THE COCKY KING OF THE SKI SLOPES
Ernie McCulloch, the idol of Three Rivers - and of an uncounted army of feminine fans - has grand-slammed his way to top North American ski honors and new plans to tackle the European masters on their home hills
THE GREATEST downhill skier in the world, according to the noted American commentator, Lowell Thomas, is not a Norwegian, Swiss, Austrian, Frenchman or Italian. He is not even an American. He is a sandy-haired chunky twentysix-year-old from Three Rivers, Que., a Canadian of Scottish-French ancestry, widely known through the skiing world as Ernie McCulloch. His mother calls him “Bird.”
A glance at the record book of international competitive skiing reveals that Thomas didn’t exaggerate when he made this assertion in a recent ski film entitled, Mount Tremblant Powder. Since 1949, when McCulloch startled the ski world by beating the world champion French ski team at the Quebec Kandahar race, he has piled up an impressive record. The following year he won the North American downhill championship, tied first in the American national slalom and won the combined. He also took the Snow Cup at Alta, Utah. In 1951, American ski writers dubbed him the Grand Slam Champion as he swept through the North American downhill, the national downhill, giant slalom and combined, and the Harriman Cup at Sun
Valley, Idaho. Returning to Canada last year, he managed to get away from his instructor’s job at Mount Tremblant, Que., long enough to repeat his victory at Sun Valley for the Harriman Cup and to take the international and national downhill titles at Stowe, Vt. At Stowe he beat the 1952 Olympic champions, Stein Ericksen and Othmar Schneider.
The film Mount Tremblant Powder features the skiing of McCulloch as he smashes through deep snow, vaults over ledges, whirls around hairpin bends, skips like a ballet dancer over bumps. Down Tremblant’s fearsome Flying Mile he actually skates on skis, a crouched figure seemingly with invisible wings, swooping from bump to bump, straight down the mountainside, rocking from ski to ski.
Veteran ski instructor and ski photographer Frank Scofield remarked after seeing the film: “In twenty years I’ve photographed the best of them and I find McCulloch hair-raising to watch. I would rank him among the world’s ten all-time greats in the sport.”
The factors which have made Ernie McCulloch not only Canada’s greatest skier but one of the greatest skiers in the world today go beyond the native ability and tremendous endurance, the mighty competitive spirit and self-assurance which are his characteristics. They also include a ruthless appraisal of himself and of his competitors, a scientific approach to training and to the task immediately on hand. He has also had the opportunity for competition against the leading performers in North America on the fastest and most difficult runs —something that is denied ninety-five percent of Canada’s best skiers.
When McCulloch enters a big competition he usually arrives on the scene about four days in advance. He breaks the downhill course into six sections and examines each section carefully to determine exactly how he will run it. This takes two days. Then on the third day he runs the course faster, but still by sections. On the last day before the race he takes the whole course, at near top speed. If it feels right, he stops there. But if it doesn’t, he makes another fast run, still leaving something in store. By now he has the whole course in his mind, bump by bump, turn by turn.
"In downhill racing today, the whole course is dangerous,” Ernie says. "But you must never let yourself think that you might fall, even though you know others will. The Harriman course at Sun Valley is two and one eighth miles, and to cover it in a winning time you have to move at better than sixty miles an hour. It’s the greatest thrill in the world to come down a sloperlike that. You hear your skis begin to pu’rr —it’s just like a purr—and you know you are traveling out of, control. You concentrate on keeping your balance. Everything has to be there the way it is in your mind. There is no time for second guesses. If you’ve made a mistake—too bad!”
Slalom courses are not set until the day of the race. But as soon as the flags and gates through which the competitors must travel are in place, Ernie walks up and down the side of the course, a hundred feet at a time. He covers the whole course in sections. When he feels he has every flag and gate clearly in his mind, he skis down alongside the course, as close as the officials will allow.
"The whole run has to be fixed and automatic in your mind,” Ernie points out. “The tragedy that happens to a lot of boys in slalom is that just before a gate, for a split second, they forget and their timing is gone.”
