John Koch 1944 – 2020: A Man who Matched the Mountains

By: Bill Whaley
17 June, 2020

“Koch was high above on the slopes, pop-out snappers and blasting caps in hand, dropping bombs and trying to get the upper hand on the mountain. Yes, Koch’s job today takes ten men and several howitzers.” (Gringo Lessons)

JOHN KOCH 1944 – 2020 John Koch died June 12 at his home in Aspen after a short illness. John was born September 2, 1944, in Madison, Wisconsin. When asked where he was from, John said, “the west”. He lived in Montana, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico and Colorado. He loved all the things the west had to offer, most especially hiking and skiing. He attended college in Fort Collins, Boulder and Albuquerque. While in New Mexico, he ski patrolled at Taos Ski Valley and helped construct the tram at Sandia Peak in Albuquerque. (Aspen Times)

Single-handed, John Koch, opened up the mountain, fleeing from slope to slope, accessed by Chair 1, then on to the ridges and runs accessed by Chair 2. Alone, except for a backpack full of dynamite and poppers, he addressed avalanche danger at TSV. Blasting, skiing the slopes if they needed it or just cutting across the top to let loose the unstable snow. When I hadn’t heard from him by noon at the bar where I worked at the St. Bernard, I’d go down to the TSV office, and ask, “Anybody heard from Koch.” Nothing. Silence. Sometimes I’d grab my skis and head up to the top of Chair 2 to look for him. We scared the hell out of ourselves skiing the chutes from the top of the West Basin. At the time we didn’t know anybody who skied up there except for l’oiseaux called Mayer. We never mentioned it because Ernie might lift our lift passes. Or at least mine.

Oh Sing, Mother of Nature of John Koch, a man who brooked no fear and slept where he dropped, drove a flat-bed truck from mountain to town, sliding round the dirt turns on bald tires, trying to beat Rosen’s latest time in Rick’s VW bug. Coors in one hand, week-old McDonald’s from last week in bulque in the other, Whaley’s hands braced on the roof passenger side, Koch giggled like a madman as he drove, sure-handed and steady, at speeds that shook the truck bouncing over the icy rock-strewn road.

“The `old man,’ as Koch affectionately referred to Ernie, knew how to keep costs down by employing full-time shovel men as part-time lifesavers or ski patrolman in exchange for a lift ticket and the occasional meal, a warm place to sleep, and the infrequent shower—except for Koch, the full-time man. In long johns, a moth-eaten multicolored wool shirt and duct-taped gray parka, with dirty ski cap pulled down, Koch worked the mountain from morning till night. At the bar he discussed the complexities of mountain operations, when to open this slope, what slopes needed work in summer, which trees needed surgery by chainsaw” (Gringo Lessons).

Below I post an excerpt from Gringo Lessons about the Winter of ’69, which captures the spirit of those days, when Koch and I would stay up all night and try to drink a keg of beer or he and Steve White (RIP) might go off on a summer night to burn down the sign at the Taos Country Club, which said: “Members Only, Tourists Welcome.”

From Gringo Lessons: The winter of ’69.

Sing, Mother Nature, of a time when the winter snows buried man and ski bum under the long lifts at Taos Ski Valley; sing of skiers who sailed off ridge and rock and flew like raptors between tall pines, riding the downdrafts, down from the cliffs, riding down, down, down through powder as light as angels’ breath; sing of those who crashed and burned but rose again to ski another day despite hangnail or hangover; sing of a time when women wore mini skirts and men traded their souls for first tracks on ski runs named Al’s, Snakedance, Longhorn, or Lorelei.

The New Year, 1969, began with cold temperatures and January was as dry as the desert that stretched from the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the sunset mesas in the west. One evening toward the end of the month, I stood behind the bar working my trade at the Hotel St. Bernard. Taos Ski Valley’s only real ski patrolman, head bombardier and avalanche guru John Koch, hunched slightly over the bar and gripped a glass of Coors lightly in his gnarled paw. I leaned forward on one elbow. Between sips, we spoke.

“Koch.”

“Whaley.”

“Will it ever snow again?”

“Ask the Indians at Taos Pueblo.”

“They say it used to snow here.”

“So they say.” He squinted at the ceiling and wiped off his thick eye glasses with a bar towel. Koch frequently described ski conditions as “snow-packed and sanded.” You could get plenty of edge in the dirt but the rocks gouged out your skis. During dry times, Mayordomo Blake sent out calls for volunteer teams of semi-sober ski bums to man the shovel brigades. A motley crew of bartenders, waiters and waitresses, layabouts, and anarchists hauled loads of snow out of the tree-laden dells on toboggans, distributing their hard-won booty on dirt patches in a cover-up operation.

The old man, as Koch affectionately referred to Ernie, knew how to keep costs down by employing full-time shovel men as part-time lifesavers or ski patrolman in exchange for a lift ticket and the occasional meal, a warm place to sleep, and the infrequent shower—except for Koch, the full-time man. In long johns, a moth-eaten multicolored wool shirt and duct-taped gray parka, with dirty ski cap pulled down, Koch worked the mountain from morning till night. At the bar he discussed the complexities of mountain operations, when to open this slope, what slopes needed work in summer, which trees needed surgery by chainsaw.

