Around the Mountains: Olympics were just part of Lawrence’s mountain life
April 10, 2009
MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. ” From New York to Los Angeles, the obituaries for Andrea Mead Lawrence, who died recently at the age of 76, told of her skiing accomplishments while still a teenager and then a young mother. That was fitting and proper, for her skiing accomplishments were extraordinary, unrivaled for a half century.
But just as Sir Edmund Hillary was far more interesting for what he did after climbing Mount Everest, so did the eulogies tell of a woman’s life who truly began after she collected her Olympic gold medals, then put them into a box.
The medals were a means to an end ” an end she never fully attained, and perhaps could not. What she wanted most was a shared respect for the mountains and an agreed upon sense of the role of people within those mountains.
She was born into the world of ski resorts. Her parents had founded Pico Peak, a resort in Vermont that in 1940 gained the nation’s first T-bar lift. In 1948, at the age of 15, she became the youngest female skier ever on the U.S. Olympic Team. In 1952, at the age of 19, she was on the cover of Time Magazine. Racing that year in Oslo, Norway, she became the first American alpine skier to win two Olympic gold medals.
But it was on the other side of the continent, but still in the mountains, where she made arguably her biggest splash. After living on a ranch near Winter Park and then in Aspen, she moved to Mammoth Lakes in 1968 and was persuaded to lead opposition to construction of an eight-story condominium.
That opposition yielded a landmark ruling by the California Supreme Court, which said local projects required environmental review. That effort made her probably the most significant and effective citizen activist in California, one water lawyer, Antonio Rossman, told The Los Angeles Times.
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Eulogies mention clarity, purpose, and compassion. “She was, oh, hard as nails and a heart of gold,” said Aspen’s Dave Durrance, whose famous family of ski racers and photographers lived next to Lawrence. “If you were talking to her, it didn’t matter if you were old or young: you had her complete focus,” he told The Aspen Times.
She told various interviewers that it’s not the metals you’ve won, but what you do with them. Her passion, after ski racing, was entirely about mountains. In California’s Mono County, she was county supervisor – a position equivalent to county commissioner in other states – from 1983 to 1999.
“She was the irresistible force and the immovable object rolled into one,” Mammoth Mountain chief executive Rusty Gregory told The Sheet. “I respected her for that. With all the equivocation you hear in the world, she was a breath of fresh air.”
One of her friends late in life was Leslie Ann Klusmire, a former municipal planning director in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and then the director of planning in California’s Inyo County. She recalls long, engaged discussions with Lawrence about land stewardship that continued nearly until her death.
“Andrea was passionate about land stewardship,” says Klusmire, ” particularly mountains. She felt a very, very strong connection to mountains.”
Lawrence, says Klusmire, believed the primacy of private property rights had been taken too far. She didn’t necessarily believe in more laws, but rather in shared responsibility for land stewardship.
She believed in mountain resorts, but she even more strongly believed in limiting their scale. The built environment should not, she said, be allowed to overpower the natural environment.
VAIL PASS ” The old saying about March was flipped upside down this year. It arrived meekly in Colorado but roared lion-like on its way into April, hiding brown spots under a fresh carpet of virginal snow.
The flurry of new storms blessed virtually all the mountain ranges. Steamboat, in the Park Range, was expecting to quickly surpass the 400 inches of snowfall for the season.
In the Gore Range, the scene at Vail Pass was so enchanting to a traveler that he stopped on Monday at a rest area and then began walking up a road toward Shrine Pass, two miles away and 500 feet higher. All around, the mountains were like golden slippers and silk skirts.
Although it was into the evening hours, sunshine continued to flood the landscape. Others were also out and about. The road, packed down and groomed for snowmobilers, felt nearly as busy as Interstate 70. Some snowmobilers merely sightseeing, while others towed yo-yo skiers to slopes laden with north-facing powder. One towed a sled with a large cooler, presumably containing beer for one of the 10th Mountain Division huts located above Shrine Pass.
The air stank momentarily after they passed, the exhausts violating the sanctity of the mountain air.
A woman on a snowmobile stopped and inquired whether the walker had seen her son on a snowmobile. He had not. As the walker continued up the road, she stopped again four more times, each time more apprehensive.
Finally, a string of snowmobiles passed, the woman in the rear, and as she did she raised her thumb. The boy had been found.
Beyond them, the waning sunlight on the Tenmile Range was golden, the blue sky on the horizon watering down to a thin green. T.S. Eliot said that April was the cruelest month, but what did he know about mountains?