McCulloch pays just as much attention to the wax on his skis as he does to the course. He uses a combination of six different waxes, depending on the snow conditions. He mixes the waxes himself and applies them, somej times painting them on, or using a hot ! iron.
Only once in the last four years did : his wax work out badly. A sudden ¡ change of weather at Aspen, Col., left him with the wrong combination and ; he finished the slalom course nine ! seconds behind the winner a disasj trous margin. Once he changed his I wax three times in the two hours I immediately before a big race. He j won it, too.
McCulloch favors European waxes,
! but they are the only non-Canadian ; items in his ski equipment. “Our ski equipment is as good as, or even better than, anything made by other countries,” he says. He has used skis made i by a Three Rivers firm ever since he
started skiing seriously at the age of seven. His boots are made by a Montreal firm, after a design by former world champion Emile Allais. They are much stiffer than those favored by many skiers. He wears no ski cap—“It makes my forehead cold”—and pulls on an old-fashioned Canadien logue when he doesn’t race bareheaded.
There are four divisions in competitive skiing: jumping, cross-country, downhill racing and slalom racing. Jumping depends for its popularity on the existence of good jumps and Canada has very few of them. Crosscountry is long and unspectacular. The downhill and slalom offer greater thrills.
A downhill course is usually two or three miles in length with the worst twists and turns, bumps and drops which can be found. Competitors must keep up a mile-a-minute pace if they hope to win. The slalom course is usually down a steep but open slope, with flags and gates placed at tricky angles and intervals. The slalom racer flips through these openings like a cat in a fit, racing against time.
McCulloch’s mother, a remarkable Canadienne who two years ago, at sixty-seven, shot her first bull moose and packed out a good portion of the carcass, started calling her sixth and last child “Bird” because she always seemed to find him flying through the air from a ski jump when she went looking for him.
Three Rivers had at that time the only good ski jump in eastern Canada, and Ernie entered the schoolboy meets. They had downhill and slalom events too, and, at fourteen, Ernie swept the board against competitors from twelve schools. He repeated this fhe next two years, but still specialized in the jumping and cross-country, the most popular events in the St. Maurice Valley.
At sixteen he placed second in jumping at the Canadian junior championships in Montreal; at eighteen he entered the eastern American championships at Lake Placid, N.Y., placing second in both jumping and crosscountry. By this time he pretty well dominated the St. Maurice Valley and St. Lawrence Valley meets and wanted to measure himself against the experts of the Laurentian zone, the kingpins of Canadian downhill and slalom. He had won the provincial combined jumping and cross-country twice and the provincial jumping championship once.
McCulloch was actually enticed out of the St. Maurice Valley in 1946 by another great skier, Johnny Fripp, who offered him a job on the ski patrol at Mount Tremblant where Fripp was chief ski instructor. That first season McCulloch chased Fripp, unsuccessfully, down the tricky Tremblant slopes in classics like the Kandahar and the Taschereau races.
The only two bad accidents he has ever had as a skier made the next season a dead loss. At the beginning of the season, on the lower part of fhe Taschereau run, Ernie’s ski tip caught in deep snow and spun him in the air. He smashed headfirst into a tree. When he came to he skied groggily down the course and presented himself to the doctor. They still tell the story around Tremblant:
Ernie walked into the doctor’s office. “Doc, I think I hurt myself,” he mumbled, and collapsed on the floor. The doctor rushed him to Montreal. McCulloch’s jawbone was broken, his cheekbone fractured and caved in, endangering the sight of his left eye. His nose was broken. Surgery saved his eye and, his face wired up, Ernie returned to Tremblant.
He was back in fine shape for the Kandahar later in the season. But, making a last fast run the day before the race, he caught an outside edge of one ski —the surest way to take a spill in skiing—and, as he sailed into the air, he felt his ankle snap. He skied down the balance of the run, but that ended the season for Ernie.
