth place with another North American, Don Elissia, the first North Americans ever to compete in the FIS race.

Gray still competes.

“I still race in some master tournaments,” Gray said. “I’ve always been competitive. At age 71, though, the competition is rather sparse. I’m healthy and I can race … there just happens to be not very many races this year.”

Gray’s love of teaching skiing began when he was asked to work for the Eskimo Ski Club – along with Frank Buckley and Tom Branch – as a coach and instructor to the Junior Skiers. At the same time, he worked at the Colorado Women’s College as an instructor.

“I started racing when I was in high school,” Gray said. “I reached the point where I was coaching a lot of people and it just went into teaching. When you’re a race coach, you’re asked to teach classes.

“It’s very satisfying. It’s kind of the fun part of skiing right now,” Gray continued. “Most of the people in my peer group have discontinued skiing.”

Gray can still be seen carving the slopes at Tahoe Donner and elsewhere. He and one of his co-workers at Alpine Meadows, Ben Wooster, 81, still take runs together, though Gray admits, “it’s more casual than it would have been 50 years ago.”

As Gray finished his education at the University of Colorado, the Korean Conflict was heating up and he was called into the military. Even during his time in the military, Ernie was able to continue skiing and even started a ski team. He convinced the Air Force to fly the team to Winter Park from Rapid City, S.D. – where he was stationed – so his team could compete the Southern Rocky Mountain Race.

“I convinced the commanding officer to send five of us from Rapid City to Denver,” Gray said. “I just suggested it to him and he agreed.”

Upon his release from the Air Force, Ernie was asked to stay on in South Dakota to head the ski school of a small ski area called Terry Peak. He stayed and began the process of becoming a Certified Ski Instructor under the direction of George Engle of Winter Park, Colo. In 1953, Gray earned his certification and became the first director of the ski school at Terry Peak.

In 1956 Gray returned to Colorado and went to work for United Airlines. He also returned to the Eskimo Ski Club and taught for Winter Park. He continued racing and became the first winner of the Doctor Altman Cup.

After changing jobs Gray was relocated to San Francisco. His love of skiing did not diminish and, in 1963, he went to work at Heavenly Valley Ski Area as a part time instructor. With Gray’s background and a Professional Ski Instructor Association certification, it was easy for him to obtain work in California.

A year later Gray decided it was time to share his love of skiing by forming the Junior Ski program, which operated out of San Francisco and was formed in the image of the Eskimo Ski Club in Denver. An average of 20 buses each Saturday ran from San Jose to Sacramento then to Alpine Meadows. Each spring Ernie would head a week-long ski trip to a major ski area in Colorado.

After 12 years, Ernie sold the Ski Club and continued to teach at Alpine Meadows. It was at Alpine that he began a Senior Ski Program and named it “Never Too Late Ski Club”.

In 1998, Ernie was asked by the PSIA-Western group to conduct an on-snow clinic dealing with how to teach the ever-growing senior population how to ski safely and, at the same time, enjoy the invigorating sport.

This year, after more than 32 years of teaching at Alpine Meadows, Ernie accepted an offer to come to Tahoe Donner as skiing supervisor. He has already made a huge impact by creating a successful senior program and continues to pass on his love of skiing to young and old alike.

“I tried to start this [the senior program] at Alpine and we had it going for a short time, then it just fizzled out,” Gray said. “When I went to Tahoe Donner that’s what they wanted me to do.”

Gray explained that there are a lot of physical changes that effect a senior’s ability to ski. Some of the changes are vision, hearing (which may result in a loss of balance), lung capacity (which, as it diminishes, may result in someone getting tired quicker. It also affects the circulation which means that a student may get colder) and so this has to be considered in teaching.

“We still teach [edging, rotary and pressure], we just use different exercises and teach a little slower,” Gray said. “We have to work around situations.”

“Sometimes when you have a group of people, some don’t understand what you are trying to say and you have to say it a different way,” said Werner Schuster, the director of the ski school at Alpine Meadows when Gray first signed on.” [Gray] has a good way of getting through. He has great experience – practically a lifetime of experience – at ski teaching and dealing with people.

“Now he is in the same age group and he will be able to pass on a lot of his experience and knowledge – not just about skiing, but about a skiing lifestyle for mature people.”

At the age of 71, Gray still maintains a passion for skiing and is now taking up snowboarding.

“I wanted to expand my horizons a little bit,” Gray said. “A little over a year ago I took up snowboarding. I went up to Boreal with some instructors from Tahoe Donner and took some snowboarding lessons. I had a lot of fun with the younger snowboard instructors.”

Gray is informally known as “E-dog” in the snowboarding circle.


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