The hulking Hungarian is hunched over the steering wheel. The 87-year-old’s ’84 Vanagon putters up Highway 26 toward Mount Hood, a half-dozen teenagers asleep in the back.
The kids are Timberline’s Ski-Tek, a Beaverton, Oregon-based youth ski team, and the ’70s era polyester tracksuit wearing driver is Jozsi (pronounced Yo-she) Kabdebo, their coach. For the past 53 years, the team has met at ‘Yosh’s’ VW shop and made trips to ski races and trainings all over the Northwest.
As he crawls up the mountain in the right lane, newer rigs with all-wheel drive fly by. I’m in one of those cars. I honk and wave, but, focused on the snowy road, he’s unfazed. It’s the first time I’ve seen the guy since he and his wife showed up to my high school graduation party 10 years ago.
In 1956, Yosh was a Freedom Fighter in Soviet-occupied Hungary. After competing in drag car racing, World Cup soccer, and skiing, he joined in the rebellion against communism. During the revolution, Russians shot him. American forces airlifted him to Dover with shrapnel in his back, but no doctor would operate on him for fear that it would lead to paralysis. The only doctor that would do the surgery was at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in southwest Portland.
After he recovered, Yosh stayed in Portland, married, and had a son. He helped set race courses at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, but was always committed to the local Ski-Tek squad.
Even at 87, the Mount Hood legend still volunteers every winter weekend to the program, driving the van, drilling in gates, and tweaking techniques. When he speaks, he has his racers’ attention.
“It’s almost like talking to a folk hero,” says Yosh pupil Clint Parker. “Just his presence demands respect.”
When Parker, who raced with Ski-Tek for 15 years and coached for four more, was young, his father died in a tragic accident along the Deschutes River. Kabdebo became a father figure to Parker and established in him Yosh’s firm Eastern-European approach to manhood.
“I think one of the main things he taught was strength, as far as complaining, and basically being able to look through the small things—being tired or cold or having something being too hard,” says Parker.
Yosh still runs the VW shop. Unless Ski-Tek has a race that demands an extra day of travel, he rarely takes a day off. When ‘Snowpocalypse’ hit Portland in 2008 and shut the city down, Yosh cross-country skied the few miles to the office.
What I remember most from my five years racing with him is his strength. Each of his fingers is the size of a sausage. He used to break apples in half and wrestle four kids to the ground with one arm. That pronounced physical toughness is incredible and inspiring and kind of insane for somebody so old.
Yosh avoided chairlifts. He bought a season’s pass but only rode the lift at the end of the day (or if he went to lunch, which was rare). Instead, he hiked up and down the course with his big drill in hand, adjusting gates and yelling instructions as his racers skied by.
His love and commitment toward the mountains, and his eagerness to share them with younger generations, is as consistent as that weekly putter up Highway 26. Every time somebody complained about being cold or wet, his response, in thick, extremely difficult to understand accented Hungarian (despite his long-time Oregon residency) was, “Oh you poor baaaaby. Look at the birdy in the sky. No shoes but it doesn’t complain.” Followed up with a hearty giggle. I’ll never forget that hysterical, self-induced laugh, which reminded me how much fun he was having.