Skiing the Mort Hellers
By Cam Burns
I’ve been skiing since age 12, so that’s… um… like 35 years. I started in 1978, when my parents and sisters and I moved to Syracuse, New York, from Australia. Skiing was the closest thing to surfing, which kept me out of trouble as a young larrikin, so my unwitting parents were fairly forced to buy me a pair of boards for the snow. At least that was how things played out. Six-hundred dollars later, while my parents wondered how they could possibly have spent an entire family’s monthly budget on what seemed like a kid’s toy, I took up the noble sport of sliding down hills at Labrador Mountain, a few miles south of Poorexcuse (which is just east of Rottenchester).
I was just 12, but those were the only new skis I ever owned. Seriously. Despite the fact that I soon moved (with my family) from Poorexcuse to Lost Almost, New Mexico (where I shared classes with a crazy-as-hell skier named Dean Cummings), then from Los Alamos to Boulder (a non-ski town but pretentiously close), and from Boulder to Missoula to Angel Fire, New Mexico (a bona fide ski town), thence Angel Fire to Aspen (another bona fide ski town). Not once in those years did I buy a new set of skis. I used whatever I could afford, typically used skis or simply boards generously donated by friends.
It’s always been that way. In Boulder, I used skis left by students in a trashed apartment. In Missoula, I used borrowed skis. In Angel Fire, I found an old pair of Rossis at a yard sale. In 1993, a year after my girlfriend Ann and I moved to Aspen, I started skiing the “Mort Hellers.”
Aspen—where we lived for four yeas before having children and migrating to the sanity of nearby Basalt, Colo.—we soon found, was into dumping skis. You could, and likely still can, wander up to any dumpster, at pretty much any time of the year, and find some old (not to mention not-so-old) skis in the box. This was most intriguing to a guy who’d grown up using borrowed, donated, cheap and even left-at-trashed-apartments skis. The more I peeked into dumpsters, the more I saw. This got quite annoying for Ann, as any evening we might stroll from our Hunter Creek apartment into town for a movie or a meal, I’d come back with an armload of skis. Part of the problem was that every time I looked in an Aspen dumpster, I’d find skis that were better than the ones I’d found the day before.
One day, I came across a beautiful pair of Dynastars. I pulled them out, checked the base and edges, and promptly declared them my new skis. They were great skis, and only about a year behind in terms of contemporary models. Disregarding my outfits, I was nearly in the modern age.
Then one evening, my friend Rob “Robbo” Herring pointed out that the skis had “Mort Heller” proudly stamped on them just north of the binding.
“Mort what?…” I stuttered.
“Who’s Mort Heller, Cam?”
The name made me shrink. Mort Heller was a name with a huge amount of baggage. At this particular moment in history, I was a reporter at the Aspen Times, a decidedly (then) anti-development newspaper and Mort was involved in some kind of development, although he appeared to be part of the wealthy elite as well. My boss at the time, a guy named Loren, had a running war of words going with Mort, or rather, against Mort because of said development.
Reporters are strange creatures. They supposedly live by the code that nothing can be assumed, that both sides in a debate get equal air-time regardless of what each side is saying (the current climate discussion is a case in point), and that they stay objective. It’s the same situation for cops. The problem is, the human condition kind of destroys a reporter’s or a cop’s ability to live by those noble codes. People are just too darn weird, unpredictable, rotten, wonderful and unreliable.
Then there’s the problem of newsroom camaraderie. To fit in, journalists have a pervasive knack of agreeing with fellow journos quicker then anyone or anything else. That’s no surprise, because as a unit, it’s often the paper versus the subjects of the stories—or worse, versus the rest of the world—so that camaraderie is a vital support system in the journo’s world. I was guilty of it. We all are times. So, when it came to Mort Heller, we all agreed he was a no-good developer. And, I admit, I trusted my boss, and still do.
