Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ron Lyle and the Ski Masters Legacy

Since 2003, guests on the Ski Masters European trips have missed a special treat; the presence of Ron Lyle. For the first twenty European trips the Ron and Lenore Lyle team was the heart and soul of the trips. Each played a role, contributing smoothly to the overall travel experience.

Ron’s traveling expertise and Scottish heritage made him a unique resource. His packing list, still in use today, was an invaluable tool for a first time traveler. His little pre-trip tips on everything from money to medications helped insure a successful journey. While bathroom outlets are available in modern resort hotels, twenty years ago his advice to carry an extension cord was appreciated by travelers who otherwise would be drying their hair while kneeling on the floor behind the TV.

Upon arrival in Europe Ron would chase down buses while Lenore herded her charges through customs and baggage claim. Then, once on board the bus, Ron would take the jump seat, by the driver, and use the PA system for announcements and to point out passing features. His signature sign-on routine was often imitated but never duplicated. First he would tap the microphone with his palm to see if it was on. (It usually was!) Then he would announce, “…this is Ron, in the front of the bus,” as if it could be anyone else, anywhere else.

Ron’s taste in travel music ran toward German oomph-pa bands and, if the bus driver had a collection of cassette tapes, you could count on Ron finding them and playing all the traditional music just “to get the guests in the mood.” The music would only be interrupted by the frequent “this is Ron” announcements or group protests.

After settling into the hotel Ron would head out to scout the best options for lift tickets and make a report at the first available meal. That effort was more involved in the pre-Euro days with varied currencies. Each area offered single and multi-day passes in various combinations. Some offered discounts to ski instructors. Some offered guides. Some didn’t take credit cards. Some required photos and so on. But Ron would sort it out, share the information and make that first day on the slope just that much easier.

Once on the slope Ron was available as a guide, whether he’d been to the area before or not. But he acted with confidence and usually returned with the same number as he left with.

In 1988 I had the good fortune to ski with Ron our first day at Kitzbuhel and my first day ever skiing in Europe. It was a gray cold day but we had a ton of fresh snow to deal with and Ron led with the confidence of an experienced mountain guide. Mid-morning he led our group of eight to one of the charming mountain huts that make European skiing special. Part of a farmer’s home had been set aside as a small eating area with a limited menu. Ron introduced his chilly associates to an Austrian tradition; jaeger tea or hunters tea. It is a warm concoction of tea-like ingredients and may, I’ve been told, contain some liquor. In any case, two cups of jaeger tea seemed to ease the pain of my new boots and created indelible memories for our first European trip.

As an aside, David Black led a group to the same hut in 1996. Unfortunately the farmer was no longer operating a café, as Dave discovered after leading seven skiers into their living room and surprising an Austrian grandmother. The intrusion was good for a spoon.

Ron’s left ear was not his best so he always encouraged you to ride the chair or T-bar on his right. For the same reason he preferred the German language to French or Italian. The German, with its crisp, solid sounds, was just easier to hear and understand. He had an appreciation for written German as well. He could look at a word with 27 letters and take it down to its logical components for translation. So words that looked daunting to others were simply a challenge for him.

He was able to use his experience as a practicing pharmacist to good use on the trip. He was always there to provide medical advice and/or appropriate medications when trouble arose.

On of his greatest contributions to the success of the trips was his knowledge of local retail practices and, above all, where to get a good deal on wine. Most resorts sold wine in either grocery stores or specialty shops. But, as he pointed out, you needed to see what the locals were purchasing if you wanted a really good deal and, possibly, a good wine as well. “Look down,” he advised. The local and, often, inexpensive wines were usually on the lower shelves. Wines with creative labels like “Red Table Wine” or “White Table Wine” could be found tucked away near the floor and were typically quite acceptable.

So, after a hardy day of skiing and a quick shower, it was not uncommon to see Ron leave for shopping, later returning to the hotel with a victorious look on his face and a brown paper bag in his hand. You could bet he’d found what was likely the best buy on wine in the entire valley. His Scottish roots are deep!

On many a evening, with the right music in the dining room, Ron would offer polka lessons to all takers and seemed to relish taking the floor with multiple partners. Regardless of how hard he’d skied he had energy left for a good polka. He even tried singing along on occasion, though with less critical success.
Ron no longer travels with the group but the many Ski Masters traditions he fostered live on in the capable hands of Ron’s charming, well trained and competent daughter, Claudeen. But those who traveled with Ski Masters before 2003 will always cherish the warm memories of Ron Lyle’s many contributions to those wonderful and memorable trips.

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