Moe-Ski

Captain Powder's alter ego (and the co-founder of POWDER) talks about working, playing, and life as the consummate ski bum (Volume 17, Issue 3)

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in POWDER’s November 1988 issue (Volume 17, Issue 3).

Story by Steve Casimiro | Photos by Gary Bigham

Sometime after David Moe earned the nickname Velveeta Gladiator, but before he threw a Frisbee off the summit of Mount McKinley, he dressed up in a white military outfit and telemark skis and threw himself full-bore down 30 concrete steps into the unsuspecting Halloween party gathered on his Laguna Beach deck. He made one turn—at the bottom of the stairs—shortly before careening into a chair at what was later estimated to be 100 mph.

The crowd went crazy, the uninjured Moe broke into a grin, and thus did Captain Powder move from the conceptual stage into the material world.

For some skiers, telewhacking into a group of adoring October revelers would be the highlight of a skiing career, but for the co-founder of POWDER Magazine, it was just a minor bump in his tracks. There are other, much more ghastly tales to be told about Dave Moe, now 41, but this one anecdote is important because it heralded the transmogrification of a ski editor into a highly visible cheerleader and coach. From the minute Moe first caked his face with white, he assumed a mask that eventually came to define more of his persona than the role of POWDER founder. Captain Powder was a character that fit him well and easily, for instead of using his antics to attract attention, now all he had to do was show up in white makeup.

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Today, Moe draws heavily on Captain Powder in his role as the magazine’s field editor. He spent much of last winter touring Europe in full battle dress, promoting the magazine and starring in Gary Bigham’s “The Adventures of Captain Powder.” Dressed in his old National Guard gear, Moe judges the annual Powder 8s in Jackson Hole and major snowboarding events in Europe. Like a swashbuckling, ski-bound PeeWee Herman, Captain Powder blows through the mountains, charming the women, inspiring the men and leaving tales of his antics in the wake.

Oh, and there are plenty if Moe’s antics to be told. There was the time he wore Spock ears to a U.S. Ski Team black tie ball. Or put a surgical glove over his head at a fancy restaurant and exhaled until the glove exploded. He has carried an inflatable doll to the summit of Mt. Whitney, inflated it and posed while friends photographed the scene. He sprinkled itching powder on the toilet seats in the women’s bathroom at POWDER only to be discovered, then tied to a tree in front of the offices and stripped to his drawers.

Moe says simply, succinctly, “There’s a certain rush that comes with making a spectacle of myself.”

In Colorado a few years ago, he and former POWDER editor Neil Stebbins were lounging in luxury at a condominium belonging to someone else. Moe concluded the best way to publicize the magazine was to throw a party, so he invited everyone he knew and they invited everyone they knew and soon Dave and Neil had a Party on their hands. Attending the part ways Moe’s cohort Eric Sanford, who, Stebbins says, is more willing to moon people than anyone else on the planet.

Soon enough Sanford did just that, and although the details are hazy in the fracas that followed, it is clear that Dave and Eric soon became involved in a low-clothing Velveeta fight. The crowd cheered, a standoff was called when the two ended up wearing little more than the processed food spread, and nobody has loaned Moe or Stebbins the keys to anything since.

It might appear, based on the black and white facts of such antics, that Moe is simply a troublemaker, a hellion who disrupts the world wherever he goes, but that isn’t the case. Yes, he shakes things up a bit, but he seems more like Dennis the Menace, who gets into trouble without ever being malicious, than Calvin, who has a meanness about his comic strip pranks. Moe even looks like Dennis—blond hair down to the occasional cowlick, bright eyes and an angel’s smile. He enters each of his little incidents with the mischievousness of a little boy who knows what he’s doing isn’t right and comes out of the acting like a puppy who didn’t know any better. It’s easy to believe that he knows better, but somehow, some way he just forgets.

Dr. Bob Graham, another friend of Moe’s says, “He’s controversial and he’s spirited, but he’s not insulting. He’s always pleasant and just barely proper. He has that half-cocked smile that puts his next move always in question.”

Moe’s antics have made him somewhat of a legend in the ski industry, and he’s certainly touched more people through his reputation and the creation of POWDER than you could ever count, and yet, unlike so many characters that become larger than life, he is universally liked. “Everybody loves Dave. He’s a lot like a puppy—kind of homeless, kind of helpless,” Stebbins says. Moe has such a sweetness about him, such a pure joy of people and life that it is impossible to interpret his pranks as anything but a good-natured desire to wake us up.

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“When you’re the class clown you can get a reaction from people, and you can learn a lot more about people by watching their reaction to something outrageous than you can by talking to them for a year,” his buddy Sanford says. “Smart people see right through it.”

Most people don’t take the time to study Moe, however. Instead, they accept the superficial image they get from gossip, rumor, anecdotes, mentions in the magazine and, occasionally, face-to-face contact with Moe himself. But even meeting with Moe personally might not dispel the myth that he’s nothing but a shallow class clown, for Moe most often relates to people on an empathetic, feeling-oriented level. There’s much more going on behind his blue eyes than most people give him credit for; it’s just that Moe is content to let people think what they will

“When I walked to Catalina this reporter kept asking me, ‘Why do you do it?’ He didn’t like any of my answers, but I guess it comes down to soul searching.”

