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Ornulf Johnsen – A life on skis


My friggin' feet no longer operate as fast as my god damn brain wants them to in order to avoid being catapulted into space when hitting the first bump!"

- Ornulf Johnsen, Whistler's First Director of Skiing


His sense of humour is sharp. Though he claims he's long past his prime, the venerable Norwegian snoweater has lost little of his edge. I mean, this is a guy who makes 75 look like the new 50. Deep-set eyes and a high forehead; pronounced cheekbones and a nearly gaunt profile. Tall. Very tall. And straight as an arrow. Strong-looking, too. Almost military in bearing. Looks to me like he doesn't spend much time sitting around...

And by the sound of his stories, he never has.

I've known about Ornulf Johnsen for years. But I've never really known his story. Back in another life, I knew him as the innovative ski school director at Grouse Mountain who introduced short skis to beginners - and created a revolution in learning. More recently, I've caught sight of him from time-to-time with a bunch of ol' boys cruising the Peak in search of powder. Or as he says: "...when the wind is just right, the sun at the right angle, and the snow so fine that you'd rather stick your face in than ski it. Puff!"

Until this week, however, I didn't realize how big a role Ornulf had played in Whistler's very early years.

Originally recruited by Roy Ferris and Alan White to run the mountain's first ski school, Johnsen has pursued a life of snow adventures like few others I know. From teaching NATO pilots how to survive winter crashes in the 1950s to becoming the American embassy's official ski instructor in Chile in the early '60s, Johnsen's resume defies easy categorization. But the fact that he suddenly found himself on the West Coast of Canada in 1964 promoting a remote ski area still under construction - and never left - somehow works for me.

But as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself. Where was I?

It was Ornulf's first e-mail that caught my attention. "Realizing your enthusiastic appetite to keep up with "old and new" here in the Valley," he wrote me, "I thought you would get a chuckle out of reading the attached blurb." Everyone knows I'm a sucker for a good story. And this one had all the necessary ingredients - kooky ski stunts, a cameo by the legendary Dag Aabye, and a rough-and-tumble Whistler Mountain.

An aside: for those of you not up on your local folklore, Dag Aabye was the valley's mountain prankster back then. An incredibly bold skier who pioneered some of the region's hoariest descents, Dag combined rare gymnastic talent with an artist's mountain perspective. And he was happy to share his eccentric ski vision with anyone who cared to follow. What I didn't know before, however, was that Dag's appearance at Whistler was entirely due to Ornulf's influence. But we'll get to that story later.

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