Killington, Local News

Skiing is a way of life for Karl Thomas Acker

By Karen D. Lorentz

When you talk with skier Karl Thomas Acker, he readily admits that he got the ski bug from his Pico experiences. Lots of people can lay claim to that, but Acker’s experiences were truly unique.

And there may have even been a “ski gene” thrown into the mix along with a lot of Pico history that resulted in a ski passion that became a way of life.

By Karen Lorentz
Karl T. Acker holds a photo of his father at a Pico history event this past fall.

Pico owner/operators Brad and Janet Mead opened Pico on Thanksgiving Day 1937 and searched Europe for someone to teach skiing. They watched Swiss racer Karl Acker win every race they saw — he specialized in Slalom — and talked him into operating the Karl Acker Ski School at Pico starting in 1938.

Acker met and married Rutlander June Thomas and in 1949 their son, Karl T., was born. In addition to teaching June and son Karl to ski, Acker also taught Andrea Mead to race and became her coach. (She is famous as a two-time Olympic gold medal winner at the 1952 Olympics in Oslo.)

Acker also started the Pico Derby as part of Pico’s racing events and helped Mead operate Pico when Brad Mead died in a boating accident. Eventually he and June purchased Pico in 1954 from Janet Mead. They were living at Pico atop the Troll Top base lodge so little “Tommy” grew up there until Pico was sold in 1964.

The younger Acker attended school at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Rutland and would catch the Vermont Transit Bus to Pico after school. Then he’d “ski and sometimes hike up and run gates on B slope after the lifts closed,” he recalls.

Karl T. Acker’s “front yard” growing up was at Pico Mountain. Skiing was his life.

Acker was in the Pico Ski Club race program since age 6 when it was coached by Joe and Anne Jones.

“My father and Joe were in 10th Mountain Division together and Joe co-founded the Mid-Vermont program. It was a defining time and I stayed in racing in the USSA circuit. I went to Junior Nationals one year on the Eastern team. I was competitive and enjoyed it,” Acker noted.

After graduating from Rutland’s MSJ Academy in 1967, Acker spent two years at Johnson and Castleton state colleges pursuing skiing and ski racing. He left school to race. He lived in Killington and worked at Southworth’s Ski Shop and raced on the professional B circuit for two years before transitioning to coaching at Killington full time.

After two years, he coached at Pico for a season and then at Elk Mountain (Pennsylvania), Stratton Mountain School (Vermont), and Park West (now Canyons) in Utah. In 1988 he returned to Killington and coached racing until retiring 20-plus years later.

Q&A with Karl Thomas Acker

Mountain Times: What was it like growing up at Pico with the mountain your backyard?

Karl Acker: Pico was in my front yard — the backyard was the parking lot because my bedroom faced the slopes.

Growing up there was great having access to the mountain skiing in the winter when it snowed, access to being in the mountains in summer and hiking and hanging around and bothering the workers as a kid.

MT: Did you help out at Pico?

KA: You mean when did I switch over from being a nuisance to a helper? My mother sold Pico when I was 15 so I was never gainfully employed there because I was busy with school and racing. I did drive a tractor when 10 or 11. The Oliver tractor was used to pack snow. It had 4-foot long pads bolted onto tracks to pack snow and was used to mow trails in summer and could tow trailers around. It was primitive but helpful for a variety of things. I drove it in summer. One day I got adventurous and had it in neutral but then couldn’t get it into gear to stop and crashed it into a lift tower. The workers never let me forget that.

MT: How did skiing affect your life?

KA: It became my life, simple as that.

MT: As a coach what were coaching duties and responsibilities?

KA: Being a coach meant helping kids maximize their skills, which included teaching them new skills to improve their technique. You used what you knew from being an athlete and racer yourself — back then you didn’t have the educational manuals, clinics, and requirements that coaches have today.

Every weekend we took kids to races — coaching encompassed a range of teaching opportunities. You could influence young people’s lives on and off the hill.

MT: From your perspective what does learning to ski or race do for a person?

KA: Learning the skills leads to a lifetime sport if you enjoy it. You don’t have to race to enjoy it. When you learn to love to ski it can lead to an appreciation for the outdoors and the weather and learning how to handle the weather.

MT: What did you like about coaching?

KA: Working with athletes, enjoying the ups and downs, and helping them go on to a higher level if skilled enough and watching them grow as human beings.

MT: What do you like about skiing in general?

KA: It’s fun. The new ski equipment and groomed trails on a sunny day – make that a day with reasonable visibility. It doesn’t get any better. It’s been in my blood my entire life and I still enjoy it.

MT: What are the greatest changes you’ve seen in skiing? at Pico?

KA: The biggest change I’ve seen is the ski equipment. It has enhanced the fun factor because it makes it easier to ski. Obviously snowmaking and grooming are big changes, too. Lift service is another biggie.

The biggest change at Pico: everything. Lift upgrades, snowmaking, grooming machines, the base lodge. Every mountain has gone through that same progression of improvements if they are still in business.

MT: From your perspective, what have Pico and Killington done for the greater Rutland area?

KA: Provide jobs, increase tourism, and improve the local economy. The areas provide employment opportunities for those interested and attracted to being in the ski industry and that has led to the Castleton University Ski Area Management program.

MT: Besides skiing what do you enjoy?

KA: The outdoors—fishing, target shooting, motorcycle and mountain bike riding, paddle boarding.

MT: As a retired coach, what do enjoy about skiing the most today?

KA: Meeting people and sharing the history of the area and my parents’ involvement. I donate a Pico ski history tour for Vermont Adaptive’s fundraising campaign. I’ve made some good friends from doing that. I will tell a history story to anyone who is interested and I enjoy it when they thank me for sharing it.

MT: What advice would you give someone who wanted to work at a ski resort or move to Vermont?

KA: Go for it. When you are young and have a passion for skiing and you find a way to get yourself involved in it whether business wise or athletically, you can set yourself up for a lifelong sport.

MT: Any advice or words of wisdom?

KA: My favorite quote these days comes from the old country, “Too soon old, too late smart.”

MT: Anything else you’d like to share?

KA: Contact me ([email protected]) for questions or comments.

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