The first time freestyle legend Glen Plake wore skis on his feet, he was a toddler, and his dad pushed him around the backyard of their house on Pattee Canyon Road in Missoula. Montana Snowbowl was the first resort he ever skied at, though he doesn’t remember it. After his dad graduated from the University of Montana, the family relocated and ended up in the Lake Tahoe area.
Forty-six years later, Glen skis at Montana Snowbowl once again, exciting the young athletes competing in the first northwest regional freestyle competition of the season. The following day -- Monday, January 14th -- Glen travels to Ski Discovery. This time, he delights the Butte Special Olympics Ski team.
He spends the day offering pro tips on hair care (he recommends Knox gelatin in a spray bottle, though today his trademark mohawk lays in bleach blond locks around his face), tips on equipment tuning, and pointers on skiing to anyone who follows him around. Every which way he turns, someone is handing him a poster or a VHS cassette or a goggle strap or a helmet or even a ski for him to sign. He writes “Think snow,” or “Ski ya later!” On the Special Olympic team’s sit-ski, he writes “Don’t eat yellow snow!”
Riding up the chairlift with one of the athletes, Glen tells him a story about a close friend who recently became paralyzed after a nasty ski accident.
“I’m like, ‘So, where we at, man? How are ya doing?’ I mean, I don’t ever expect to ski the things together that we skied at one time, or at the speeds that we skied together,” Glen says. “But he goes, ‘You know, in a clinical situation, I’m messed up. I’m failing tests left and right. I don’t feel good. But when I’m skiing, it’s pretty good.’”
Glen watches the skiers under the chairlift, making their way around deep moguls.
“I think we’re all like that,” he says. “Regardless of if we have special needs or we’re top athletes trying to get to the next level. I have a hard time thinking any of us are different when we’re out on our skis.”
I like what Glen’s saying, but after skiing beside him, I’d have to say we’re a little bit different. The guy’s a world-class skier who gets a couple hundred days of skiing in every year. He’s stared in almost a dozen ski movies including The Blizzard of Aahhhs, License to Thrill, and a handful of Warren Miller movies. But just talking to him on the chairlift, you’d never know it. He’s personable, talkative, and laughs easily and boisterously at himself. Here is a guy who is loving life.
Even though this skiing legend has skied every state with snow and in all four hemispheres, he’s still happy to spend the day at humble, little Discovery.
“Skiing has a terrible reputation because of these major resorts. It comes off as this major resort thing and we can prove again and again that it’s not. It’s a local ski hill at the end of some dirt road in the middle of winter,” Glen says.
Glen’s traveling to these hills at the end of dirt roads all over the northwest for nine days to promote Elan’s new skis. He says he’d rather get people up on the skis so they can decide for themselves what they think, rather than just reading some ski magazine test article.
Six Special Olympic teammates stick close to Glen, following him down a gentle groomer. He stops everyone and asks them what they think about when they’re skiing. The group is shy so he tells about his 90-year-old ski buddy from Japan.
“I asked him what he thinks about when he skis,” Glen says. “He goes, ‘We need to ski like dolphins swim,’ and I went, ‘What?’ and he says, ‘Yeah, there’s too many people who ski like a shark swims. They’re just searching around, ready to eat anything, moving, not really enjoying the situation. I like to ski like a dolphin swims.’”
The group laughs and he encourages Thad, a nearby team member, to grab the baskets of his poles.
“If anything goes bad, drop the poles,” Glen says, laughing. He teaches Thad how to ski in circles with him. Thad is hesitant at first, but he starts to get it and soon, everyone is pairing off to try. I give it a go. It’s hard and fun and dizzying.
Then Glen tries to teach me to ski backwards.
“Point behind you and follow your finger,” he yells up the slope to me. “Stagger your legs. Traverse across the hill!”
It’s not going well for me, but I look up and almost everyone else on the run is trying it, too. We’re all off balance and catching edges, but Glen glides gracefully, picking up one ski and swooping his leg around, like a ballerina on skis.
Glen wears a bright orange and blue ski suit. He’s impossible to miss on the mountain, either because of his bright blond hair, his amazing ability, or his loud laugh. But that suit isn’t just any coat and snow pant ensemble off the rack.
“I had a bad accident three months ago and both my partners died,” Glen says to a small group of people surrounding him in the lodge after the lifts closed. “I was spat out of a big avalanche that left me in a crevasse, in the dark for a long time. After searching and realizing my partners were no longer with me, I had to make the transition from searching for them to saving my own life.”
He stops here to explain that the ski suit he’s wearing is a sample. “And samples are treated like gold,” he says. “Sometimes their not even allowed to be tried on. But I thought, what the heck, I’m gonna take these samples on this expedition.”
At 23,000 feet, Glen started to come across his gear strewn down the mountain from the avalanche.
“I’m finding things like sunscreen, sunglasses, and a food bag. I’m literally getting ready to go and it’s very emotional because I’m leaving a place where my friends are somewhere, but they’re lost. I’m literally ready to leave and I’m picking up the bag and out of the corner of my eye, I see my samples.” Glen gestures to his bright orange and blue get-up. “And you know what flashes through my head? ‘Oh my gosh, those are 2013 samples and if I don’t bring those back, Andrea’s gonna kill me.’”
Here he erupts in laughter. “Isn’t it crazy what comes into our heads sometimes? So I bought them back!”
You would never know those samples survived an avalanche. On the top of his right thigh, there is one little, tiny tear hardly even noticeable, and that’s it.
We stay there for almost two hours after last chair because how often do you really get to sit and talk with Glen Plake? I hope that someday, I’ll get to again.
Jessica Murri is the web editor for Montana Headwall. This is the first installment of her winter series of trip reports, in which she searches for the most interesting people skiing and snowboarding in Montana. If you know anyone who blows your mind, please contact her at email@example.com.