Corky Fowler - Superstar instructor, film star
Hood Corey "Corky" Fowler, 75, died in Livingston, Montana, on April 16, after a long illness.
The following article was first published in the June, 2010 issue of Skiing Heritage magazine.
High-Flying Corky Fowler
He was a superstar ski instructor at Sun Valley and Snowbird. Then he walked away from the sport for 25 years.
By Seth Masia
One of the classic images of the 1970s skiing boom was Corky Fowler soaring against a deep blue sky, in a full lay-out, his K2 Comps arrowing through a constellation of snow crystals and the Snowbird logo emblazoned, like Superman’s S, on his chest.
Corky was, for two decades, the most visible and iconic of American ski instructors. And then, one day, he vanished.
Now he’s back.
Hood Corey Fowler, Jr. was born in Seattle in 1944, and was instantly nicknamed Corky to avoid confusion with his dad. He began skiing at Snoqualmie Pass at 11, riding a rope tow on his mom’s old, wooden cross country skis with no metal edges. “We’d gone up there with sleds and hot chocolate and sandwiches, and it rained lightly all day,” he recalls. “There was a little rope tow kids could ride for free, and I held it with bare hands. I didn’t get a lesson, but I was able to stand up for a few feet in a straight line, and it blew me away. I was hooked by the simple thrill of sliding down a mountain. I knew right away that this was going to be my life.”
From that point on Corky had to beg and plead to go up to the Pass on the Saturday ski school bus. He mowed lawns on weekends for skiing money. At 14, he snuck away on Friday nights. He told his parents he was off to the movies and not to wait up, but he hopped a bus up to Stevens Pass where he worked on the ski patrol each weekend that winter. In August of 1959, at 15, he hitch-hiked over to the home of Joe and Doris Harlacher, who ran the Bellevue School District ski program at Snoqualmie, and sold them the idea that the best instructor to teach kids was another kid.
At 16, Corky was a roaring success at Snoqualmie. The program hired more teenaged instructors, and Corky, at 17, began to dream the impossible dream: He wanted to travel the world and become a world famous skier.
It became an obsession. From the study hall window at Bellevue High School he could see the snow-covered Cascades, and imagined the Alps. “It dawned on me that to be a world class skier wasn’t going to happen in Seattle,” he says. “I had to ski with the best in the world, and at the time, that was the Sun Valley Ski School.”
So he wrote to Sigi Engl, and got a curt note from Engl’s secretary. He could come to the hiring clinic for $25, but would have to pay for his own food and lodging. “Our youngest instructor is 32, so we won’t be able to hire you,” they told him.
Corky worked for the Forest Service at White Pass over that summer of 1963, and by fall was cutting brush in the rain near Mt. Rainier. One of the guys on the trail crew was Sun Valley instructor Jack Holt. So Corky had a ride to Ketchum. That fall, to please his parents, he did a semester at Eastern Washington State College, but couldn’t resist the call of the mountains and headed for Idaho with Holt.
The hiring clinic ran six days. Corky ate chili and crackers, drank lots of coffee and slept on a subfreezing porch in ten below weather in a sleeping bag. On the last day of the clinic, he approached Sigi Engl and Sepp Froehlich and asked if he could have a job. “Sigi was flustered, unwilling to even consider hiring an 18 year old kid,” Corky recalls, “But Sepp asked ‘Do you have a place to stay?’ Just then Rick Hambrough, a WWII veteran and ski instructor from Canada, approached and said ‘He can stay with me.’”
Engl already had a crew of 35 Austrians and five Americans, and Corky was 14 years younger than the youngest veteran. But one of the guys had broken a leg so the school was one man short for Christmas. Sigi told Corky he could teach for two weeks, but that was it.
