By Lauren Swanson
It was well after midnight in November 1983, when Ski Area Operations (SAO) students committed their first infraction of the day—breaking and entering. The students, known affectionately as the Leadville Powder Guild, entered the SAO shop with the intentions of temporarily relocating equipment and classroom property onto the front lawn of their esteemed instructor Curt Bender’s home. The evening before, Curt and Mary Bender had hosted a farewell dinner for the class, who were preparing to leave for an internship-work program at 10 ski areas scattered around the country.
“They broke in to the Ski Ops shop,” says Curt, who retired in 2009, “and collected tables, chairs, my desk, the blackboard, the CMC bulldozer and drove it the 2 miles to our house where it was reassembled on our front lawn.”
In the early 1980’s a lifelong bond was formed among the students and instructors of the Colorado Mountain College Ski Area Operations program. They called themselves the Powder Guild. It was their desire to turn a passion for skiing into a career that brought them together in Leadville, but it was their never-ending quest for powder, camaraderie, and playful antics that have kept the Powder Guild in touch to this day.
“Back in the day, our motto was ‘We’re young, good looking and do what we want’,” says Powder Guild member John ‘Staatzy’ Staats, who currently lives in Tucson, Arizona, “Now it’s ‘Old, out of shape and do what our wives tell us’… just kidding, we’ll never grow up!”
The twelve members of the infamous Powder Guild came from all over the U.S., Canada, and Japan, ranging in age from 18 – 32. After graduating from the Ski Area Operations program, many Powder Guild members went on to enjoy successful careers in the ski industry at resorts around the world. The group managed to stay in touch as they grew older, celebrating life milestones and organizing reunion trips.
“Our two years were split between Curt Bender and Dave Montanari,” says Staatsy, “They are from two ends of the spectrum in regards to personality and teaching techniques yet were equally influential.”
Dave Montanari managed the CMC Leadville Ski Area Operations program from 1977 to 1983, during which he hired and trained both Bob and Curt. Curt eventually inherited management of the program when Dave left to direct the Ski Area Management program at Lyndon State in Vermont. Curt continued to teach Leadville’s SAO program as lead instructor until his retirement in 2009.
“Skiing together, often both for course labs and recreation, initiated the bonding,” says Curt, who was 25-years-old when he began teaching the Guild in 1981.
Staatzy remembers a particular six-foot powder day on Independence Pass on October 16, 1981. The CMC Leadville Powder Guild felt it was appropriate to capture this moment in the nude – commemorating their first group photo and exemplifying the Powder Guild spirit.
“We hiked out to the south a bit and skied off the top,” says Staatzy, originally from Belle Mead, New Jersey, “I was not a good skier at that time and did more face-plants than I can remember.”
After leaving CMC, the Powder Guild continued to bond, Curt adds, at the annual “Tomato Wars” in Twin Lakes near Leadville, bringing the Powder Guild members together every year.
The Colorado-Texas Tomato Wars started in 1982, and were exactly what they sound like — hundreds of Coloradans and Texans throwing ripe tomatoes at each other. It was the sort of antics that Powder Guild members looked forward to yearly. The Tomato Wars came to an end in the early 90’s, making a comeback in 2011. During the “war’s” hiatus, trips to ski resorts and other locations became more typical Powder Guild reunions.
“Inevitably, we got together for weddings, and the bonds grew even deeper,” Curt says.
Over the past few decades, members have coordinated trips to Jackson Hole, Hawaii, Colorado, and even Japan to appease Japanese member Yoichi Amano, who has traveled to numerous state-side Powder Guild gatherings. In 2015, Yoichi hosted members, Jim Oberriter and John Staats, showing them around Tokyo on separate trips.
“I meet with the Powder Guild whenever I can find an opportunity to do so,” says Yoichi, “We exchange emails and find every opportunity to get together. Even 30 years after graduation, we are still united.”
Milestones & Memorials
Inevitably, celebratory milestones like weddings and births have been replaced by funerals for fallen brothers. Founding member, Kent ‘Kento’ Bridges and Phil Sande, have since passed. Their spirits are celebrated with every Powder Guild gathering and through many cherished memories.
Curt remembers Kento’s wild spirit when he reflects on a 1984 road trip he took with Colorado Mountain College students. When the CMC Leadville Powder Guild returned from their internships, the group took a college van to Grand Junction for a field trip. On the ride home, they stopped in Glenwood Canyon to stretch their legs and wait for construction traffic to clear.
“When we loaded up and started moving again,” recalls Curt, “I noticed that I did not have the right number of students in the van. I pulled over at the next exit to discover Kent Bridges had climbed into the rooftop carrier and was happily riding up there.”
“Curt had it easy,” laughingly recalls Dave, “The year before, we all had to take up a collection to bail Kento out of jail after he was picked up for an unpaid traffic ticket.”
Kent’s memorial was held in Ouray, CO in 2011, with most CMC Leadville Powder Guild members in attendance. He was a master snowcat operator and worked in lift maintenance for Telluride Ski Resort, leaving behind a daughter, Kalli Bridges, whom he was very proud of.
Phil Sande enjoyed a very successful career in the Quebec area ski industry, selling and marketing a variety of ski racing and clothing lines. In 2014, he left behind a loving wife, Julie Lacroix, and three children, Alex, Michou and Kim.
As the saying goes, ‘Time flies when you’re having fun’. This age old saying must be referring to the Leadville Powder Guild, and the lifestyle the group represents. Though it’s been decades since their college years, the fun-loving, carefree attitude is still very much intact.
“The students making up the Powder Guild were all free spirits and continue to be to this day,” says Bob Hartzell, SAO professor from 1979 -1981 and honorary Powder Guild member, “I, too, was a free spirit and related closely to the members of the Powder Guild then and now.”
The story of the Powder Guild is more than the chronicles of college students and ski resort shenanigans – though the anecdotes are undoubtedly entertaining. It’s about exploring a passion while discovering genuine friendships, and investing in those connections for life.
“It was a chance gathering of guys from all over the globe that loved to ski and be free,” says Staatzy, “We bonded as no other group of people that I’ve ever met or heard of.”
When the ski season ends, and years grow into decades, we can only hope to achieve the quality of friendship that was born from the Leadville Powder Guild.