A Keweenaw tradition lives on

RIPLEY – Chaz Olson had surgery for a spinal cord problem, but he was recently cleared by doctors to be physically active, so he decided to take part in the Mont Ripley Christmas Ski School Sunday.

“Now, I’m able to do snowboarding,” said the 13-year-old Olson.

Olson said he previously did a little snowboarding, but not at Mont Ripley.

“I just want to learn the main concepts of snowboarding,” he said of his reason for attending the school.

With Olson was his mother, Nicki Lahti of Calumet, who also brought her 5-year-old daughter, Paige Lahti, to the school for the first time.

“We just wanted her to experience it,” Lahti said.

The school took place Saturday and Sunday, and Nick Sirdenis, general manager of Mont Ripley Ski Hill, said it was started in 1947 by the owners of the former Weber’s Sports in Houghton after the chaos of World War II.

“Life was becoming more stable and settled,” he said.

People were taking more time for recreation after the war, and skiing was part of that, Sirdenis said.

In 2004, Sirdenis said Mont Ripley took over the ski school and renamed it the Mont Ripley Christmas Ski School. Snowboarding is also taught.

Sirdenis said the school has taken students as young as 2 years old.

“There are some 2-year-olds who are very athletic,” he said.

The school – which involves several hours of instruction – also accepts adults, Sirdenis said.

Ski School director Chris Maxson said the number of people taking the instruction varies by year. The average is 60, but there have been as many as 110. By Saturday, 72 people had signed up for the school.

“That’s on the higher side,” he said of the number of students this year.

There were 28 instructors for the school Sunday, Maxson said.

Although he wasn’t instructing Sunday, Dave Finlay said he’s been an instructor for the school for eight years.

Finlay said instructors provide the basics of skiing and snowboarding, such as standing and walking, for those who have never been on skis or snowboards before, and they help those who do have some experience brush up on their techniques.

Many of the younger students seem to take to the instruction better than some adults, Finlay said.

“They do pick it up pretty well,” he said. “The younger, the better.”

Finlay said it’s rare anyone backs out of the instruction before it’s finished, especially the younger participants.

“They’re diehards,” he said.

Although the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association New Years Race took place Sunday, Sirdenis said there is no connection between the race and the Christmas Ski School. However, some of the former students of the school do progress to competitive racing.

Sirdenis said in the 66 years of the school, probably thousands of people have taken part in it.

“The Christmas Ski School has taught an awful lot of people to ski,” he said.