The 1948 season found him more determined than ever to “take” the boys, including the redoubtable Fripp, at their own specialty of downhill and slalom. He trained seriously, working himself up slowly to top pitch for the Taschereau race. He won it in three
minutes and twenty-six seconds, time that still stands as the record for the course. Then he went down to Ste. Marguerite and won the annual Mount Baldy race, with a record time of 56.3 seconds that still stands. At Ottawa he added the central Canadian combined slalom and downhill title, but his proudest moment was when he took the registered ski instructors’ course at Ste. Adèle, and finished with top honors.
An important influence in McCulloch’s career at this time was Emile Allais. Ernie says: “Johnny Fripp gave
me a lot of inspiration for fighting spirit, but Emile Allais raised competitive skiing in Canada to a new level. I learned more from him than from anyone else before or since.” The following season, 1949, McCulloch showed he had learned plenty. Again he made fastest time in the Taschereau and won the Mount Baldy and the central Canadian combined downhill and slalom title. He finished second in the combined Canadian championship, competing against the French world champions, and won the Kandahar against the same opposition.
The next year, a decisive season in McCulloch’s career as a racing skier, two other Canadian skiers who were employed as instructors at Sun Valley, Idaho, persuaded the chief instructor there, Otto Lang, to invite p]rnie to join the staff. McCulloch accepted and immediately moved into a different league.
The skiing terrain in eastern Canada is more suited to cross-country racing than really top-flight downhill more Scandinavian than Swiss in character. Only in the western United States and in the Canadian Rockies are the long sweeping downhill runs to be found that approximate the kind of terrain found in the Alps.
The astute Otto Lang sent Ernie to all the American meets in 1950, hoping to derive publicity for Sun Valley from his exploits. McCulloch didn’t disappoint. He won the North American downhill championship, tied first in the American national slalom and won the combined. He took the Snow Cup, a combined downhill and slalom prize at Alta, Utah, placed second for the Peruvian Cup at the same place, and at Aspen, Col., he placed fifth in the world’s championship slalom event .
Ernie’s impressive record that year won him the job of coaching the American girls who were training in 1951 for the Olympics. He was not yet twenty-five. That year, besides coaching the girls, he won for himself the newspaper title of Grand Slam Champion by winning the North American downhill, the national downhill, giant slalom and combined, and the coveted Harriman Cup, also a combined event.
Johnny Fripp had retired from active skiing at this time and his post as chief ski instructor had fallen open at Mont Tremblant. The job was offered to McCulloch at Sun Valley and he accepted eagerly.
Then occurred a sad mix-up which deprived Canada of her greatest skier for the 1952 Olympics. As in most other sports, the difference between a “professional” and an “amateur” in skiing is obscure. The Fédération Internationale de Ski (called FIS for short) is the governing body which determines the status of a skier. It has ruled that a skier who lends his name to an article of ski equipment is a professional, but it bas been very elastic about this ruling and about other means of gainful employment in the sport. Practically all the top skiers in Europe teach skiing. But to qualify them for the Olympics, FIS decreed that if they did not teach ninety days before the event, they would be able to compete.
The Canadian Amateur Ski Association, learning of this ruling, put up a stiff fight for the qualification of Bob Richardson, who had been instructing at Tremblant. The Canadian Olympic Committee reluctantly consented to his inclusion after much palaver. But no one thought to tell McCulloch about it until the Olympics were eighty days away. So he was not eligible for the Olympics. Thus Canada lost its big chance for her first almost-certain point winner. Henri Oreiller, who sponsors a ski boot, and James Coutet, who had just published a book on skiing, both competed for France.
McCulloch, bitterly disappointed, blames no one for the mix-up, and holds no ill feeling. But many other Canadian ski enthusiasts feel quite differently about it.
The 1952 season did, however, offer Ernie a chance to stack himself up against the Olympic winners when he went to Stowe, Vt., to compete in the international and national downhill championship, which he won against the two Olympic champions, Ericksen and Schneider. He also went on to win the Harriman Cup at Sun Valley for the second successive time. And in Canada he added the Quebec Kandahar; the downhill, slalom and combined title; the Mount Baldy title and the Laurentian Zone championship.