Moe hasn’t changed much since he was growing up in Seattle. He is still tall, thin and in good shape. He’s a very good athlete but not a superstar, and he’s just as thrill-seeking and loony as he was when he earned the nickname “Screwloose” in his teens. He still loves to go off-piste, just as he did when he was in his church’s Mountain Boys, “an anti-Boy Scout organization that spent more time off the trail than on,” he says. And he still seems to get himself into predicaments where he’s over his head, only to be saved by some divine intervention.

For example, there was the time Moe, Sanford and Steve Yates, another friend, were driving from Banff to Jackson Hole in the middle of the night when Sanford fell asleep at the wheel. The van they were driving rocketed across a field and leaped a wide culvert (8-14 feet, depending on who you talk to), stunning the men but leaving them unhurt.

Although Sanford was driving, the incident is typical of Moe’s luck. Story after story is told of Moe falling off a cliff, crashing a car, skiing off into the fog on a high mountain peak in the night and returning unscathed.

“The continual accidents show how he still lives life on the edge,” says Jake Mow, David’s younger brother and co-founder of POWDER. “Between 15 and 19 he was in four huge accidents, all examples of being on the ragged edge. On the way back from Tijuana he rolled a TR3 sports car seven times and was hardly hurt. He fell off a roof painting a house and landed flat on his head and survived.”

Stebbins said he has a theory about Moe. “I think he’s a constant sitcom for the gods. One god will look down at what Moe’s doing and say, ‘Oh, no, I can’t believe he’s doing that.’ But they let him off the hook every time because they don’t want to program to end.”

That theory is echoed by Moe and every one of his friends. There is a universal belief that somebody somewhere is watching out for Moe. Although Moe said he believes in guardian angels, his willingness to put himself in risky situations seems borne from the confidence you have when you believe in fate.

“People say when your time’s up your time’s up,” Moe says in complete seriousness. “The one time I almost bought it was when I rolled the sports car. I had a vision when I was unconscious. I was at the point of crossing a river and this team of white horses came riding up as if to take me away. A voice came out of the sky and said, ‘It’s not his time to go yet.’ I’m alive after that accident only by a miracle, by the grace of God. You don’t forget something like that.”

Moe does things that reasonable people generally consider irrational. For example, he unclipped from a rope on Mt. McKinley while the rest of his party rested. Not telling then where he was going or when he’d be back, he turned up a couple hours later as if nothing had happened. In Switzerland he and Steve Yates were hiking up a peak when heavy fog rolled in. Yates turned back, but Moe kept going, eventually becoming disoriented, stumbling down the wrong side of the mountain and almost falling off a cliff. He breaks through the ice and it’s only waist deep, or he’ll fall off a bluff in the dark and land in the sand 10 feet below. These adventures, or, more appropriately, misadventures, come not from a death wish or even inattention to the risks of the high mountains, but from an insatiable curiosity and a need to push personal boundaries. His brother Jake says, “He exists by that constant stimulation of being in over his head.”

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Moe himself says, “The reason I do this stuff used to be to blow my mind, but after it’s been blown so many times…” He trails off, laughing, then continues. “It’s the spark that keeps me going, to see something I haven’t seen before, to have a sensation I haven’t had before. It’s more than physical and more than the impact of drawing attention to myself. There’s probably a serious side to it somewhere…” He trails off again, laughs, and says seriously, “When I walked to Catalina this reporter kept following me, asking me, ‘Why do you do it, why do you do it?’ He didn’t like any of my answers, but I guess it comes down to soul searching.”

Moe is always moving, always looking ahead, always seeking something new, driven by a low boredom threshold and a dread of stagnation. He’s like the shark that must continually force new water through its gills or suffocate. If he stops moving he’s toast.

Back in the late ‘60s, Moe was a first-year business teacher at a high school in Oroville, Washington. Jake was living the life of a ski bum in Sun Valley and just a few weeks before David received his renewal contract for the next school year Jake put the bug in David’s ear. “Come out to Sun Valley,” he said. “I’m working on a photo annual for skiers here and you can help me with it.” By the time the contract arrived, David’s decision was made. He had grown up skiing at local rope tows, and, along with Jake, been thrown off a ski patrol in 1964 for skiing too fast. His love for the sensation of skiing far outweighed his need to stand at the front of a classroom being abused by angst-ridden pubescents. He headed to Sun Valley, and POWDER—The Skier’s Magazine was born.

Originally conceived as a yearbook style annual and a way to pay for Moe’s lift tickets, POWDER became much more. David and Jake widened the scope beyond Sun Valley to draw advertisers. (For the first couple of years, POWDER would not accept any advertising art generated outside the magazine. To retain graphic purity, every ad was created in-house.) The philosophy was geared to give skiers something that didn’t exist in the existing ski magazines, and the first issue was a raw, energetic celebration of powder skiing that couldn’t be found anywhere else.

