An Aleut who came to New Mexico to die and wound up revitalizing the New Mexico ski industry /
Skiing, something we take for granted if it snows. Skiing, this winter activity that we find so much pleasure in and get so much fulfillment from. Skiing, something we find relatively easy to do with today’s modern equipment and technology. But modern skiing came about because there were some far-out, hard-working, ski-loving, life-loving, visionary characters who were truly ski pioneers. It was these people and people like them who unleashed their spirits and visions and guts and pioneered skiing in the western United States – people like Emie Blake, Alf Engan, Friedl Pfeifer, Howard Head, Pete Seibert, Jean Mayer, David McCoy, Pete Totemoff and others.
Pete Totemoff was an Aleut from the Aleutian Islands; his tribe is the one Michener wrote about in his book. He came to New Mexico for his health; he had bad lungs and spent two years in the hospital in Albuquerque. They didn’t cure him, but when he skied, nobody noticed he was out of breath. He only had a lung and a half when he transformed New Mexico’s ski industry.
This is Pete’s story in Pete’s words.
“Oh, I knew how to ski, and I knew how to make a long splice. On the rope tow, you have to know how to make a long splice. Being somebody from the sea, I knew all of the knots and the splices already. Back then, nobody else knew how to splice.
“I was born in a small village, and then we moved to Cordova, Alaska, where I was raised. We were out in the boonies, about five miles from town. I went to a naval radio school. Back then, the only communication to anywhere was through the naval stations. That was my schooling, from grades one to ten. I had to ski to go to school, two miles a day. That’s where I learned to ski; snowshoeing was too hard work. The coast snow is heavier than s—. It would pile up on top of the snowshoe about a foot high, and you could hardly lift it.
“So I learned to ski.
“I helped to start the Sandia Ski Area in New Mexico and made it work. They had a lift and couldn’t make it run. I got that thing operating. I got started in the ski business because Bob Nordhaus put an ad in the Albuquerque paper for a manager of the ski area, and I applied. It was crazy. I always had a lot of good friends, and they helped me; it’s been going ever since. [Bob Nordhaus: Pete came up in 1946 to the ski area and said he wanted to help out and he taught and ran the rope tow and ran the little cafe down in the base of the lodge; Pete could do everything.]
“After that I worked at the Santa Fe Ski Basin with Ernie when that got started. Ernie and I, we got along pretty good up there in Santa Fe Ski Basin. There wasn’t a whole lot of business back then, and we got to skiing together and playing hockey. He made a little ice rink in the back. We did it all; if he needed help fixing the lifts, I’d help him fix the lifts, groom the slopes. It was sort of a casual thing in the beginning. Ernie and I did a lot of the clearing up in Santa Fe Basin by ourselves. The part where the lift used to be was a rock garden. We spent one summer just shooting rocks. Ernie liked that; he liked to play with powder. We shot rocks for a whole month and got them out of the way. Otherwise, you had them stick up through the snow.
“Then we had the leak in the propane system and it blew the propane tank up and the lift shack went skyrocketing.
“Then I used to help out on the lift and running of Tres Ritos ski area. That was the homemade lift we later moved over to Taos. It was the first real lift Taos had. It went up the first steep section of Al’s Run. I had to come
over there and fix that Platter lift many times when it went haywire in order to help Emie keep it running. It was never designed to be put on a damn steep hill like that; it was a baby lift. Al Rosen would call and say, ‘We can’t get this dumb lift running,’ and he wanted me to come up, and he’d pay my expenses and a salary.
“Ernie wanted a ski area so bad he could taste it. When I told him about Twining, he really jumped at it. He took off like a sky rocket. First I took him up towards Gold Hill; that’s where I thought the ski area should be. He
didn’t like that. He wanted to put it where he could use the Hondo Lodge for cheap and clear that hill. We tried to talk him out of it, some of us like Wolfie Lert and Otto Land, by saying it was too steep, and the skiers couldn’t
handle it. But, he went ahead anyway and proved us wrong.