“One evening in late January, as we lamented the previous generation of skiers, who had settled the valley with its snow- buried cars and lodges, the door of the St. Bernard Rathskeller burst open. Dadou Mayer brandished a handwritten sign: “14 inches, still snowing.” We cheered and drank more beer. An hour later, he was back: “21 inches, still snowing.”

Between going outside to gaze with wonder at the sight and continuing to quaff down the suds, Koch became increasingly nervous. He had attended U.S. Forest Service avalanche sessions the previous fall. “Whaley, this whole fucking mountain is avalanche prone,” he whispered, “including the area below the catwalk above the beginner’s hill. Christ.” His blue eyes bulged behind his dirty specs. “The whole thing could slide by morning if it keeps snowing.” I shuddered. The St. Bernard served as the goalie at the foot of Al’s Run and Snakedance, two notorious slopes that pitched skiers headfirst downhill along with boulders and new-fallen snow. The Forest Service Snow Rangers were locals who kept the slopes open—regardless—to help keep their primos employed.

Once the storms broke, it snowed every other day for a month but only at night. The days were sunny and warm, the air and snow as dry as light summer rain on the desert. You could hear the soft swish of fast-moving skis in the serene winter wonderland, followed by the sound of boom, boom, boom as Koch dropped his bombs at the top of each slope to make TSV safe. We only lost one guest and one staff member to the reaper that winter. The piquant scent of danger added to the excitement.

A ski movie made by Warren Miller, Ski the Outer Limits, became our organizing principle. Among others, the film featured Dadou dancing down the slopes like a bird and Jean blasting through the snow with the powerful leg and arm strokes of a human dynamo. Though I tried to “ski the mountain” in the purest and most stylish manner, Dadou frequently reminded me that I merely skied from “recovery to recovery.” Still it was as close to heaven as a heretic could get that winter of ’69.

While dropping down the fall line of a steep slope—say Longhorn, Castor, or Pollux—or making a turn at 50 to 60 miles an hour on Al’s or Snakedance, you prayed that your skis would hold and that your burning thighs would defy gravity. Tossed skyward you pumped the air with your poles or tried to grab a tree branch to keep from hurtling into thin air. If you fell, you wouldn’t see your ski buddies until nightfall at the bar. If you lost control and headed directly toward a stand of pine trees, slightly out of control, thighs shaking and goggles fogging, you looked for a slice of daylight that meant grace. You always sat back slightly so that your tips would ride up out of the snow over the stumps and logs, landmines left over from trail-clearing projects. Ski up and off a huge bump, and pray for safe passage despite rocks, trees, and other skiers who might be concealed by the blind spot created by moguls and boulders. You memorized the mountain so you could lose the skier behind you by taking a safe line over a windblown spot around a blind corner.

While skiing at top speed, two colleagues would jostle and fight for the lead just as the trail narrowed and dived between the trees and ran a dogleg right over the headwall down into Longhorn. The winner made the first strike down through a few hundred yards of fresh powder while the loser crashed, smothered and suffocating—he was left for dead in the deep snow. As you plunged forward through three or four feet of light snow and it billowed up around torso and face, goggles fogged.

You could sense the trees and boulders but couldn’t actually see obstacles. When it was really deep, you just pointed your skis straight down the steepest slopes and continued in slow motion.
Dr. Al Rosen, who skied with an oxygen bottle on Al’s Run, set the standard of how to breathe in the billowing snow. The rest of us tried snorkels and bandannas. Finally, you just held your breath, focused on the snow snakes, prayed to the angels, and pounded down, losing control, then jumping up in the air to regain equilibrium. If you skied fast enough, you might beat the avalanche that started above and behind, the one that buried your buddy.

Such were our ethics and the sport of godlike skiers. To ski as fast as possible was to live. Then you got drunk at night.

At dry-land clinics behind the bar at the St. Bernard Jean and Dadou spent hours discussing and demonstrating Le Technique, how this foot or that knee should adjust itself to the ski, saying, “Ici, mais pas ici” (here, but not here), how this hand or that leg should move ever so slightly. Ernie called the Mayers’ passion for technique “an affectation” and refused to let them teach their ideas lest they contaminate instructors or guests. (After Jean-Claude Killy won three Olympic gold medals in Grenoble, he relented.) Ernie himself skied solidly with a slight stem, hinting that stability was superior to style.

The first year at the St. Bernard Jean once asked me, “Do you have fun the way you ski?” Humbled by the insult, I hastened to attend ski school—a privilege accorded ski bums. Dadou said that if it weren’t for my strong legs, I wouldn’t be much of a skier. I thought if I had skinny legs like Dadou, I wouldn’t be caught in shorts outside the boudoir.