Robbo had pointed out the “MORT HELLER” stamp on a late November Friday in 1993, when he and his then-girlfriend Karen came up for and a weekend of skiing. I didn’t say anything about the “MORT HELLER” stamping at the time (shrugging seemed a better response), but in the morning I sneaked out to my truck and grabbed a roll of duct tape. I stuck two small pieces over the “MORT HELLER” on each ski, and called it good. Of course, Robbo quickly noticed this, too, so he asked. And I explained.
Mort was the one person in the community I could not be associated with, or there’d be hell at work (for me, anyway). Destruction of reputation, loss of a vital support system, and general consensus that I was somehow conspiring with the enemy.
Robbo, Karen, Ann, and I skied a run at Snowmass, then drifted into a very long lift line. Then, Robbo pointed at something and suggested I look. I did, and when I turned back to ask him what he was pointing at, realized he’d ripped the duct tape off my skis.
Then, in the boomingest voice I’ve ever heard in a lift line announced: “MORT HELLER! MORT, OLD BUDDY! GOOD TO SEE YOU!
Silence from me.
“MORT? WHATS’S UP, MORT HELLER?”
“Shut up, Rob.”
“MORT, WHAT YOU GONNA SKI TODAY?”
“Probably your head.”
“AW, MORT, MORT HELLER OLD BUDDY, YOU WOULDN’T DO THAT, WOULD YOU, MORT?”
By this point, a few skiers were looking at Robbo, but there were at least 50 curious people looking at me. I wondered how many would recognize me and how anti-development they might be, because as strange as the monster-home phenomenon is in Aspen, it’s got a hell of a lot of residents who are decidedly anti-development. Robbo didn’t seem to care and went on his loud Mort rant another five minutes. An eternity later, we got on the lift. I explained to Rob the very disquieting nature of his exhibition, but he was off to the races. Every lift line, every run, was about the same. A shrill “MORT!!!!” seemed to hang in the air. He’d already done away with my scraps of duct tape, so I was fully exposed, naked in a very discerning crowd.
By Sunday morning, I was ready to send Robbo and Karen home. Or not ski. But Robbo promised to tone it down, which he did—blaring out the name MORT HELLER only twice in a long, relatively good day. We retired to food and plans for our next adventure, rafting, surfing, climbing or just simple backpacking. And of course, skiing, which is still the main winter pastime around here.
I owned the Mort Hellers for about seven years (Mort clearly got rid of them after about a season—how else would I have been so up to date in my skiing gear?), but eventually I moved on to wider, weirder skis, all from one of the used gear shops in the Roaring Fork Valley. But I never forgot the Mort Hellers for a couple of philosophical reasons that the Mort Hellers suggest.
Mainly, I’ve never moved on from buying and using skis that that are recycled. So the Mort Hellers were excellent skis. To my way of thinking, there’s no need for me, or most people for that matter to use skis that haven’t been used before (okay, if you’re an Olympic racer, send me an email). I’m not trying to make some BS statement about recycling, sustainability, and all that crap. The thing is, most skis—the boards themselves—haven’t lived their lives to the fullest before they’re shoved aside in favor of the new season’s models. I think people should use their skis a bit more before they give them the heave-ho. The latest thing I’ve seen (on facebook of all places) is those new, weird-looking tipped skis (now a coupla years old). I haven’t read the literature on those tips, but I bet in real life there’s hardly any difference between those and loads of other skis that are pretty close—and, just a season younger.
Last year, I later saw an obituary on Mort Heller. He died on Nov. 24, 2010. He didn’t sound like the guy Loren had railed on in the newsroom—indeed, he seemed to be heavily into philanthropy. But then again, obituaries are rarely complete portraits of a person. Certainly, it said nothing about his great choice in skis.
Cameron M. “Cam” Burns currently swings both ways, on a pair of many-year-old X-Screams (which he got for a $50 bucks at The Gear Exchange in Glenwood Springs) and a pair of K2 Superstinks donated by his daughters’ friends’ dad.