So Corky taught kids for the holidays and made enough for bus fare to Aspen. On his next-to-last day on the beginner terrain at Dollar Mountain, he noticed that he was being watched by a guy in dark glasses and a black hooded jacket. At the end of the day the fellow approached. “Are you available for private lessons for three weeks?”, he asked. “I want four hours a day, and at the end I want to ski down Baldy.” The client was the singer Chad Mitchell, of the Chad Mitchell Trio. “Chad was pretty athletic and we wound up skiing Baldy,” Corky says. “He gave me an $800 tip.”
It was the start of six winters at Sun Valley. “Sigi couldn’t get rid of me," Corky says. “I was making a lot of money for the ski school. He gave me a contract teaching kids on Baldy and eventually a full time contract for teaching all levels of skiers.”
Meanwhile, Corky had come up with a new obsession: He wanted to do a high flying, full layout somersault on skis, like Stein Eriksen. He practiced on Penny Mountain until he’d perfected a full layout forward flip -- on 215 cm Head Downhills. Corky has often been credited with being the first American to do it. Fred Lindholm took some photos, and in the spring Sports Illustrated asked him to come to Mammoth and do his aerials for the Austrian ski photographer, Hans Georg.
“I missed a landing and snapped both bones at the boot top,” Corky says. “My foot was nearly torn off and I almost died in the Bishop hospital. My parents drove all the way down from Seattle to pick me up. I was in scary bad shape. I kept passing out all the way home to Seattle. I wound up spending nine months in a hip cast.”
Miraculously, Corky’s severely broken leg healed by the fall and Sigi Engl hired him back. Corky remembers 1964-65 as a wonderful winter for teaching classes on Baldy. In the spring he was hired to do stunts for the Frankie Avalon movie “Ski Party.” It led to another injury: while skiing fast in the icy moguls on Holiday, his recently healed leg exploded in a greenstick fracture. The surgeons at Sun Valley’s Orthopedic Hospital were within four hours of cutting his leg off just below the knee when they chose a highly risky, experimental procedure. They took some bone off his hip to make a graft and Corky’s twice-broken leg healed beautifully.
That summer of 1965, while attending The Art Center School in Los Angeles and pondering his future, Corky reached an injury settlement with American International Pictures. He had enough money to buy a car, and to travel to New Zealand with Sun Valley colleagues Bob Burns and Mike Smith.
Between Coronet Peak, New Zealand and Sun Valley, Corky skied 285 days that year. Sigi Engl began assigning him high-profile private lesson clients. He skied three weeks each winter with Joan Kennedy. He taught James Garner’s wife, and with Susie Busch of Anheuser Busch. “The crème de la crème of private lessons,” Corky says.
In 1966 Sun Valley hosted a FIS race and the French team rolled into town. Corky watched Jean-Claude Killy roar down Exhibition, the most technical part of the downhill course. It was obvious the French were skiing differently, winning races by three-second margins. Corky studied photos of the French Machine in action, and began adopting their avalement motion into his own skiing. “Sigi almost fired me for using those advanced French techniques in my free skiing,” he says. Sensing a revolution coming, Corkey wrote an article on using the French "jet turn" for recreational skiing, and sent it off to John Fry at SKI Magazine. It was published in the fall of 1967.
Corky had been skiing on Heads and leather boots, but now everything was changing. He put the new Jet Stix on his boots. Art Furrer joined the Sun Valley Ski School, and so Corky got a new roommate and a contract with Hart Skis. He got four pairs of skis and $2,000, and with Tom Leroy and Herman Goellner and Roger Staub saw his photo in SKI Magazine launching off cliffs on Javelins.
It was show time. In the spring of1969 Hart’s Charlie Unternahrer flew the whole crew to France to ski in the movie The Great Ski Chase. In the fall, Sun Valley sent Corky to Los Angeles to ski on a deck at the Harry Leonard ski show. By 1970, Snowbird was under construction. Corky made a bid to be director of skiing there, and Ted Johnson hired him on the spot.
