Celebrating Sugarloaf’s Most Beloved Ski Instructor
The life of Natalie Rines Terry, one of the country’s top ski instructors for 50 years
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In a ski lodge basement at Sugarloaf Mountain, Maine, the contents of Natalie Rines Terry’s locker sit exactly as they were left last spring after she passed away from natural causes, on April 22, 2020, at 96 years old. There’s a snowflake beanie, a fleece, and a commemorative pin. Not far away, her official gravestone reads “Sugarloafer Since 1951, Lifetime Member of PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America).”
Beginning in the late 1930s, Rines Terry skied with grit through a time when girls’ school sports didn’t even exist. “Way back in the day, being a strong female athlete made her feel a little bit different, but she always found a way to be competitive,” says her daughter Sarah Carlson, who now works as a ski coach. “Rines Terry taught more students than anyone else in the East,” her co-workers and friends told me over and over again. She was Sugarloaf’s most requested instructor in history, teaching tens of thousands of students over the course of her 50-year career. In 1996, Ski listed Rines Terry as one of North America’s top 100 ski instructors, and in 2012, she was inducted into the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. But more than all the accolades, she had a genuine love for the sport.
On a cold day this January, during Sugarloaf Mountain’s first-ever ski season without Rines Terry, I suit up and skate over to Carlson on the trail named after her mother, Natalie’s Birches. On one side of us is the path to one of Sugarloaf’s earliest condos, owned first by Rines Terry and now Carlson. On the other side is the spot where Rines Terry stepped into her skis every week of the season for 50 years. “We’d see Nat coming over from her condo, a little unsteady with her walking stick, and just as we were about to go help her, with the click of her bindings, all the tightness and instability would disappear. She would flow down the hill,” says her longtime friend Tom Butler, Sugarloaf’s vice president of skier services. Next to the lift at the bottom of her run is a chapel, where her planned funeral service on the mountain never took place because of the pandemic.
Carlson and I creep up the ropeway, eyeing the trail where it all began 70 years ago. In 1951, long before this chairlift or any other at Sugarloaf existed, Rines Terry stood right there on seal skins with Sugarloaf founder Amos Winter. They were hiking up what was at the time the only trail cut on the mountain: Winter’s Way. Growing up in Waterville, Maine, Rines Terry and her friends taught themselves to ski by climbing up a rolling pasture and snowplowing down. By 1939, they were hopping the rope tow as part of the ski club at a local resort, Titcomb Mountain. She had been among the lucky ones to take lessons from Austrian Hannes Schneider, one of the pioneers of modern ski instruction. Rines Terry was “the woman who excelled in everything that interested her,” reads a letter from her lifelong friend Lorrain Norton. “The PSIA exam included a giant slalom. Many of the men failed. Not Nat. She was exultant and we were so proud of her.” She was a housewife in her forties by the time then-ski school director Harry Baxter spotted her perfect turns and later, in 1969, hired her to teach.
About 4,000 feet up, at the top of the Skyline lift, the temperature dips below zero, but “it’s the perfect day for a Natalie run,” Carlson says. “Nothing stopped her.” She was like a diesel engine, fueled by a full slate of students even in the nastiest weather. If she saw she wasn’t scheduled to teach a lesson, Butler says, “She’d be sitting there with her hands on her hips, daring you to go ahead and assign her a student. She loved a challenge.”
Rines Terry was a natural athlete—in her younger years, she was a champion figure skater, competitive diver, swimmer, and later a tennis player and golfer—and she could watch a skier make just two turns before pinpointing even the most subtle change to improve their technique. But there was more to it than faultless technique. As a customer service expert long before it was seen as standard practice, she genuinely cared about every one of her students. The proof was in the piles of books and folders full of clippings on instruction she left behind: the stacks of journals with meticulous notes on every student she ever taught. Rines Terry kept in touch with them throughout the year, and in the summer, she’d send cards with their lesson plan for the following winter. She also kept detailed records of the weather and snow conditions during those 50 seasons. “You want to know what the weather was like on March 10, 1981? Natalie could tell you,” Butler says.
Carlson and I traverse west into the sun like Rines Terry’s husband, George “Tim” Terry, would have. “Dad always worked his way across the mountain to get the best light throughout the day,” Carlson says. Tim was involved in the early development of Sugarloaf and was Rines Terry’s rock, even more so after their only son was killed in a cycling accident in 1987 at age 33. Tim also saw their family through the unexpected loss of Carlson’s husband in 2002 and Rines Terry’s own battle with cancer. But Tim died from cancer in 2011, and afterward, Rines Terry’s students became even more important to her.
It’s rugged days on the mountain like these, when the winds are blowing sideways and you can’t feel your toes, that Rines Terry was famous for toughing it out. She skied on—simply because she loved to.
Our final run of the day, on Whiffletree, was the last that Rines Terry ever took, in March 2019. While I ski down, wishing I could’ve been one of her students, at least I can still learn from her approach: to make sure every turn counts.