Taos Ski Valley ski instructor Max Killinger begins his 50th winter on the mountain
By Robin Martin
Max Killinger is celebrating his 50th year at Taos Ski Valley. Since coming to Taos in 1967, he has been on the mountain every year teaching skiing on powder days, during droughts, in 30-below-zero Januaries and on sunny April mornings.
He, lodge owner Jean Mayer and Jean’s brother, Dadou, are the senior instructors on the mountain.
Killinger’s students are loyal. Some have been requesting him for decades. He is loyal to them, too. He is still in contact with Helga Tarver, a 98-year-old former student. He took her skiing on super-expert Al’s Run when she was 90.
“Max was always the best ski instructor we had,” said Chris Stagg, TSV vice president and Taos Ski Valley co-founder Ernie Blake’s son-in-law. “He is a great skier, passionate about his students. He is also very loud. Riding the lift, you can hear Max teaching in his German accent.”
Killinger teaches ski week classes: six half-days of intense instruction, not more than seven students at a time, in any weather and all snow conditions. He also gives private lessons. These days, most of his students are advanced.
He shares up-to-date skiing techniques with his classes as well as giving them practical advice like telling them to look where they are going, relax and bend their knees. Killinger said the most important thing he teaches is having fun while learning.
“Skiing is being out in nature,” he said.
He said that when he sees contemporary skiers, they seem to look at skiing like a ride in an amusement park. “For me, I had to hike — every turn is precious.”
Born in 1934, Killinger learned to ski in Germany on skis made of ash wood in the days before chair lifts. He remembers his father, who was an avid skier, coming home in 1942 on furlough from the German army and taking him skiing in the Bavarian mountains.
His father died in a Russian prison camp in 1947, but even before that Killinger was supporting his family. He and his mother and sister lived in Munich, where he worked 48 hours a week at age 14. Still, he had energy to take the train to Lengriese in the Bavarian mountains and ski on Sundays, using the skis his father had left behind.
In the late 1950s, Killinger read a book about Australia called “The Golden Boomerang.” That country had a labor shortage and the book was a promotion to encourage immigrants.
He encouraged seven friends to go with him, including his future wife, Theresa Merhringer, who sailed on the same boat, and Eberhard (Hardy) Langer, still his close friend and neighbor in Arroyo Seco.
“We had not a clue of English when we arrived in Australia,” he said.
He stayed there three-and-a-half years working in a Volkswagon plant, with time out for a bicycle sabbatical in New Zealand with Langer. In the winter, he and Theresa managed the Mt. Hotham ski area, and in summer he was a tool and diemaker. In 1964, Killinger and his future wife took a Dutch boat from Sydney to Florida. After saving enough money to buy a Volkswagen bus, they toured the United States, Canada and Mexico for eight months, bypassing Taos but seeing southern Colorado.
The couple returned to Germany to be married, but Killinger wasn’t happy in his native country: “I had to work a whole week to have money to spend the weekend skiing.” They returned to the United States where he worked as a tool and die maker in Chicago, and she was a bookkeeper in the same company.
Langer arrived at Taos Ski Valley first. Killinger said Langer found out that a diesel mechanic was needed at the resort since Blake’s son, Mickey, had joined the National Guard. Mickey’s training was deferred, “then they didn’t know what to do with Hardy, so he became a ski instructor.”
In 1967, the Killingers took the train to Raton and spent a ski week at Taos, staying at the Thunderbird Lodge. He said the cost was $192 per week for a dorm room, three meals a day, lessons and lift tickets. Killinger was in shape and well prepared.
He said that he was so competitive with Langer that after work each day in Chicago, he got ready for his trip to the Taos mountains by climbing the stairs of a downtown skyscraper.
Killinger’s first week in Taos was blessed with powder snow. He and Blake were both in Jean Mayer’s class, “so we must have been pretty good.”
He asked Blake for a job teaching skiing, who replied, “No.” He already had eight starving instructors.
But Blake announced in all the lodges that he would take the guests to hike and ski Kachina Peak. “Everybody followed him” and some didn’t get down the mountain until 6 p.m., with the ski patrol. Killinger kept up with Ernie and was offered a ski instructor job while they stood at the top of the mountain “huffing and puffing.”