Ski-week classes with Jean included the top skiers among the guests and the occasional drop-in instructor. When we arrived at a slope with uncut powder, Jean, in an exaggerated Gallic accent, would say, “I want you to get an idea, an image of how I ski, so that you can feel what I do, how I seduce the mountain.” Then he would turn to me. “Bill, on me. Allez, à l’attaque.” Off we’d go down Al’s Run, the paying customers floundering behind. On the way up the mountain, Jean taught the scattered members of his class from the lift. “George, a little more weight on the inside foot. La merde, Frank, look, look where you’re going. Ben, please, not like that; like this. Susan, don’t lean on your poles. Bend your ankles. Oui, c’est bien.”

On that morning in February of ‘69, in my third year at the St. Bernard, I finished my breakfast chores about 9:30 a.m. My hands were red and chapped from washing glasses for all three meals. Just as it takes ten ski patrolmen to do Koch’s work today, so it takes ten St. Bernard employees today to do my job. The sun shone, the sky was blue, the temperature crisp, and the lift crew had just spent two hours digging out the two chairlifts from under several feet of fresh snow.

The road between the Valdez cattle guard and the Ski Valley, some ten miles, was mostly impassable, except for the legendary lift operator, one-eyed Lee Varos, who could spot a ticket thief a hundred yards away or drive through miles of drifts, maneuvering his old truck like it was a Snowcat. Long before the craze for four-wheel-drive SUVs, two-wheel-drive trucks filled with sand or rocks for ballast were driven then by men and women as if GM and Ford made chariots for the gods.

That morning the best skiers in the Valley—Jean, Dadou, and Tony Bryan, a former college ski champion—were also digging their learn-to-ski-better students out of the snow banks. Airborne Fred Fair, a powder nut and free-form aeronautical test pilot from town, was delayed by the closed roads. The Thunderbird Lodge diva, Frau Elizabeth Brownell, waited for Fred. Koch was high above on the slopes, pop-out snappers and blasting caps in hand, dropping bombs and trying to get the upper hand on the mountain. Yes, Koch’s job today takes ten men and several howitzers.

So, all alone I got first tracks while charging down a dozen slopes. Today, the ski patrol rates these slopes by posting fearsome double black diamonds to warn off neophytes. Then we just called them by name: Al’s, Snakedance, Inferno, Edelweiss, et al.

When Koch opened the upper slopes, I cut through fresh powder on Longhorn, Lorelei, Castor, Pollux, Reforma, Blitz, and two unnamed chutes in West Basin. By noontime I had exhausted my quest for orgasmic conquest and collapsed into a state of enchantment behind the bar.

There were other great days that winter when we ski bums showed up for upper sweep at 3:20 or lower sweep at 4 p.m. When he saw the sunburnt and windswept snow on Longhorn, Young Cho, a Korean Olympian and the nominal head of the ski patrol, inevitably complained, “My skis too stiff.” But the bums of the St. Bernard, drunk or sober, were scared of neither rotted snow nor rocks and ice but skied—recovery to recovery—any slope, opened or closed, despite conditions of slush or potential holes hidden beneath the surface. Oh, yes, we only cried out to Thor for more godlike opportunities

It might snow again, but the winter of 1969 gave me enough powder to last a lifetime. When it snows today, the powder junkies fill up the lift lines before the bell rings at eight a.m. The extreme skiers today run up and over the cliffs, climb higher and ski faster, half-bird, half human. But in those days, a single man made his way more leisurely up the mountain so he could set downhill speed records of singular achievement, an achievement shared only with the angels. The ghostly voices still mutter from the rafters at the St. Bernard about the snow, the best there ever was, a time when men were men and some of them were women, Lizzie from the T-Bird and Mary Anne of the St. Bernard, the goddesses of yore. Oh yes, that’s the way it was in the winter of ’69.

From the Aspen Times:

“John moved to Aspen in 1973 and worked at Snowmass as a Ski Patrolman and somehow acquired the nickname “Johnny Sawpit” often shortened to Sawpit or even Pit. He loved the Snowmass Ski Patrol and made lifelong friends there. John was an Aspen Volunteer firemen in the 1970’s and 80’s and relished driving the fire trucks.

“John married Kathryn in 1978 and acquired a step daughter, Megan. John adored Megan and subsequently his step grandchildren, Henry, Amelia and Sam Twitchell. John was an ardent supporter of all sports that Henry, Sam and Amelia participated in and attended almost every Basalt Longhorn football game, including away games. I once asked Henry if he could hear John cheering and Henry said, “everyone can hear John”. John also attended plays and choir concerts of the Twitchells.

“During the last twenty years of John’s life, he was proud to work on the Aspen Mountain lift maintenance crew. He found the mechanics of lift operation endlessly fascinating and would explain those mechanics in detail to anyone who might listen.

“John will be missed by his family and friends for his quiet kindnesses, his inquisitive nature, and his joy at being with people he loved. He has gone to a place where ski boots don’t hurt. No service is planned at this time. Donations may be made in John’s memory to Mountain Rescue.”

In Taos we shall baptize John’s exit point with a can of Coors and a shot of Single Village Mezcal. Then go home and cry in our pillows for the man who matched the mountains.

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