“We definitely had a vision, a mission,” Dave says. “I wouldn’t say we were thumbing our nose at the industry, but we certainly wanted to present skiing in a purer, more beautiful light than the other magazines. It was such an exciting time with the ‘60s and that revolutionary attitude. We were restless and we wanted to be sarcastic about the industry and the attitudes in skiing we didn’t like.”

The one attitude that Moe seems to dislike most (although Moe is so good-hearted that he’s unlikely to say he doesn’t like something) is closemindedness, particularly when it comes to skiing. Skiing in all forms is Moe’s raison d’étre, and to shut your mind to some form of skiing, whether it is telemarking, alpine skiing, snowboarding or monoskiing, is to commit a mortal sin. The original purpose of POWDER was to turn people on to an alternative form of skiing—powder skiing—and when the magazine became limiting or boring or just a job, Moe turned to Captain Powder to get the job done.

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“Powder has been a breath of fresh air. It’s opened people’s minds to the unlimited possibilities out there, but if Captain Powder can symbolize an aggressive adventure skiing attitude I think he can be a leader in new sensations, continuing to push skiing further,” Moe says.

“Captain Powder is designed to mobilize skiers. People say, ‘It’s an overcast day, so I’m not going skiing. It’s a blizzard, it’s too bad to ski.’ Well, Captain Powder says, ‘Get out there, that’s when the skiing’s best. Jump off that cornice. The adrenaline’s what it’s all about.’”

Bill Pennington, a friend of Moe’s, says, “As Mickey Mouse has the divine responsibility to lead the children of the world to explore their creativity, Captain Powder has the duty to lead the skiers of the world to discover powder enlightenment.”

In an ideal world, Captain Powder would lead legions of white-clad skiers into and off of the mountains, spreading excitement and the word of skiing wherever they went. If that can’t happen, Moe would like to see Captain Powder play a bigger role in the world of skiing, including, but not limited to, special contests, powder parties, a meeting with the President or the Pope, a clothing line and maybe even a toy line. In Moe’s eyes the only boundaries or limits to Captain Powder are the ones in his mind, just as the only limits in skiing or life are the ones that are self-imposed.

“Captain Powder is my alter-ego,” Moe says. “I see him as a cheerleader. He’ll encourage people to conquer skiing on a variety of playing surfaces, in new ways. He’ll show them how to explore alternate ways of coming down, to use the whole mountain environment as a stage.”

Although Captain Powder is often referred to as just one side of Moe, it’s almost impossible to as just one side of Moe, it’s almost impossible to separate the character from the real personality. The spirit of Moe is so entwined in the myth of Captain Powder that, talking with Moe, you sometimes wonder if you’re talking to Captain Powder and vice versa. As his brother Jake says, “I’ve always felt that Captain Powder was an afterthought for the magazine and a dominating thought for David.”

It is impossible not to be inspired by Moe and Captain Powder. If you don’t have anything in common with him, his innate charm will win you over. If you do share a mutual interest, say, skiing or rock climbing or beach golf, then you’ll soon find his passion for life touches your passion for the sport, sparking it to a new, seemingly purer level. It certainly happened this fall when Moe marched through the office as Captain Powder, kissing the women on their cheeks and saluting the men, handing out a memo copied onto ancient POWDER letterhead. The specific words of his memo are not so important as the lingering impression they left: It made you want to get off your butt and ski. Forget deadlines, forget the fact that the rent’s due and the half-gnawed pizza will be knocking on the inside of the refrigerator door by the time you get back. You just want to get out of town, get some air under your boards and once again feel the raw, primitive rush of speed on snow. That Moe can do that with almost anyone he meets perhaps explains Captain Powder better than anything.

Underneath Moe’s need for attention behind the mask of Captain Powder, buried underneath the spirit he spreads, is his inability to sit still for longer than it takes to floss your teeth. This is true physically—he’s always fidgeting or putting his body in some sort of motion, be it walking to Catalina Island on floating skis or learning how to parapente—and it’s just as true in the larger palette of his life. Although he usually has an apartment somewhere, he lives out of his car, out of other people’s garages (it wouldn’t be surprising to find out that Moe carries a suitcase full of garage door openers like most people carry keychains), out of the POWDER offices.

One of Dave’s annual adventures is an “aquaneering” trek down a river in northern California, in which he dons a wetsuit, mask, snorkel, fins, vest and waterproof backpack and floats along with the current. Neil Stebbins sees Moe’s aquaneering trips as the ideal metaphor for Moe’s life, and one is inclined to believe he’s right.

“It’s the definitive Dave thing,” Stebbins says. “He drifts downstream just looking at things. He doesn’t change anything, just looks. The fish don’t see him coming and then all of a sudden he’s there. Then, just as suddenly, he’s gone. The fish probably look up and say, ‘Wow, what was that?’ Another fish will say, ‘I don’t know but it sure was neat.’

“That’s just like Dave in ski towns. He floats downstream, just passing through, regarding everything as interesting but not worth sticking around for.”

For the rest of us, for all the skiers or potential skiers in the world, all we can do is hope the current brings Moe and the inspiration of Captain Powder into our lives. It’s something you’re guaranteed not to forget, even as it leaves you wondering, “Wow, what was that?”