by Steve Lipsher
On her first day of skiing, Ellen Hollinshead got her first kiss and fell in love – with skiing.
“I was 13 … and went to this little resort outside of Pittsburgh, and I met this cute boy. He asked if he could kiss me,” she recalled. “I felt, wow, skiing is sexy! I like this sport!”
Although she struggled on the slopes that first day, she kept going back – actually looking in vain for the cute boy – and incidentally discovered something magical about skiing that has continued to cast a spell over her now for 40 years.
A fixture in Breckenridge since 1985, Hollinshead – along with her husband, local character and town councilman Jeffrey Bergeron – has found a way to spend almost every day on skis during the winter, which she defines as generously as possible.
“I usually start skiing the minute the snow flies, about the start of October, and I’ll ski six days a week through mid-April,” she said. “My favorite time to ski is probably April, May and June because you can just climb so many peaks and be in so many areas you can’t be in the winter time. I pretty much stop when it’s just not fun skiing anymore. That tends to be about July.”
(When the snowpack recedes, wildflowers are another of Hollinshead’s passions, often captured in stunning photography that she routinely shares on social media.)
For much of her adult life, she has worked in restaurants at night so that she could ski all day, at first fighting off pangs of guilt and expectations of her family that she become a lawyer after graduating from Maine’s prestigious Bowdoin College.
“Jeffrey said: ‘You don’t want to go to law school. You’re living a great life, and you’re happy,’” Hollinshead said. “My parents initially didn’t understand my lifestyle, but then they came out to visit and saw how happy I was, and the pressure was off to go to grad school.”
While Bergeron officially is retired and jokes that his wife is “pre-tired,” both are writers and have saved wisely. The two live very simply and frugally to afford their habit: The thermostat in their house is set perpetually at 55 degrees, and all of their furniture was free. “That embarrasses me a little, but not enough to change,” she said.
Bergeron indulges his wife’s passion and usually joins in.
“Someone said the key to happiness is to find out what you love to do and to do it, and that’s her in a nutshell,” he said. “I love to ski, but I don’t know anyone who loves to ski as much as she does. It’s in that setting that she’s in her element.”
He often jokes in his own writing about the tradeoffs. “When it comes to housework,” he’ll say, “she’s an amazing skier.”
Once a regular resort skier, Hollinshead these days favors explorations deep into the backcountry, although she’s conservative and opts for scenic beauty and low-angle powder turns rather than adrenalin-inducing descent lines. She recently shared some of her tips for an outing in the Backcountry on Mountain Town Magazine and MountainTown: Breckenridge:
Hollinshead is an accomplished telemark skier, of course, but in recent years she has switched to light alpine-touring gear: Dynafit Mercury boots with a removable tongue (to save weight), and her go-to ski is a mid-width Kästle TX107 (since the time of publishing this story she has probably upgraded).
She says she particularly relishes solitude on her forays– but she regularly invites members of her tight circle of friends to join her, in part for well-measured safety and in part to share the experience.
“She lives in the moment, and she is so excited and grateful to share it with friends,” said one regular companion, Cary Piecoup. “I’m always so happy to hang with her because I know she is there with me and always confirming that ‘now’ is the best place to be!”
Mark McKinnon, a former political consultant and co-host of the hit Showtime TV series “The Circus,” also is a regular ski companion.
“We call her the ‘Snow Queen’ because that is her first love,” he said. “Ellen has been known to drive three days, then climb three hours, just to ski 300 yards of the last patch of snow somewhere in America in July.”
Safety-conscious, constantly monitoring conditions, and always well-prepared with extra gear, clothing, food, and a repair kit in addition to her encyclopedic knowledge of the local terrain, Hollinshead is as eminently qualified as any guide.
“Nothing like hearing a Hollinshead ‘whoop’ from deep in the backcountry as a homing sound to those who may have become distracted or lost – like her husband Jeffrey, often,” McKinnon said.
He warns, however, that one should be prepared when invited to go on an excursion with her.
“A two-hour jaunt often turns into four-hour hammer,” he said. “She kicks it hard.”
Hollinshead’s passion spills over to advocacy. In fact, she spearheaded Summit County’s first voter-approved tax initiative targeting open-space acquisition. Both she and her husband are politically active and believe in giving back to the community through volunteer efforts.
“At first you are impressed by her incredibly vast knowledge of all mountain-related activity. But then you are moved by her love and passion for the outdoors,” McKinnon said. “Ellen is totally dedicated to our natural surroundings and spends tireless hours doing research, writing letters, and haranguing officials who might have an interest other than preservation.”
~originally seen in Mountain Town Magazine’s 2016/17 Winter Issue ‘Ski Bum” stories: https://issuu.com/mtntownmagazine/docs/winter_2016_17_issuu
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