Summit County pioneers: Jim Bowden
Special to the Summit Daily News
SUMMIT COUNTY — For Jim Bowden, taking risks was as much a part of everyday life as waking up in the morning. To him, living in the mountains became a combination of love and testing the limits.
“We were involved in a game, and in my way of thinking, it was a game of death,” Bowden said. “People died playing this game. The game was, ‘Who’s going to get the Steep Gullies or the Beaver gullies open first. Who’s going to get the first set of tracks in the Beavers.’ It went on for 19 years, and during that time, six people died. Risk-taking here was a way of life.”
At age 26, three things happened to Bowden that radically altered the course of his life. First, he lost his job as a physical education teacher for skipping a day to go skiing. Second, he and his wife got a divorce. Third, his grandfather died. With all of these things happening within a six-month period, Bowden decided it was time to leave New York and start fresh. So he jumped into his ’66 Volkswagen with $60 and a lunch packed by his mother and headed west. That lunch lasted all the way to Keystone.
Bowden grew up in North Tonawanda, New York, right on the Niagara River and the Erie Canal. In 1963, he earned his bachelor’s in education from New York State while playing football on scholarship for former NFL coach Buddy Ryan. That same year, he also earned his Professional Ski Instructors of America certification.
He was first introduced to the sport in 1952, wearing a pair of old hand-carved skis that his father gave him. It was 1968 when he left the East Coast and just briefly passed through Summit County on his way to Aspen to attend the Eighth Interski, which was a gathering for skiing nations from around the world to compare teaching techniques. In those days, he recalls not even having enough money to buy a lift ticket, but since no one really checked anyway, it was easy to ride the lift without one.
To add to his “self discovery” period of life, Bowden moved to Laguna Beach, California, to take up surfing for a while until the mountains beckoned him to return.
“It just touched my heart,” Bowden said. “I saw these mountains, and I felt the power and the energy. It was just all there for me. I felt like this is where my heart belonged, and I really wanted to come and be part of this life.”
He worked as an independent ski instructor for two years in Aspen before moving to Summit County in 1969 to get involved on the ground floor of a new ski area that was just opening. That ski resort was Keystone. He became acquainted with Max Dercum and his son Rolf who hired him on the spot to teach skiing. Ski Tip Lodge in Keystone, which was owned and operated by the Dercums in those days, was the cultural hub of the skiing community. This is where people gathered to discuss technique and to socialize, Bowden added with a smile. In those days, there was about a 50-to-1 men-to-women ratio. People also would go to hear rock ‘n’ roll at the Old Dillon Inn and country music at The Mint, where fights always seemed to break out between miners, cowboys and hippies.
“Wow, this really is the Wild West!” Bowden remembers thinking.
While he was instructing, he worked a number of odd jobs — from plumbing to construction to building ski lifts — in order to support himself.
“Those were hard days,” Bowden said. “There was not much money, but I was just experiencing all these different things. I guess I never thought of us as ski bums because everybody worked like hell. Most of us had to be strong enough to ski all day and then be able to do a decent night’s work in order to afford our lifestyle.”
Bowden worked on the construction crew building the Keystone Lodge from May through November for $94 a week. Then they would be laid off in November and ski all winter until they resumed work the following May.
“On $94 a week, you could afford a ski pass, a place to live, and food and beer, but that was about it,” Bowden said.
Bowden also built lifts for Heron Poma in the early ’70s on Copper Mountain as well as Keystone and Steamboat. Keystone was the first mountain that used helicopters instead of building roads to each tower site.
After two years of skiing, Bowden took a job in product development with Head Skis in Boulder. He traveled around to a different ski area every week for a season promoting the skis and hosting demo days at the resorts.
“I just decided that I wasn’t going to teach skiing anymore,” Bowden said. “I really wanted to get out on the mountains, hike, climb and ski every peak that I could see around here.”
Ski fast, take chances
During a 10-year span from 1973–1983, Bowden embarked on his death-defying decade of risk-taking and one-upmanship between his cronies. They were continually warned of the hazards of skiing out of bounds, but he admits that big egos were at work when it came to making some of these dangerous decisions. They set out to challenge their skills and abilities accessing avalanche-prone zones.
“The good skiers were climbing and taking risks,” Bowden said. “We were just following our love. Because we loved it so much, I guess we thought it was worth the risk.”
Bill Harris, one of Bowden’s good friends, tore his Achilles tendon in an avalanche while filming a movie called “Powder Hounds” in the Chihuahua Gulch. Bowden remembers Harris saying, “When the camera turns on, the IQ drops to zero.” Bowden also starred in many Warren Miller movies performing outrageous stunts. Looking back, he said, his group of friends were mostly in pursuit of the “hedonistic powder pleasure,” with little coaxing to do things most considered too life-threatening.
“I’ve jumped off a cliff for polio,” Bowden said. “I’ve jumped off a cliff for muscular dystrophy. I’ve even jumped off a cliff for Coors Beer.”
Even with his experience as a National Avalanche School graduate, Bowden acknowledged that daily risk-taking inevitably would result in someone screwing up.
Indeed, a tragedy did occur: an avalanche on Peak 7 at Breckenridge Ski Resort that claimed several lives in 1987. The accident spurred a meeting between the Summit County ski areas and U.S. Forest Service supervisor Woody Woodrow at the Holiday Inn Summit in Frisco. The meeting was closed to the skiing public, and a decision was made to close the extreme terrain adjacent to lift-served ski area terrain and at Arapahoe Basin, a mountain known for its challenging slopes. A double perimeter rope signaled that certain territory was off limits to the public. An outcry from the local skiers and backcountry travelers was heard. Bowden took immediate action by calling the Forest Service’s Jim Gregg in Silverthorne as well as the NBC news team covering the Breckenridge avalanche. He also called his lawyer, Jim Onlott in Denver, to discuss the Skier Safety Act of 1979.
“With four of my friends and the NBC camera crew, I decided to ski through the closure at Arapahoe Basin,” Bowden said. “My basic premise for this act of defiance was that the ski area did not have the right to block access to Forest Service land.”
It turned out he was right, and a gate was installed at Arapahoe Basin atop the Norway Lift. The gate can be legally closed only by the Forest Service.
During the summer, he skateboarded on specially designed skateboards to refine his balance. He built and sold more than 200 skateboards in the late 1970s. They had a competitive league, and people came from all across the country to race in Summit County. He remembers being clocked skating down Loveland Pass going 72 mph and competed in another race down Swan Mountain Road for $10,000 and another down Hoosier Pass. The sheriff was always after him for skateboarding, he said.
“I’m not saying it was sane,” Bowden said. “There was some real insanity going on here.”
In the end, he admitted that he just might have been lucky.
“I guess if I had to choose between luck and skill, I’d pick luck,” Bowden said.
A clever “Ski the Summit” ad campaign ran in a local newspaper in the mid-1970s, promoting area tourism by proclaiming that “the doctor is in.” From then on, Bowden became known as the “Ski Doctor” using his many years of experience and expertise to repair ski equipment in his Frisco Holiday Inn ski repair shop. However, skiing has always been much more than his livelihood. It has been like a drug for his soul.
Bowden is a man who carved fresh tracks not only on the newly fallen snow but in his fearless efforts to confront the previously unexplored, trying stunts never before attempted.
This story previously published in the book “Summit Pioneers,” which was printed in 1999. The book was written by Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz with photos by Bob Winsett in partnership with Wilson-Lass Creative Communications. It was published to raise money for The Summit Foundation. Read more about the history of Summit County at SummitDaily.com/news/history.
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