Ernie thinks that as a racer he cannot stay at his peak for much more than a month so he takes his training gradually to point himself for that month in which most of the important competitions take place. Before the season opens he runs up Tremblant’s south slope two or three times in a week, “just so I won’t get soft.” In December, January and February he does about ninety minutes of intensive skiing each day, after he has spent his mornings and early afternoons moving from class to class on the slopes, teaching and helping the dozen instructors who work under his supervision.
He spends his summers as a sports director with particular emphasis on water sports, and his brief vacations in spring and autumn hunting and fishing. His weight varies between 155 and 160 pounds and goes down to 150 during the racing season. He is five feet, eight inches tall.
A great deal of McCulloch’s physical endurance comes from his early career as a paddler. Between 1942 and 1947 he ranked as one of Canada’s top paddlers. He says paddling is a tougher sport.
He trains alone for the big ski events because he says he cannot find the kind of top competition around him that he has to face below the border. He eats boiled eggs for breakfast and puts away plenty of fruit and fresh vegetables as well as steaks. When he has dessert, it is usually custard.
According to his mother, he was always a scrapper; when he first came to Tremblant he continued this tradition by being willing to trade punches on the least provocation. But when he returned from the United States, this belligerence had been concentrated along the more productive channels of competitive skiing.
At Tremblant he shares a tworoomed cabin with Wade Hampton, ski-patrol director and descendant of the Confederate general of the same name. The cabin is in a state of perpetual disorder. Its walls are adorned with ski action photos, three moose horns, and a poster about four feet square of a seductively draped nude, topped by a placard: “Welcome Home, Ernie.”
McCulloch’s activities as ski-school director of Mount Tremblant Lodge in winter and sports director in summer keep him busy the year round, for in the off-season he travels over the eastern United States and Canada showing promotional films for the lodge. When he gets his week’s holiday in the spring and in the autumn, he usually goes right back to Three Rivers, to go hunting with Ma.
Ernie likes to tell how his mother took one of their friends, Bill MacDougall, out to their fishing cabin. When they started off Bill gallantly took the heavier pack of sixty pounds, leaving Ma the thirty-pound pack. After a half hour through the bush he was exhausted. “Ma changed packs, and insisted on toting the big one,” Ernie says with a grin. “Of course, she was in better shape than Bill.”
Ernie’s glamorous role as a champion skier and leading ski instructor makes him legitimate prey for the feminine vacationer. So far he has escaped any permanent attachment. He has skied with Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert, Ella Raines, and other movie stars. But he best remembers Lex Barker, the screen Tarzan.
“He liked to ski with me,” Ernie
relates, “and no matter how tough the slope was he would follow. The only trouble was that he couldn’t stop, and I got tired of having two hundred and forty pounds of bone and muscle landing on me every time I pulled up to wait for him. Sç^I got into the habit of ducking behind the biggest tree I could find when I stopped. That discouraged him.”
Ernie’s toughest ordeal with Barker, however, was back in the cafeteria dining room. “He would order a whole tray of pastry and say. 'Let’s you and me finish these off. eh?’ I was good for
two or three, but he never stopped till the last one was gone. What an appetite.”
It is doubtful, though, that the personality has yet been born who could impress Ernie McCulloch very much. He is so sure of himself and his role in skiing that at a recent annual meeting of the registered ski instructors a skit poked fun at Ernie with the refrain: “Eye-eye-yi-eye.” But his
cockiness has such a solid basis of achievement behind it that few people really resent it.
Ernie gives himself two more years
of competitive skiing, and he knows exactly what he wants to do in those two years.
“I want to go back to Sun Valley this year and win the Harriman Cup for the third time. That would be a record. Dick Durrance won it three times, but not in straight years. I keep it if I win three times. Then, in 1954, I want to go to Sweden to compete in the world championships. I’ve never had a chance to ski in Europe and I’d like to prove to myself that I could take these boys in their own back yard.”