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Ralph "Coachie" Townsend

Ski Coach

By Mike Wilson

From top of Sierra Lift at Copper Mountain in Colorado, you can look west above treeline at Machine Gun Ridge. Williams '75 classmate Dr. Dave "Tex" McKenzie and I hiked up there a few years ago from Vail Pass rest area. We found beautiful flowers, scenic views, a Colorado thunderstorm, and along the ridge evidence that the U.S. Army's Tenth Mountain Division had trained up there during World War II: stone shelters, foxholes, rusty C-ration cans, barbed wire, wire cables, parts of a mortar round. The Tenth had been based at Camp Hale, down in the next valley. We set up camp near treeline and climbed Jaques Peak. Next morning we headed out. Up on the ridge, I sat on a rock to tighten my boot laces. When looked down I saw some rotten canvas webbing and several brass shell casings.

The Williams ski coach and Outing Club director during the 1975 era was "Coachie" Ralph Townsend. He was a Tenth Mountain Division veteran, who trained at Camp Hale and fought in Italy. He raced on cross country skis in the 1948 Olympics. He went to UNH on the GI Bill, then became the Williams ski coach. He was quite a character, a father figure and mentor to me. (I was President of Williams Outing Club and Winter Carnival chairman in 1974-1975).

Coachie was a strong, short, stubby man; not your typical long lean Norwegian-type cross-country skier. He told me once that the Army made him carry a .30 caliber Browning machine gun (how much did that gun weigh?), with a partner who carried the ammunition belts and tripod. He got quite good at skiing, especially 'skinning' uphill, using climbing skins, with that machine gun strapped on his back; and a 100-pound pack perhaps. If he ever fell, that gun barrel would whack him on the back of his head. He later won several XC ski races, because he could ski uphill so fast, with powerful heel 'kickers' to get the ski wax to stick in the snow. I once chatted with a Tenth veteran from Vail who had raced against Ralph Townsend at UNH, and he recalled how Ralph would overtake and pass him going up the hills.

Sadly, Coachie had a nasty habit of smoking cigarettes. He was a chain smoker, a pack a day. He died of lung cancer, in 1988, at about age 67. Perhaps this was a legacy of cheap cigarettes and whiskey via US Army PX stores.

So there I was on Machine Gun Ridge with Tex, who had been the Outing Club rock climbing chairman, and who also loved Coachie Townsend. I was sitting on a boulder, pulling at my boot laces, looking down at brass shell casings and machine gun belt webbing: thinking: "Holy moly; maybe Coachie sat right there in 1944, and cleared jammed bullets out of his machine gun."

Whenever I ski down the Gold-digger Trail from the Sierra chairlift, I pause, and stare out to the west at Machine Gun Ridge. I say a little prayer, and "thank you" to Coachie. He taught me so much about skiing. And team building. And life.

Ralph "Coachie" Townsend
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