Photo: Stowe Reporter
Name & Occupation: Gretchen Rous Besser, National Ski Patrol Historian for 32 years and member of Stowe’s unofficial “Dawn Patrol”
Gretchen Rous Besser, awaiting induction in April 2017 into the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, member of the National Ski Patrol Hall of Fame, and one of Stowe, VT’s few octogenarian skiers, truly represents everything about the alpine lifestyle. She’s also the great-aunt of our founder’s husband.
How did you get involved with the ski patrol?
I borrowed a cousin’s Northland wooden skis to sample Little Bromley in 1950, then two years later brought newly-wed husband Al to Stowe. While skiing Madonna (avatar of Smugg’s), my heart went out to a child obviously hurt under the lift. To remedy my feeling of helplessness, I joined the volunteer ski patrol at tiny Snow Bowl in Milton, NJ back near where we lived. Then in ’66, I was accepted at Smugg’s after earning senior status and going for EMT training. There’s nothing quite like the camaraderie and confidence you have when you’re kneeling in the snow, helping to alleviate a stranger’s pain, and knowing you and your team can bring that person down to safety.
You’re a published author?
In ’75, on an International Ski Patrol trip to Switzerland, I got to know some of the top NSP officers. Hoping to do something special for the organization, I proposed writing a book-length history of the National Ski Patrol. The Board agreed and named me National Historian, a post I held until retiring in 2010. The result of years of research and hundreds of interviews, The National Ski Patrol: Samaritans of the Snow came out in '83. For the NSP 75th anniversary in 2013, I wrote an updated edition covering the intervening 30 years.
My Historian role also involved keeping the archives at the Denver Public Library, updating the ski patrol manual periodically, writing hundreds of articles for Ski Patrol Magazine, and being a resource for any and all questions about NSP history
More broadly, I was a ski columnist for a chain of 17 papers in New Jersey. Before the Internet and people had social media and other ways of getting information, I would write about ski safety, different ski areas, ski gift ideas around the holidays, and interesting personalities on the slopes.
How often do you ski during the season?
I only got in 50 days last year! I like to make first tracks at 8 am with my self-styled “Dawn Patrol” group at Stowe 3-4 midweek mornings. It’s pitch black when I leave the house, and dawn is just breaking.
What’s the best change you’ve seen over your years on the mountain?
Without hesitation, snowmaking. Especially with climate change, we’d have little or no skiing if we had to rely on natural snowfall.
And along with that, grooming has become essential. Artificial snow has a different texture from the natural stuff. To accommodate today’s skier and boarder needs, and for the sake of greater slope safety, moguls need to be cut down and slopes groomed on a nightly basis. The result is the gorgeous corduroy we enjoy on early-morning runs.
Skiing used to have a long learning curve [before these changes].
3 questions we ask all our friends:
Best skiing memory?
When we [Al & I] were in Wengen, in the shadow of the Jungfrau, we heard of a trail that some Englishman had named “Oh, My God!” One day we set out on a beautiful slope we’d never tried before. We were sashaying along, savoring each turn, wondering why no one else was there. Suddenly, we came to a steep 6-foot drop. “Oh, my God!” I cried out. And Al said, “Oh, my God!” We had found the trail, all right. Of course, we made our way down. We had no other choice. We’d do anything in those days…
Favorite place to ski?
Alta is by and large my overall favorite. It has wonderful terrain, gorgeous Utah powder, and an old-fashioned feeling. I’m a proud member of the Wild Old Bunch, a group of old-time Alta skiers.
Go-to après ski activity?
Well, you don’t want to hear that from me – an old fogey! There actually used to be a great place called the Den, at the old Lodge at Smuggler’s Notch, where everyone went after skiing. Today it would be the Matterhorn.