The skiing, hiking, off-the-grid living, 79-year-old king of the mountain
Meet the ultimate ski guide to Lee Canyon’s backcountry, Marcel Barel
Thu, Apr 7, 2011 (midnight)
Photo: Sam Morris
As you drive north out of Las Vegas on the 95, the peaks of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest come into view. They rise out of the desert floor, snow-capped deviations from the dirt and scrub with wide veins of white snaking down their faces. From a distance, the snowy swaths look like ski runs, but as you get closer you notice rocky outcroppings, the treacherous steepness and the lack of any visible chairlift or, for that matter, people.
Still, if you’re there on the right day and you look closely, you may see the tiny shape of one skier, slaloming back and forth down the vertical slopes. His name’s Marcel. And this is his mountain.
“It’s graupel snow right now,” Marcel Barel says, looking out the window of the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort bar toward the two main lifts. “It’s the granular snow, like mini, mini hail. Good skiing.” He talks casually, but I can see an idea forming in his head. Underneath the 13 or so inches that have fallen this week, the snow is packed and hard from a winter’s worth of cold. Spring is warming the Valley and the resort is scheduled to close on April 10, but up above the ski trails you can dig your toes into the untouched terrain, picking out a route between the rocks and trees, following the avalanche chutes to the peak, then riding them down for thousands of feet. It’s for expert skiers only, and the 79-year-old Marcel has qualified as one for around five decades.
“Today it’s a little windy up there. I can tell …” Marcel says, squinting so the creases around his eyes recess a little deeper into his tan, weathered skin. He’s talking to me, but his eyes are on The Peak, some 11,308 feet high.
Born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1931, Marcel never intended to become Las Vegas’ most famous ski instructor. He was a city kid who studied economics in college, though he never much cared for it. “I could have studied tarot card reading. It would’ve been just as effective,” he laughs. What his studies did provide was a first opportunity to ski, on a Swiss mountain near St. Moritz. Each ride up the lift cost 25 cents; Marcel and his friends side-stepped up the mountain for free instead.
In the early 1950s, Marcel hopped a ship from Switzerland to Montreal with a “wild hair up his ass” to see Peru. He’d read some geology book about it and thought it seemed like an interesting place to visit. He arrived in Canada, where he knew no one, figuring he’d hitchhike his way south, meeting people and getting by. For a moment he considered buying a horse for the journey, but remembered he didn’t know how to care for one. No matter, he thought. He’d find a way.
Marcel might have made it to Peru, if he’d ever really tried to get there. He’s instantly likeable, at once a sweetheart and a rogue who brims with the confidence that comes from having seen the world and knowing how to work things out. During his 20s, a bike ride in the Swiss Alps morphed into a grander trip beyond the European continent. “I rode a three-speed bike with fenders all the way from Switzerland to North Africa,” Marcel says of the ambling ride through Italy to the island of Sicily. “I took the night ferry to Tunis. I thought I wanted to see the desert.” He laughs, explaining how he asked for directions to the desert in a Tunisian village. He hadn’t realized he was already there.
Marcel arrived in Las Vegas in the mid-1960s to run the ski school at the year-old Ski and Snowboard Resort. There wasn’t much to it then, just a beginner’s slope, and “that was more of a potato field,” but he stayed anyway, building up the school, teaching showgirls and casino executives how to make it down the mountain.
“Marcel’s a legend up here. He’s taught half the Valley how to ski,” says Roger Simon, a Las Vegas retinal surgeon who’s spent years alongside the famed instructor in the backcountry and on the trails.
Today, Marcel’s daughter, Gabrielle Barel, runs the ski school, but her father’s still on the mountain every day. His name is painted above the ticket windows, and his own special rate is posted on the wall. A regular private lesson costs $90. A lesson with Marcel, $125.
“He asks you to think about it differently,” Gabrielle explains. “Instead of measuring your success by speed or style, he asks you to measure it by enthusiasm. It’s not about winning, not about being the best; it’s not about competing with anyone else. It’s just about enjoying the sport and enjoying the mountain.”
