Biff America:Remembering Dave the Goat, a legend of the backcountry
The last time I saw Dave the Goat alive was in 2004 at a trailhead in Yosemite.
It was about 6 a.m. The morning fog would soon burn off, but in the meantime it muffled the conversations of the two or three groups getting ready to head out to backcountry ski.
I was bending over my ski boots when a disembodied voice boomed out of the mist, filling the trailhead with sound:
“I’d recognize that butt anywhere. That thing has had more fingerprints on it than a Denver Nuggets’ basketball.”
Everybody at the trailhead looked at one another, and I pretended that the voice was not directed at me. Welcome to the world of being a friend of Dave the Goat.
I was recently asked, along with a few other contributors, to write a column in Backcountry Magazine about our ski heroes. The issue was dedicated to the theme “Legends of the fall line” — those who influenced recreational skiing on this continent. Some of those featured were easily recognizable names; all were gifted visionaries. My heroes were less famous, though more peculiar.
Dave Wait showed up in Colorado, fresh from Vietnam, in the mid-’70s about the same time I did. He was short and powerful, which belied his grace on skis. When he wasn’t scaring people in hot tubs, he was active working with the handicapped in adaptive programs and teaching the blind to cross-country ski.
I met him on a chairlift in the winter of 1975. I was taking the lift up to access some out-of-bounds terrain adjacent to the resort. I had limited skills, no avy gear, I was skiing alone. Dave looked down and saw my leather tele-boots, Europa 77 skis and woolen knickers. “Nice gear,” he said. “Does your husband ski?” I glanced over with a nasty look, then noticed he was wearing similar stuff but more worn and used looking.
When I told him where I was heading he decided to join me. “I can tell just by looking at you, you’re clueless,” he said. “I’ll come along today and try to keep you alive.”
For the rest of that winter I followed Dave around in the backcountry. Because of the gear of the day and my lack of skills we skied mostly low-angle glades. Dave was instructive and patient, but sometimes, when I’d fall, he would yell, “You suck!”
It was through Dave that I met John Novotny. Dave was very involved in the Ski For Light, which was an organization teaching the blind to cross-country ski. John was one of the best blind racers in the country, and Dave and some others encouraged him to move full time to Colorado to live and train. When Dave was too tired or busy to guide John, I would fill in. Eventually John was the fastest blind skier in America and second fastest in the world.
To guide the blind cross-country skiing the guide skis in front, next to or sometimes behind the skier, giving directions, encouragement and technique suggestions. When all else fails, and the guide deems that the person he is guiding is in danger, the guide will yell “SIT,” which tells the skier to sit down before he hurts himself or others. Sometimes John would be flying down an icy narrow trail, with trees on either side, at a rate of speed that would be dangerous for a sighted skier. I’d scream, “SIT,” and John would ignore me. At the bottom of the hill he would stop and be laughing hysterically. “Damn it, John,” I’d yell. “You have to sit when I make the call.”
He would look at me with a face both deformed and beautiful, and say, “Oh, were you talking to me?”
John and I would enter both blind and open races in which John would beat a large portion of the sighted skiers. He was gifted and fearless, but more importantly he was happy and had a childlike love of sliding on snow.
Though his face was slightly collapsed and scarred, with his jubilant presence and positive demeanor, the only honest description of him would be — a beautiful man.
The Goat and John, both dead, were two of my inspirations — on snow and off. There were a few before and many after; for all of them I’m blessed and grateful. Some were gifted, some were crazy, most were both. All had one thing in common—they loved life.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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