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Requiem For A Mad Scientist

Requiem For A Mad Scientist

Mountain Life
By Peter Shelton
posted: 04/15/2001

A year ago this Father's Day, I skied a mountain that held no prior meaning for me, paying tribute, not to my father, but to the father of alpine touring in America. Actually, that may be too grand an accolade even for Paul Ramer's considerable ego. Ramer was not the first backcountry skier in the states nor the most daring, but he was perhaps the sport's most passionate advocate and certainly its most prolific inventor.

Ramer called his chosen field of powder skiing, backcountry touring and mountaineering "adventure skiing." Its soul was the alpine-touring binding, a hybrid developed in the Alps that combines free-heel freedom with the lock-down stability of alpine gear. Ramer's AT binding, first produced in 1975, was for many years the only AT setup readily available in the U.S. And, until quite recently, it was the best binding as well. Paul would certainly tell you so.

He might also try to sell you one of his other patented pieces of gear, from "self-arrest" pole grips to his latest brainstorm, a slippery perfluoropolyether wax substitute that he called NOTwax. In the world according to Ramer, every one of his inventions had the potential to turn America on to the joys of adventure skiing. And, not incidentally, to make him rich.

NOTwax was going to be the product, Paul told me, that finally wrote his "rags-to-blue jeans story." And then he died, last March at age 56, six months after being diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. CJD, the human variant of Mad Cow disease, attacks the brain by building unstoppable protein chains that fatally disrupt brain function. No one knows how Ramer might have contracted it.I met Paul in the late Seventies when I was looking for a way to get at high-country powder stashes without having to resort to leather boots and three-pin bindings. I'd heard about this alpine-touring stuff, and Paul Ramer was the man to see. Besides, his story was irresistible.

He'd grown up in postwar Delaware where, according to Paul, "everybody either worked for Dupont or Hercules." His family worked for Hercules, a company whose core business was explosives. "I've always had this warm feeling for high explosives," he liked to say. And, on more than one of our ski days together, he pulled chartreuse sticks of nitroglycerine out of his pack to check (by blowing it up) the avalanche potential on our route.

After college Ramer worked as an engineer for IBM, then for General Electric designing wiring systems for submarine-launched Poseidon missiles. In 1970, he came west to a job at Rocky Flats outside Boulder, Colo., where he designed robots for handling the plutonium in nuclear warheads.

In Colorado, Paul and wife Cindy took up backcountry skiing on wooden fjellskis with Silvretta cable bindings. The only problem was that Ramer, a tall man, kept breaking cables. On one tour he snapped two, including his backup, and had to limp home with his boot taped to his ski. Frustration led to invention, and by the time Rocky Flats shut down and Paul was laid off, his prototype binding was ready for production. The Model R looked like something Dr. Frankenstein might have bolted together, but it worked, it was releasable and it didn't break.

In 1985, Ramer called and invited me to join his inaugural Colorado Grand Tour. The idea, loosely based on the Chamonix-to-Zermatt Haute Route, was to connect eight ski areas using lifts where possible and Paul's AT gear and climbing skins where there were none. We linked Eldora, Winter Park, Berthoud, Loveland, Arapahoe, Breckenridge, Copper and Vail, crossing the Continental Divide five times and skiing some tremendous backcountry without ever having to spend a night out in a snow cave.

But, like a lot of Ramer's ideas, the Grand Tour never caught on. Just like the MotiveAider never caught on. That one was, in Paul's phrase, "our mondo bizarro cuff binding that eliminates the need for specialty boots." Ski in hiking boots, in running shoes, in moon boots if you likke. Didn't fly. Or the KneeLeash. Don't ask. Or the AvaLRT avalanche beacon. It incorporated lots of advanced ideas, including a visual signal display. Promised to retailers for years, it never came to market.

The problem, in a word, was business sense. Paul didn't have any. Even a loyalist like Gary Neptune of Neptune Mountaineering had to admit that Ramer was one of the worst businessmen he'd ever known. A series of lucrative Army contracts over the years, for camouflage-white skis, boots, bindings and poles, kept Ramer Products afloat.

Paul was instead the mad scientist of the back bowls. An egghead with Einstein eyebrows and a thinning ponytail. Socially awkward, he found his grace in soft-snow turns. At ski trade shows in recent years, he embraced a parody of himself, filling his booth with bubbling test tubes and wearing a white lab coat.

Ramer's daughter Kris invited me to join her on a Fathers' Day ski to spread Paul's ashes in the mountains he loved. She carried him inside a sealed box wrapped in blue velvet to the top of Pawnee Peak at 12,860 feet in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. With her boyfriend Mike, we huddled out of the wind behind a rock shelter and looked east toward Paul's house in the foothills. He would have looked at this mountain every day out his living room window. "Perfect," Kris said, and let the ashes go. "Into the mountains and on the wind. Like his spirit."

The snow below was granular summer corn in broad strips between the rocks. Kris rubbed a few drops of NOTwax into her bases and took off. We intertwined about 60 turns, steep and swooping, to the edge of a lake melting turquoise.

Dozens of Father's Day hikers in shorts and tank tops looked at us on the trail as if we were crazy. But we knew something they didn't, something Paul Ramer knew in his bones: That etching turns on a wild mountainside, one you have climbed yourself, goes beyond effort and adrenaline to a kind of peace.

Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Montrose, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net, or check out his previous columns at www.skimag.com.

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