That attitude seems contagious. Everywhere Marcel goes, someone stops to lift up his or her goggles and say hi. Circles form around him as if he has some magnetic pull. If he had a ski bunny on each side and a cup of cocoa, he’d be the Oscar Goodman of Lee Canyon. As is, he’s the friendly, bushy-eyebrowed father of the resort, a constant presence who’s spent the last 45 years teaching lessons and taking runs.
“When I got here I thought I knew how to ski,” Simon says. “But since I’ve come here, I’ve really learned how to ski. If you watch Marcel ski, you think it’s someone who’s 25 years old.”
At moments, though, the years show through. Marcel moves effortlessly on skis and hikes to the top of the lift every morning, but he had a hip replaced in 2002. When I ask him if anything bothers him physically, he raises his hands to show knuckles knobby from arthritis.
“It’s everywhere,” he says, gesturing to his back with the first real grimace I’ve seen all day. “What? Am I going to lie down and complain? You have it; you live with it. What else are you going to do?”
Marcel never reached Peru. He made it as far south as Yosemite where he got a job teaching skiing in 1958. Big wall climbing was just taking off and the Nose of the famous El Capitan was ascended for the first time that year. Marcel spent four years at Yosemite, meeting his future wife and having Gabrielle there before taking his family to the California coast at the behest of a new friend, the photographer Ansel Adams.
Adams was moving his studio to Carmel, and Marcel agreed to come along for the ride. An amateur photographer who’d used an old Rolleiflex camera to shoot his own expeditions, Marcel became Ansel’s full-time assistant for the next four years.
“I worked with him in the darkroom, did a lot of cropping, spotting,” Marcel says. “That was the best time in my life.”
Walk into the rustic cabin a few minutes from the ski lodge where Marcel and his wife Renee often stay, and the first thing you’ll see is the sign on the front door that reads “Warning! Explosives!” Marcel used to work on the avalanche team, he says, back when they set the charges by hand and got the hell out of the way. He even got caught in one once. “I didn’t say much the rest of the day.”
The second thing you’ll notice is a large framed photo of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” signed by Ansel Adams. It’s a dark, brooding image, beautiful and chilling. It was taken well before Marcel came to work for Adams, but when Marcel looks at it, he understands how it was created. “Ansel saw. He knew what he was going to get out of the photo in the darkroom. There has to be some drama or a message,” Marcel says, “otherwise it’s just a nice postcard.”
There’s another framed photo by Adams in the cabin, a small one that even the photographer’s most devoted fans wouldn’t recognize. It’s a Polaroid of a young, straight-faced Marcel sitting next to his father.
The cabin is getting a bit cool as the afternoon slinks towards evening. Marcel kneels before an old iron stove and arranges a few pages of The Wall Street Journal with a couple of pinecones. He grabs a small log from a shelf in the cabin and tears it in two with his hands. In a few minutes a fire is blazing, the heat filling the cozy space.
Marcel and wife own the cabin, but it sits on U.S. Forest Service land that they lease from the government. There are no electric cables up here, no water piped in, no plow service when the road gets hairy. Wide windows blanket the cabin in sunlight during the day, and solar panels rigged to 12-volt batteries in the bedroom closet supply enough electricity to power a few small lights when they’re needed. The dining table Marcel built faces windows he calls “the TV.” The wood stove provides heat, and the fridge, kitchen stove and hot water heater all run on propane. Marcel plows the narrow road himself, getting up in the middle of the night during big storms to make sure snow doesn’t accumulate between passes.
“When it gets too strenuous, I’ll move,” he says, but it’s hard to imagine him away from the mountain he’s called home for nearly 50 years.
Marcel walks out onto the porch and points out a face—a nose, two eyes and a mouth—in the rocky cliff overlooking his cabin. He calls it his mountain spirit. I look and look, but all I see is rock. Not that it matters. Marcel can see him. It’s his mountain.