He returned the following winter to teach and also to run the sewage plant.
Killinger said that in those years, Blake paid the lodges $1 per day to feed his instructors three meals a day.
At first, the Killingers lived in separate dorms, but Blake finally settled them in the Chalet Alpina, a cabin under the lift. There they had a dog, Poco, that Blake accused of defecating on the beginners’ hill. “He made such a fuss out of the dog!”
Killinger said of Blake, “For me, he was a demigod, and he acted like one, too.” He was hard on his new ski instructor. Killinger told Wendy Blake, “If your father is down on me, I am not staying.”
Wendy told her father and Blake stopped. She told Killinger, “Most people don’t understand his sense of humor.”
The Killingers saved $9,000. With $4,000 they bought 4 acres on the Rim Road near Arroyo Seco. He used the rest to buy materials for the house he built by hand. He is still a full-time woodworker during the summer.
As the years passed, the Blakes added more lifts, more trails and more ski teachers. Killinger became a senior instructor. Blake was fond of Killinger, and often invited him to his modest home above the ski shop.
“He was a very social man. He invited everyone to his crummy apartment,” said Killinger
When Ernie was ill at the end of his life, Killinger visited often. They talked of Ernie’s German homeland and of his experiences in the U.S. Army during World War II. They spoke in English.
“We had different dialects. He spoke a proper German. I speak the Bavarian dialect,” said Killinger.
Theresa died in a ski accident in 1998. Killinger married ski instructor and artist Mary Doolittle Poole in 2002. Her husband, Hank Poole, developer of the Inn at Snakedance, had died in the same year as Theresa.
They teach skiing each winter. During the summer when they are not traveling to Europe or local Pueblo ruins, she paints, and he fulfills his woodworking commissions.
At 84, Killinger skis daily in the winter, and hikes with his dogs in the off-season. He shows no signs of slowing down.
The Killinger family
Max Killinger grew up in the city of Munich, but his ancestors were Bavarian farmers.
He was named after his father, Maximilian Joseph Killinger. His father’s grandparents raised 10 children on a 13-acre farm.
His father was a baker before he was drafted into the German army in 1939. He was sent to France, Poland, then Russia. In 1943, he contracted malaria while stationed on the Black Sea. Since he never fully recovered, he was made a military policeman.
“That is not the best thing to be when you are captured by the Russians,” said his son. He was sent to Russian coal mines where he remained even after World War II ended and died of an infection in 1947.
Killinger’s mother, Barbara Friegel, had six brothers and sisters. His grandmother came from a prominent family that thought she had married below her station. When her husband died, the grandmother’s family refused to support her.
It was only after she tried to drown herself and her children in the river Zusam that her family took care of her. Killinger said his “mother was a wonderful woman, but not a very strong woman.”
In 1941, Adolf Hitler sent urban children to the country to learn rural ways and avoid the Allied bombs that were falling on the cities. Killinger was sent to a Deutsches Jungvolk (German youth) camp in the southern Bavarian Alps: a repurposed country inn, where the children had classes in the morning and pre-war games in the afternoon.
Hitler “took us through the ringer,” Killinger said. He added that he was very homesick, and his mother missed him terribly. She asked the authorities if he could return home and was told, “You can’t have him. He belongs to Adolf Hitler.”
In what Killinger calls “an unspeakable act of bravery” for a timid woman, his mother traveled to his school, where he was living in a second-story room with three other boys. She threw a pebble up to the window to alert him; he tied two sheets together and climbed down to freedom. They escaped by taking the train to Munich and on to Wertingen, the town where his mother had been born; there they spent the rest of the war. “We were afraid of being caught, but Hitler had other things to do.”
Killinger supported his mother and sister during his father’s captivity. He made 40 marks a month, giving 35 to his mother. He became an apprentice tool and die maker at age 14. He worked 48 hours a week, including a day of trade school where he studied geometry, calculus, physics, chemistry and technical drawing.
In 1960, he left Germany for Australia, and eventually the United States. His sister and mother remained in Munich and have since passed away. But he and his wife, Mary, still travel to Bavaria to visit relatives.
Today he proudly displays photos of his Bavarian ancestors on the walls of his handmade adobe home.
Robin Martin has been a ski student of Killinger’s for at least 48 years, since she was a young teenager.