For 12 seasons, beginning in 1972, Corky promoted Snowbird around the country and around the world. He skied with Stein Eriksen, Annie Famose, Leo Lacroix, Jean-Claude Killy and Pepi Stiegler. Stiegler hired him to loosen up the young racers at the summer training camp at Jackson Hole.
After a few high-speed runs on Snowbird's Regulator Johnson, Killy said "How did you learn to ski so well without racing?"
"I studied you guys," Corky said.
In 1974, he organized an international aerobatic ski show and tried to interest Toyota in sponsorship. They wouldn’t bite. But Annie Famose, the 1968 Olympic medalist, had a contract with Philip Morris Europe to do an aerial acrobatic ski show, and she asked Corky to bring in the American freestylers. He recruited John Clendenin, Scott Brooksbank, Stanley Larsen and Park Smalley as the K2 Team, and they headed to Europe, Japan and even Iran.
But pro freestyle didn’t feel right for Corky. “Skiing, for me, was always about speed, grace and harmony with the mountain, and here were these guys beating it to death in the moguls,” Corky recalls. “We couldn’t turn a 207 in bumps anymore, and I found myself skiing the sides of the runs.” He ran his last freestyle tour in 1978.
The recession following the 1973 OPEC oil embargo had by then begun to take its toll in skiing. Marketing projects were drying up. But Dick Barrymore, a Sun Valley neighbor, wanted to shoot a series of films, featuring Corky and surfing world champion Mike Doyle. Doyle was a master of the mono-ski and widely known for insanely high speed powder skiing. They went to Canada for four weeks, then on to Alaska, using helicopters to open up the Chugach and Talkeetna terrain for the first time.
“By 1984-85 I started getting really weird vibes,” Corky says. “There was a lot of risk. People died doing this stuff. That spring, on a heli-skiing gig in Canada with Barrymore, Mike and I refused to ski a beautiful powder slope in the Cariboos that Barrymore wanted to shoot, because it just didn’t feel right. That night Barrymore was pissed, but two weeks later he called to apologize because that same slope had slid that morning, killing four people. I was having dreams about my friends dying. Something inside was telling me, ‘Too much adrenalin and too much jet setting. Just walk away.’”
Late in the spring of 1985, Corky spent a day skiing at Deer Valley with Stein Eriksen, just having fun. While having lunch at the Silver Lake Lodge, Corky said, “I probably won’t see you for awhile. I’m quitting skiing.”
And he did.
Setting aside his skiing identity, he reverted to his legal name, Corey Fowler, and spent 25 years in a sort of creative diaspora. He studied acting for two years and got small film roles around Salt Lake City. He did a couple of stage plays with a local company. He moved to Los Angeles and ran a successful business doing architectural renderings, until the construction business collapsed after the first Iraq War. He moved back to Idaho and took art commissions, then worked as creative director at an ad agency in Idaho Falls where he directed TV and radio commercials. In 1997 he moved to Colorado Springs and resumed doing art on commission – portraits of children and animals, landscapes, even paintings of classic motorcycles.
“And then last spring – the spring of 2009 -- something in my gut said get back to high country,” Corky says. Sun Valley had changed beyond recognition and he knew he couldn’t return to the past. He moved to Montana that November, and got a job with the Bridger Bowl Ski School.
“It was a strange experience to return to skiing,” he says. “I was just like a little kid. Bonnie Hickey, Bridger Bowl’s Ski School Director was amazingly supportive and rode up the chairlift with me for that first run in 24 years. Within 20 yards off the top of the lift, I remembered that I knew how to do this! I'm 65 now, and have been inactive for 25 years. But all of that sophisticated muscle memory has been coming back, really fast. It took until January for core strength to begin to return. For 30 years I loved skiing with a deep passion, skied and made movies all over the planet and studied the sport in meticulous detail. I did my homework, paid my dues and skied with the world’s greatest skiers and incorporated it all into my personal skiing. And now it’s all coming back. What a gift!” -