Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hans Seisl

Note: If you were born between 1960 and 1980 in eastern Massachusetts and you ski, you probably encountered Hans Seisl or his skiing style at the Blue Hills Ski Area.

And you are probably better for it.

I recently learned that Hans Seisl died two years ago. In addition to being the director of the ski school at the Blue Hills Ski Area from 1967 to 1995, Hans also owned an operated a successful ski shop in Canton, Massachusetts. But those things were ancillary to my relationship with Hans, because Hans was my ski meister. A ski meister isn’t a ski instructor; I already knew how to ski. But I didn’t know how to be a skier; Hans taught me that.

In 1989, I was at loose ends. My relationship with my girlfriend was falling apart. My fledgling commercial painting company was falling apart. My relationship with my mother, whose house I’d moved back into, was falling apart. Only my dog, a nine-month old yellow lab named Nikki, seemed to be able to deal with me. More as a reason to send me on my way, my soon-to-be-erstwhile girlfriend saw an ad in the paper for ski instructors at the Blue HIlls Ski Area. Correctly marking me as a ski bum, she urged me to apply for the gig.

I had no business being a ski instructor; I’d only been skiing for three years. Self-taught, I’d spent most of my skiing weekends sliding with hockey stops down the icy slopes of New England ski areas until apres ski, which is where I really shined. But I loved it. I loved everything about skiing, the geometry of it, the mountains, and the people. It presented a complex challenge, and the more I learned, the more deeply I was hooked. So I went up to the ski instructor orientation, and, with little else on my plate for late November and December, I started showing up for the instructor clinics.

Hans ran the clinics. A statuesque Austrian with a heavy accent and a shock of thick, white hair, Hans Seisl looked and played the part of the playboy ski instructor. Hollywood should have cast him in the biopic of his own life. Women gathered around him like isobars circling a weather system. Hans could make you feel like you were the most important person in the room--or in the line up each morning.

“Shawn,” he would say to me, after I earned my instructor certification, “I have a little honey for you this morning. What do you think of that?”

Hooting erupted from the ranks of instructors. Barks. Grunting noises. Moans. Somebody howled. I smiled.

“So, here she is,” said Hans, waving a ski pole like a magic wand, and there, staggering up behind him, was some little toddler, a five year-old girl, trailed by her mother. The little girl was already crying.

More hoots, as I sullenly slid down to my pupil. “At least she’s got a yummy mummy!” someone called. Barking, grunting, etc.

And Hans, a glint in his eye.

When he skied, Hans made the most extraordinary noise I’ve ever heard on the slopes. His skis sounded like Tomcat afterburners. He stood on their edges and carved deep grooves into the man-made crust of Blue Hills, showering us with pellets. There were stories about his childhood: he had to ski back and forth to school every day; he lived on the tip of an Austrian alp; he was half goat.

It didn’t matter. He was iconic. On Saturday mornings, he led instructors in a weekly clinic, drilling us on one facet or another of ski instruction. “Shawn!” he said, singling me out, as he often did. “You must get the women to turn on their skis!” Except Hans said, “You must get za vimen to turn of zere skis!” He demonstrated the movements, something beyond a Stem Christie in the days before shaped skis. He exaggerated the up and down movement of weighting and unweighting the skis. “Up and down! Up and down, Shawn! Ven za tits are bouncing, zey are doing it correctly!” I’ve never forgotten that advice. I’ve tried to apply it to other areas of my life, with mixed results.

And after a long day of teaching (that season, 1989-1990, I skied 109 days consecutively, working eight to ten hours a day on my 195 cm K2 TRComps), Hans would join us in the ski school shack, where we played Austrian blackjack (“Gimme the sieben!”) and drank buckets of cheap white wine. Some nights I slept in my truck.

Though I hadn’t seen Hans in about ten years, knowing he’s not around anymore makes me a little more conscious of my skiing, as if I’m representing a little part of him up here in Stowe. And every time a woman skis by me, I’ll here his voice: “Up and down, Shawn! Up and down!”


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