Editor’s Note: For Kathy

Two Vermonters connect at the bottom of the world. Adam Howard poses with the man, the myth, the legend, Hans Solmssen on the Antarctic Peninsula. Courtesy Adam Howard

“Kathy is looking for a photo of you and Hans and the penguins,” George’s text read. Word had spread that while in Antarctica reporting for the story on p. 76 of The Historic Issue, I’d run across the mythical Verbier-based guide Hans Solmssen. 

Stories of Hans ran rich at Smugglers’ Notch in Jeffersonville, Vermont, throughout my youth and still do. He became one of the first, if not the first, Americans to become a fully certified Swiss Mountain Guide in 1991. Hans, Kathy and their cohort were a generation ahead of me in skiing, and, as anyone who was raised by a little ski area knows, older skiers become heroes without knowing it: a name drop of pride in the great global skiing diaspora.  

According to the legend of Hans, he came to Johnson State College from Hawaii in the early 1980s and he’d never seen snow. Or at least hadn’t ever skied it. He was more of a surfer, as my little mountain town story goes. He never had formal instruction except for what he could pick up from his college buddies when he wasn’t working in the rental shop. By all accounts, his natural athleticism won out and, when he finally moved to Switzerland after graduating (or not. I don’t know), he had an elegant, surfy style all his own. Before too long, he’d applied that skill along with God-given kindliness to guiding. 

My “work” has taken me to his Swiss hometown or near it many times during the March and April touring season over the last 20 years. But he was always away, usually working in Greenland, where he’s widely credited as a pioneer in guiding circles. So, aboard the Ocean Albatross I introduced myself and we (mostly me) dropped all the names of the people we thought we might mutually know. The mention of Kathy, of course, brought a twinkle to his eye. She was the pretty, blonde farm girl who could ski circles around all the boys new to Vermont. 

When three low pressure systems were forecast to converge on the Drake Passage during our scheduled return, we had to leave a day and a half early from Antarctica to beat the beating. Fortunately, this gave Hans, now 65, and myself the opportunity to ski together near Ushuaia, Argentina, our port city and home to some pretty incredible touring itself. Hans cabbed over to our hotel and picked us up. My former NCAA Nordic skier roommate, Pat, and myself were pretty shattered from all the travel and skiing and bobbing in the “Drake Shake.” Plus, a mantra of, “Let’s just walk,” had resulted in miles of dragging our luggage the day before. But we figured a mellow tour and booter up a couloir with a guy 15 years our senior would be just the thing. Our wisdom suggested we should forgo food and just have a good sweat. 

“Why don’t we boot up in the café instead of the parking lot,” Hans suggested, guiding not guiding, as Pat and I fumbled. “You guys should eat something. I’ll get us some sandwiches.” Adult daycare. When we finally got on track, Hans was gone, more rando race than guide pace, and we were on the back foot. The man simply hovered across the snow, transitioned like a bird going into bird mode then waited at the summit for what must have been an hour. He cheered us on at the top before dropping as I deskinned. 

And, there it was. A sideways snowboarding style on skis, tight parallel, slashing wall to wall down the 45-degree couloir. Perpetual recovery in breakable crust on the slider’s right, powder on the left and a guide’s calling card smile, ear to ear, whenever he stopped to take a photograph. Just like the one in this picture, Kath. Here you go. —Adam Howard

This Editor’s Note was originally published in Issue 157, The Historic Issue. To read stories from the untracked experience when they’re first published, subscribe.

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  1. Two Vermonters, imagine that. Getting to be like Australians, can’t swing a ski pole without hitting one.

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