The Mountain Times

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Once upon a time in history: A Pico son and “a way of life”

Karl Thomas Acker was born on May 25, 1949 to parents Karl and June Thomas Acker in Rutland, but when his mom left the hospital he went to live in a most unusual home - an apartment above the Troll Top Lodge (a rustic base lodge and cafeteria) at Pico Peak.

He would spend 15 years of his life there, growing up with the mountain as both his playground and playmate. Its influence would be profound, both in his personal life and that of his parents, who were both passionate skiers.

Karl Thomas Acker's story actually begins with Brad and Janet Mead, who founded Pico in 1937 and went to Europe in 1938 to find a ski school director. They hired his father, a Swiss racer and instructor, to run the Karl Acker Ski School starting with the winter of 1938-39.

After Brad died in a drowning accident in 1942, Janet had continued to operate Pico during the war, and Karl returned to Pico after World War II service in the 10th Mountain Division ski troops to manage the area and direct the ski school. In 1948 he married June Thomas and their son joined them at Troll Top a year later.

Karl (senior) also skied with and coached Andrea Mead (Lawrence), who took two Golds in the 1952 Olympics. Despite her illustrious racing career, neither Andrea nor her brother were interested in operating Pico so in 1954, Janet Mead sold the area to Karl and June.

Their son, Karl, doesn't remember when he began to ski, saying, he was told he was on skis at age two. He does recall that there was a photo that appeared in The New York Times, showing him skiing through gates at age four.

"I always skied when I got home from school, and when the lifts closed, I climbed up to ski down," he recalled in a recent interview. He also remembered going into the woods to cut saplings to set up his own race courses, and that it was "around age seven or eight" that he began to participate in Pico's organized racing program. His father had started the Pico Ski Club, in part to provide support for Andrea Mead, he added.

Asked about his youngest memories, Karl said, "I just skied and gave people a hard time - got into mischief - don't know if I can tell it to paper - nothing bad but mischief." Those were the years that centered around "play, cause trouble and ski … and I was always hanging around with the workers in winter and summer," he said of being too young to work at the area that was his home, not just a mountain.

But while he enjoyed racing, he never got to experience his father's coaching as the senior Acker died suddenly on the night of his son's ninth birthday. What Karl recalls of his father's death is mostly what he learned from his mother - that he had worked long hours and the stress had contributed to his early heart attack.

Noting both her involvement in Pico's operations and her good business sense, he said his mother continued to operate and expand Pico and he continued to ski and race. She also drove him to school every day - to the Immaculate Heart of Mary Grammar School (K-8) and later - until he got his license - to Mount Saint Joseph (MSJ), both in Rutland.

When June sold Pico to the Beldens in 1964, she went to Switzerland and spent that winter with his father's family while young Karl spent his sophomore year at a private school where he continued to ski race. (There were many family trips to Switzerland that Karl enjoyed and continued to enjoy later in life with his own family.)

When she returned, they lived at the Long Trail Lodge during the summer while she had a chalet built at Pico on Alpine Drive. He went back to MSJ, graduating in 1967. While attending MSJ, Karl raced for his high school team. Recalling it was a small group, and his coach had him "help coach his teammates."

It was while in high school that he learned to ski jump thanks to (the late) Monk Martin who, while coaching the Rutland High team, also taught MSJ team members to jump.

[Joe Jones, who began the Mid-Vermont racing program, had fundraised to build two ski jumps at Pico "to interest kids in Nordic skiing," Jones said, noting they only lasted a few years as it was hard to get kids interested at that time.]

Thanks to having learned to jump, in his senior year (1967) Karl took third in the Vermont Championships, a title that included slalom, giant slalom, and jumping events. Because he never learned to cross-country ski, he couldn't compete in the Skimeister four-event competition, he noted with a tinge of regret.

3--Karl -Thomas -Acker ,-Karly -Acker ,-and -Kristina -Acker -Delaney -at -the -top -of -Pico -KA-trail -named -for -Karl -Acker .-provided

Karl went on to race in college but like many a dedicated skier, he was more interested in racing and skiing than studies. He left to pursue a life of racing and coaching and traveled throughout Europe and the U.S. racing, and then coaching. It was always his "way of life."

He coached his first year at Killington, with a young Leslie Smith (then about 14) one of his early students.

He also worked at Southworth's Ski Shop and raced on the Pro B Circuit. His 40 years of coaching then took him to Pico, Elk Mt. (PA), the Stratton Mountain School (VT), Park West (now the Canyons; UT), and back to Killington in 1988. He coached there until his retirement five years ago. Along the way, several students went on to the U.S. Olympic Team.

He continued to do some occasional private coaching, joking that he also is known to offer some "unsolicited advice," adding that his mother was fond of saying, 'Unsolicited advice is the junk mail of life.'"

Asked about the value to ski training, Acker noted that, "There is value for any child to be involved in athletics - in any sport."
There is value to various experiences from "training with a team to traveling with a team. But in the gates, you are also an individual," he noted.

"Ski racing teaches responsibility and time management. There are tons of life experiences - you learn to be responsible … to handle pressure.

"Ski racing is very unforgiving - there is no room for a mistake. There is pressure because there is no room for error.
"In another sport like tennis, you can lose a game and come back. But in skiing you have to learn to handle the pressure and to have a positive focus, a clear head, and determination."

Asked how growing up at Pico has affected his life, Acker said, "It's been a wonderful lifestyle, and I still enjoy skiing recreationally."

Noting that skiing provided him with "a lifelong sport from an early age," he added that he feels "fortunate to have been involved in the history of it in this area. People get a free history lesson" in talking with him, he added with a chuckle.

But he also acknowledges the more personal family significance to having been involved with Pico and skiing for so long, noting the KA Trail that was named after his father.

As with his own name, his daughters Kristina Acker (Delaney), who is married and lives in Ohio now, and Karly Acker, a high school senior, sport the family "KA" initials and tie to Pico.

Along with his wife, Lynn, who operates Accents and Images in Killington, all enjoy skiing and visits to Pico, where they can experience the legacy of Karl's parents and a special family mountain.

Photos courtesy of the Acker Family