Longtime Vail ski instructor Tom Jacobson passes away | VailDaily.com

Longtime Vail ski instructor Tom Jacobson passes away

Tom Jacobson taught skiing in Vail for more than three decades, beginning in 1963.
Photo courtesy of Cindy Jacobson/Special to the Daily |

VAIL — For Thomas Jacobson Jr., powder skiing was like life.

Be consistent, face your mountains squarely and have fun.

Jacobson died July 28 at his winter home in Honolulu with his wife, Cindy, at his side. He was 83.

Like most of us, he did all sorts of things for a living: He was a cross-country trucker, worked in the family heating business and built all sorts of buildings around Vail. But Thomas Jacobson Jr. was a skier to his very soul.

“To all of Tom’s clients and friends, know that he is skiing freely and untethered through the heavens, keeping a watchful eye on all,” Cindy said. “You may hear his instructions whisper in the wind as you ski Vail’s slopes, particularly on Riva, just where it drops over into Tourist Trap. Click your poles as he did and say ‘Hi,’ as you pass by.”

Support Local Journalism

Do what you love, love what you do

“During the winter, I’m teaching skiing to people and talking to them about skiing every day, all day long,” Jacobson said. “But when summer comes and I go back to driving trucks, I just head out, put my earphones on and turn the volume up to full blast on my stereo cassette player. There’s nothing to worry about but me, my truck and the road. Driving a truck cross country is fun, but I guess I really like skiing better than anything.”

When he retired from teaching full time in 1997, at age 68, he’d logged 33 years of teaching full time in Vail and 41 years total teaching the sport he loved so much.

In 1984, Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm named Jacobson a “Colorado Ski Industry Pioneer.” He was cameoed in Dick Hauserman’s book, “The Inventors of Vail.” In 2009, he was nominated to the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame.

He wasn’t in it for riches. His April 30, 1974, paycheck showed his take home pay was $504.11; $690 gross pay for 115 hours is $6 an hour.

Don’t sit back, don’t lean forward

“There’s a big misconception about sitting back when skiing powder,” Jacobson said. “Once you sit back, you’ll find it very hard to steer your skis with your knees. Then again, if you lean too far forward and break at the waist, the tips will dive. You need to stay neutral over your skis for most types of snow.”

Born in Evanston, Ill., March 7, 1930, he grew up in Frankfort, Mich. After graduation in 1948 as part of the largest class in Frankfurt High School history, 41 students, he attended Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis, where he also played semi-pro football. He returned to Frankfort and the family heating business, but by then, skiing was part of his soul.

In 1955, he spearheaded the creation of what is now Crystal Mountain Ski Resort in Michigan. He was the first ski school director and coached the high school ski team.

In 1960, he moved to Alta, Utah, drawn by its bottomless powder skiing. He taught skiing under Alf Engen and soon gained notoriety for his “unique deep powder technique.”

Change directions, Be adaptable

“Stay with it. Hold that edge until you cross the fall line and then roll your knees into another edge and turn the other way,” Jacobson said.

In 1963, he visited Vail and was persuaded to move here to work as a contract ski instructor.

In the 1965 ski school video, he is one of the 21 ski instructors. Many of Jacobson’s devoted clients from Alta followed him to the new Vail ski area, and several became early investors in Vail.

He also taught most of the early partners in Vail Associates. As his clients’ friends and families came to visit, he became their instructor as well. You ski because you love it, and you invest yourself in what you love.

“His love for the sport of skiing and teaching contributed greatly to the enjoyment all his clients found in Vail,” Cindy said.

In several cases, he would have families with three generations skiing with him. Tom worked construction in the summers and helped build the Covered Bridge, the Covered Bridge Store and Sandstone condominiums.

For years, a 2-by-4 foot character painting of Tom, up to his nose in powder, hung on the outside wall of the Gondola One building. It was moved to the Golden Peak warming house and later to the Colorado Ski Museum.

Keep pressing forward

“Your ankles should be touching the front of your boots. It helps keep your weight over your skis and your ankles flexed so that you can steer your skis. Without that pressure, your weight will fall back and you’ll lose control of your skis,” Jacobson said.

As his fame grew, he was featured in several magazines and was frequently sought after for various ski and promotional films. As a member of the Intermountain Professional Ski Instructors of America, he conducted many of their clinics. He later wrote the deep powder skiing section for the PSIA manual. In these early years, he became friends with Howard Head and spent many hours testing Head’s revolutionary new metal skis.

Consistency counts

“A good powder skier skis from top to bottom at the same speed. He keeps the upper body facing down the hill and uses the knees and feet to angulate,” Jacobson said.

Tom Jacobson’s worldwide reputation soared to new heights in the 1970s and ’80s with articles published on his powder skiing technique. Articles in Sports Illustrated, Colorado Magazine, Northwest Orient Inflight Magazine and Signature magazine for Diners Club touted his skiing and teaching abilities.

Not to be left out, Town & Country magazine called him “Vail’s most sought after instructor to ski with,” and Vogue chimed in with a similar article. His notoriety grew with articles in several newspapers across the country, and internationally in a Swedish ski magazine.

Stand up straight

“On a steep hill, when conditions aren’t the best, tuck your chin. It helps keep your back straight and your weight over your skis,” Jacobson said.

There was even an after dinner/apres ski drink named after him. The Lancelot’s apres ski drink menu boasted “Tom Jacobson’s Deep Powder,” tequila and schnapps for $5.95.

The memorial to Tom Jacobson’s life has already been given by those who came to see him in Denver and Hawaii and kept in touch by phone or email, Cindy said.

In lieu of flowers, contributions to the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum in Tom’s name would be appreciated, Cindy said.

Contact the museum at 970-476-1876.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

Support Local Journalism