‘Stealth instructor’ Smith maintains enthusiasm
Steamboat Springs — Barry Smith has become so adept at teaching skiing that most of his pupils on Mount Werner aren’t even aware that he is driving a pair of Nordic skis even he instructs them in alpine technique.
Call him the “stealth instructor.”
“I have these special bindings,” Smith smiled slyly. “Most people don’t even know.”
Smith wears a pair of Scarpa telemark boots and K2 tele skis whether he is teaching a telemark class or an alpine class. He shifts techniques as effortlessly as some of us change channels on the remote.
The lighter telemark boots and skis make a big difference to a 52-year-old ski instructor who is on the mountain every day for a month at a time. Smith says sore feet aside, after three decades, he hasn’t lost any of his enthusiasm for teaching people to ski.
“I really enjoy meeting people — just meeting them and showing them a good time,” Smith said. “Just the love of the sport keeps me fresh.”
Another thing most of Smith’s clients at Steamboat never realize is that when professional ski instructors at resorts all over Colorado want to move up a notch on the telemark totem pole, Barry is the man that says “yea” or “nay.” For about 20 years, Smith has been an examiner for the Professional Ski Instructors of America. He has helped to develop the teaching techniques and standards of professional ski instruction.
Barry learned to cross country ski growing up in Minnesota. He almost went astray when his family moved to the north Los Angeles suburb of Northridge when he was 12. It would have been natural for him to become a hardcore surfer dude.
“Northridge was all orange groves and avocados back then, but it was going fast,” Barry recalled. “They were putting in gas stations and apartment buildings.”
Barry was the oldest of Jack and Clare Smith’s eight children. Jack was a national sales manager for a pharmaceutical company and Clare was a nurse.
Barry had the freedom as an adolescent to ride his one-speed bicycle over Topanga Canyon to visit the beach. When he and his buddies could get a ride from the folks, they took their surfboards with them.
Family friends introduced Barry to alpine skiing. They drove 90 minutes from the San Fernando Valley to ski at Holiday Hill.
When he finally acquired his drivers license, Barry was allowed to drive his 1961 Austin Healey Sprite all the way to Mammoth Mountain, on the other side of the Sierras.
“That’s when I really started to get into skiing,” Barry recalls. The little convertible only had a six-gallon gas tank, but it got 50 miles to the gallon and he could fill the tank for $2.
“I could drive all the way to Mammoth and halfway back on $2 of gas,” Barry laughed. He still has the Sprite stashed in a garage.
When he turned 18 and registered for the draft, he came up with a borderline lottery number (135) and decided further education was a good thing.
“It was go to Vietnam or go to college,” Barry said. He aimed the Austin Healey for Flagstaff and the University of Northern Arizona, where he pursued a degree in communications.
Barry began his career as a ski instructor in 1971. Arizona Snow Bowl was just a few miles from campus. The ski runs were cut on old volcanic cones known as the San Francisco Peaks. The university offered skiing as a physical education class and Barry parlayed his skiing skill into a teaching job that allowed him to be on the mountain three afternoons a week.
Even in those days of wooden skis and cross country boots that resembled bowling shoes, Barry preferred to ski big mountains on skinny skis.
“We used to ride to the top of the chairlifts and then hike up to the top of the volcano and ski into the caldera,” Barry said. “It was really steep at the top and I used to just fling my body down that thing.”
After graduating, Barry spent a year working at a Flagstaff advertising agency, but in typical fashion, convinced his boss to let him ski a couple of afternoons a week as long as he completed his work at night. He got to know the owner of the Snow Bowl better than he did his boss. When the ski area operator established a new guide service at the Grand Canyon, he lured Barry away.
Barry’s new job involved leading clients on combined hiking and river rafting trips into the canyon. At first, he was limited to guiding the guests on the hike down and back up to the south rim.
At the end of the summer he was invited to be among 10 people who set off on a 30-day trip down the Colorado, where they were trained to be Grand Canyon river guides.
“I rowed a 12-foot raft and I flipped it the third day, soaking our entire supply of bread and tortillas,” Barry said. “By the end of the trip, we were eating finger sandwiches. We’d just put peanut butter and salami and pickles on two fingers and eat it.”
Over the course of nine summers, Barry saw as much of the canyon as almost anyone, averaging nine or 10 river trips a summer.
By autumn, he was itching for a change of scenery and the skiing at Arizona Snow Bowl just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Barry took a look at Telluride, but housing was almost impossible. Then he saw a promotion film, “Winter Without Words,” prepared by Steamboat Nordic guru and former U.S. Ski Team coach Sven Wiik.
Barry’s old buddy, Steve Evans, was already in Steamboat and he knew he could find a place to live. And so, for the better part of a decade, Barry commuted with the seasons between the canyon and Steamboat.
He began teaching cross country skiing from a base in the Village Ski Shop in Ski Time Square. Sometimes he took his clients on a prepared loop through a grove of aspen where the Torian Plum condos stand today. Other times, he led groups up Spring Creek.
All along, Barry had been perfecting his telemark technique, but the equipment of the mid ’70s really held Nordic skiers back.
Ultimately, Vern Greco recruited Barry to be among the first Nordic ski instructors teaching telemark skiing on the slopes of Mount Werner.
Barry’s life took a significant shift when he came off the Colorado River one fall and drove west from the Grand Canyon to Los Angeles, where he purchased 20 of the new plastic Hollowform kayaks. Previously, kayaks were made of fiberglass and they were vulnerable in rocky rivers.
Barry sold 11 of the new “carefree” boats and used the remainder of the fleet to establish his own kayak school in Steamboat. Together with his partners, they set up shop in the old Mountaincraft store on Lincoln Avenue. The school has grown over the years and Barry estimates he gives kayak lessons to as many as 1,000 people a year.
Brad Johnson was Barry’s partner in both the original kayak school and a wilderness school they based out of Whiteman School in Strawberry Park.
“Barry was always a good kayak instructor,” Johnson recalled. ” I can’t imagine that anyone has taught more people to kayak than Barry. He’s always very patient with people. He paddles that way. He’s one of the smoothest I’ve ever known. Everything Barry does is understated.”
Johnson figured out fairly early in their collaboration that Barry would never be the first one out of the sleeping bag in the morning.
“Barry’s clock is his own clock,” Johnson laughed. “He’s on Barry time.”
But once he got rolling, he made an impression on people everywhere he went.
“The kids at the wilderness camp would pick up on it,” Johnson said. “We could be driving on our way to a river trip — you could get out of the car to get gas in any town in the U.S. and Barry would know somebody. He’s Mr. Friendly.”
The kayak school has allowed Barry to settle down and raise a family in Steamboat. Along the way, he’s had some great adventures, like representing the Professional Ski Instructors of America while skiing on a demonstration team. The team traveled to St. Anton, Austria, where it held clinics with instructors from 17 countries.
Just the other day, Barry had a student tell him he’d just conducted the best ski lesson of her life.
“That’s what I like to hear,” Barry said.
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