This is the intro, from the editor, for the February issue of POWDER. Can't find the magazine? Subscribe here for just $15.
Helen was the original. The photo on the wall shows the day she changed the family story. It was a beautiful, warm spring day in 1938. Her friends Frank and Betty were going skiing in Pinecrest, in Northern California, and they invited her and her husband and sister along. This was before World War II, when the only formal ski area in the state was Granlibakken, in Tahoe, which had a rope tow. A year earlier, Sun Valley installed the world's first chairlift.
She was working class—an employee of the city rec department. Always independent and strong, Helen said yes. She used borrowed longboards—narrow, hickory skis with turned-up tips and flat tails, leather strap bindings, and bamboo poles. She wore wool pants that tucked into her leather boots and a beige button-down jacket that cinched around her waist. Her brown hair was pulled back and fell to her shoulders. Helen always moved through life elegantly. Despite being on skis for the first time, she was at ease, smiling effortlessly, relaxed joy in her eyes.
That day was a seed. It sprouted 30 years later, when Helen was a single, working mother raising her teenage daughter in Portland. Her daughter, named Susan, learned about the high school ski bus, which seemed like fun to her. Though money was tight, Helen knew firsthand that skiing was special. She saved where she could to make sure her daughter was on that bus so she could ski, too. Susan was a child of divorced parents at a time when that wasn't common. Childhood was difficult. Her moments on skis were her happiest days.
After college, Susan would marry a skier and raise three more. I am one of them.
I'm not sure if Helen recognized how strongly skiing would weave through the narrative of her family, that her fateful decision to try something new would continue to spread joy 80 years later. I recently got my 4-year-old nephew skis. We intend to keep skiing a part of our family story for as long as we can. We are better for it.
That day in the Sierra, Helen had a hard time stopping. She collapsed on the snow a few times, laughing self-deprecatingly. She was stubborn, and competitive, though, and she kept at it. She figured out how to control the skis and picked up speed, her wooden skis gliding effortlessly on the ungroomed snow. It started snowing in the afternoon, and Helen caught snowflakes in her mouth.
It was a special day for Frank, too. A few years after his wife Betty died, Frank asked Helen to marry him. They were married for 23 years, until Frank's death, in California, in 1998. Helen died in 2008, in her Oregon retirement home. She was 94. While they were all skiing that day, Frank took a photo of Helen. Before he passed, he gave it to my mom, with a typed letter on the back:
I have been caring for this print since 1938. I was the photographer when we visited Pinecrest, California. It is now time to relinquish it to you. I know you will treasure it, as I have.