Retrofitted: Jim Bowden and Max Dercum’s lost ski collection
March 14, 2016
"This," Jim Bowden says, "Is the most beautiful pair."
With an eager grin, Bowden shuffles through a stack of skis and removes a pair of long, thin, ebony black skis: Toutes Neiges (all snow), the French version of a Porsche, if Porsche made skis. Attached to the sleek and sexy topsheet is a pair of long-gone Kandahar cable-release bindings — the elegant steering wheel.
"Gorgeous," he says, admiring the ski from nose to tail. We're standing in Bowden's one-car garage up in Wildernest, browsing through a life-size matchbook of vintage skis from the past six decades. There are Elans, the gorgeous Toutes Neiges, something called an Ice Magnet (two pairs) and about a dozen Heads. Those come in every length imaginable — 210 cm, 215 cm, 223 cm — and all feature the skinny underfoot and thick sidecut of skis made for racing.
Just about all of the Heads are either black or another solid color, totally nondescript except for an occasional address and the name "Max Dercum." Some of the names are embossed on tape, others are stamped directly into the topsheet, a few others are scrawled in marker on long-faded strips of masking tape. One might even be etched with a carpenter's pencil.
In 1985, Bowden's good friend Dercum — founder of Keystone and Arapahoe Basin, one of Summit's original ski legends — gave him a ring.
"He called me up and said, 'Edna wants a shelf,'" Bowden tells me, referring to Dercum's wife, another Summit ski pioneer who recently passed at age 94. "'I need to get rid of this stuff. Do you have any space for all these skis?'"
By "stuff," Dercum was referring to his sprawling collection of about 100 race skis, all relics and experiments and oddities he'd collected since moving from Pennsylvania to Colorado in 1942. Just about all of the skis had spent time on Arapahoe Basin's uncharted slopes in 1946, the same year Dercum opened the ski area with a group of investors, and they'd spent time on Schoolmarm and Frenchman in 1970 when the lifts at Keystone started spinning.
But now, Bowden says, Edna needed space for something and Dercum trusted him to take care of half his collection.
"And he said to me," Bowden continues, "Jim, do whatever you want with these but take care of them. Max was everybody's all-star. He was the real deal, I have to tell you, and I wanted to take care of what he gave me."
And Bowden did. He's also something of a local legend, a New York native who moved back and forth between Aspen and Laguna Beach in the '60s — "I just never fit in there for whatever reason," he says of Aspen — and came to Breckenridge in 1969, just in time to be one of Dercum's first (or perhaps the true first) ski instructors.
"There is a whole lot of recent history here in Summit," says Bowden, who worked for Head in Boulder for about 15 years and ran a ski shop in the Frisco Holiday Inn, where he was known as "the ski doctor." "There are a lot of things that went on here and I'm so glad I was part of the ski industry. I think there was more expertise here than in Vail or even Aspen."
After sending most of the collection to ski museums, he held onto about 15 of his favorites like the Toutes Neiges. He doesn't ski on most of them these days: The last pair he took out was Dercum's Head XR1 210 cm competition model, but "by then they were passe, they were the old thing," he says.
Behind the skis, strewn across a workbench behind a high and jam-packed shelf, is Bowden's other matchbook collection: longboards and skateboards. He's been riding wheeled boards for nearly as long as he's been skiing, and come summer, he still rides the switchbacks in his neighborhood.
"I'm a believer in risk taking," Bowden says, although he admits he was a lousy downhill racer — until he longboarded down Loveland Pass. "I believe that's something a guy has to learn to really get anywhere: in a job, in the world. Man must know his limitations, right?"
"Who is that, Dirty Harry?"
Bowden laughs. It's his birthday the day we meet, and at 74 years old he's still in love with the adrenaline, the rush, the risk of the sports he discovered in Colorado and Laguna. He's also a fan of Mark Twain: The skis and longboards live between boxes and shelves, many filled with books.
"'The older I get, the things I remember most clearly never happened,'" he says, paraphrasing Twain. "Or something."
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