Las Vegas Sun

November 19, 2019

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Marcel Barel, Las Vegas’ preeminent ski instructor, dies at 88

Marcel Barel

Marcel Barel, shown in 2011, taught skiing at the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort for decades. He died Tuesday at age 88.

Marcel Barel

Ski instructor Marcel Barel Friday, March 25. 2011 on Mt. Charleston. Launch slideshow »

In the 1950s, young Marcel Barel embarked on a journey from his native Switzerland to explore California's Yosemite National Park.

Instead of returning back to Europe after his American explorations, he discovered the Spring Mountains above Las Vegas and decided to make Southern Nevada his home, becoming a mainstay at Lee Canyon where he was a ski instructor into his 80s. A friend said he must’ve taught half the valley population how to ski.

In recent years, Barel relocated to Colorado. Like he did every day, he was taking in nature Tuesday on a bike ride when he pedaled into the path of a vehicle and died from the collision.

The unconventional man — known for his intellect and honesty and for befriending people from all walks of life — was 88.

Gabrielle Barel found solace in the fact that her father didn’t suffer and that he died doing what he loved. His daughter’s phone was active Thursday night with calls and messages from some of the myriad mourners her dad impacted.

Her father’s easygoing spirit was magnetic and people gravitated to him, Gabrielle Barel said. He got people interested in nature, and his enthusiasm rubbed off on “literally thousands” of people, she said.

Barel was born in Zürich in the summer of 1931. His passion for nature may have begun early when his parents sent him to a school at a higher elevation to treat a childhood respiratory illness, a common practice back then, Gabrielle Barel said.

Before he moved to the States, his adventures included a bike ride from his home country to Tunisia, the daughter said. In another, he walked to Turkey.

Then in 1958 he traveled by boat from France to Canada before heading south toward Yosemite. Ultimately, he intended to go to South America to explore the “real mountains,” his daughter said, but instead he got a job as a ski instructor at Yosemite.

A couple of years later, he and his young daughter got in his Ford Model T and drove to Southern Nevada, where he’d landed a job at the Lee Canyon Ski Area (later known as the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort).

During his decades-long stint as an instructor there, “there isn’t a place you could look up that he hasn’t walked up and skied down,” his daughter said. There, he lived in a small cabin powered by solar energy.

Despite essentially living off the grid, her childhood was rich, Gabrielle Barel said. Whether it was aiding hitchhikers, traveling every summer of her youth on backpacking adventures, the father and daughter connected. She fondly remembers exploring a museum on a trip to Holland.

At least once a year, he would show up to her school and sit in her classes to learn what she was being taught.

Barel relished classical music, art and contemporary and modern literature. A speaker of multiple languages, it wasn’t unusual for him to simultaneously read a book in German and another in French, she said. He looked at art and life a “tiny bit differently” than others.

With music, he would tell her, you have to turn it up, close your eyes and feel it vibrate the room.

In public, Marcel Barel would regularly be approached by Las Vegans he met along the way, including those he’d taught in youth programs. He always welcomed conversation.

Roger Simon, now a retired retinal surgeon, befriended Barel at the Las Vegas ski resort in 1980. Both French speakers, they instantly bonded.

A lengthy friendship followed, as did many ski and hiking adventures.

"He was such a pleasure to talk to,” said Simon, reading a message he sent Gabrielle Barel.

Simon said he also lost his elderly father to a car crash and can relate to the pain she must be feeling.

“It’s hard to describe how ...” he kept reading from the message during a phone interview “... how meaningful our friendship is … a shining light has been extinguished."

Simon said both they and their wives visited for the last time this summer in New Mexico, where Simon owns a home. Simon said aging has made him aware of his own mortality, although it's hard to believe that his friend is gone.

“He really lived his life true to his standard,” which was to indulge in good food, wine and meaningful friendships, Gabrielle Barel said. He did that “exponentially better than anyone I (have) ever met.”

As his body wore down, Barel continued to nourish his need for the outdoors, cycling every day. He did so for the last time Tuesday afternoon on U.S. 160 in Pagosa Springs, Colo.