“Ernie wanted me to come in with him on Taos. I said we couldn’t get along; one of us would kill the other in a year’s time. I told him it was all his and that I would help him but otherwise I didn’t want any part of it. It had to
be his alone because nobody could work with him. He was too opinionated and hardheaded with his tunnel vision. He was going to do it, and he was going to do it his way and don’t get in the road. He made a lot of mistakes, but
he survived them because he was so damn determined to make it go.
“Back then we were all trying to do something economically worthwhile, and it’s carried on to this day. When I started working for the Forest Service, we made every effort to create an industry of some kind to help the people in depressed areas. Like with the Forest Service, we went to Tres Ritos and other places and started fire fighting crews so that in the summertime, they could get a few bucks. It was the same way with this skiing.
“In a way, we really created an industry that is one of the biggest in New Mexico. We did it to bring in tourist dollars. We started a business that really helped the communities when they didn’t have any business at all; winters were dead.
“In the old days we’d climb all day for one run. That’s why I laugh at these new skiers bitching about waiting in line. We didn’t climb just a little hill; we climbed mountains. Back and forth, back and forth, just for one stinking run. I used to ski on skis made by the Northland Ski Company. When you bought a pair of skis from that company they gave you a little book on it with all the turns and how to do them. The telemark was one of the first turns. The telemark was the old Norwegian turn. That was one of the first turns that everybody used. There are old pictures of Twining with those miners using those big, long skis. They used this big long pole which was like an outrigger to tum one way or the other. It took a quarter mile to turn. Then right after the war it was all white army surplus skis with no edges. You had to put edges on yourself.
“You know what really made skiing though? The Head ski really is what made it work. Nowadays, with the new equipment, any damn fool can ski.
[Ernie: I was convinced we could teach people to ski our steep mountains and that the equipment was changing so rapidly that more and more people would be able to ski. Head skis were just coming in, and that was going to make a big change. I felt they would revolutionize the industry.]
“In a way Ernie and all of them trusted me, but they were always; wary even the Forest Service was wary about me. They never knew what the hell Iwas going to do. When you’re an individual, what the hell? Especially a guy like me who came down here from Alaska to die. I figure I had it made, and I don’t have to depend on anybody or anything to keep going.
“It’s a different situation with me being an Indian. You’re never really one on one; you have to overcome a lot of prejudice with people, especially gringos. Whether you like it or not, you better show them you can do things just as well as they can, and probably better. That’s the way it’s always been, especially in skiing. Skiing has gotten to be a macho thing.
“When I was passing the ski instructor exam, Ernie was behind them giving me the full certification. They were prejudiced; they couldn’t see an Indian skiing better than they did. I always had to beat them in a race in order to prove myself, and they didn’t like that either. I’m proud to be Indian. I can trace my ancestry way back. Most of these guys can’t go back more than a generation, and their father was probably a bootlegger.
“I used to ski with Fred Iselin on Ajax years ago. Fred was a kind and gentle man. He skied like me, loosey-goosey; he used to fly like a bird. He was crazy though. I figured he’d kill himself skiing. Once we came down Spar Gulch and that bastard hardly ever turned, and we were doing 1,000 mph by the time we hit bottom. He liked to go fast.
“We did all right together but I never got in front of him because he would run over me.”
Bob Nordhaus talks of Totemoff’s last run. “It was sad Pete died. At the funeral, it was interesting to have champagne at the grave side. That was really honoring Peter. He would have liked that. He was looking down, and I’m sure he approved. I’ve never seen that before. The Albuquerque Journal quoted him as saying, ‘A good powder run is better than an orgasm.’ – …and they published that!”
With his book Ski Pioneers, Rick Richards goes beyond biography to create the most detailed look at American ski history to be published in recent decades.
Photos: Pete Totemoff; miners toboggan in Twining Canyon Circa 1880.
Photos courtesy of the Ernie Blake family collection.
This article appeared on pp 12-13 of SkiCountry< 2000-2001.