Fred Noble, a longtime Portland high-adrenaline adventure sports legend, died Thursday at his home after a long battle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis disease). He was 77.
After being diagnosed with the incurable degenerative nerve disorder, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Noble dedicated the last years of his life as honorary chairman of Ski to Defeat ALS. During three annual events at Mt. Hood Meadows, more than $480,000 was raised in support of the ALS Association’s Oregon and Southwest Washington Chapter.
Noble established his reputation in the local adventure sports community when he became the first North American sales agent in 1974 for Canadian Mountain Holidays, the world’s foremost helicopter ski operator.
In addition to his many helicopter ski adventures, Noble also was an avid windsurfer and paraglider. In his later years he took up the comparatively easy activity of helicopter hiking, where a helicopter drops participants in scenic mountain settings, so his grandkids could join him on his adventures.
After joining the Columbia River Gorge windsurfing boom in the early 1980s, Noble spent much of the next decade coordinating with local agencies and bringing together skilled volunteers to develop and improve windsurfing parks in the gore, most notably Oregon state parks at Rowena and Viento. The local sailing association names its top annual award the “Fred Noble Golden Shovel Award.”
Noble eventually grew tried of toting his boards and sails on his many foreign trips and took up paragliding, which requires only a backpack full of gear. That sport nearly cost him his life in 2003, when a hard landing separated his pelvis from his muscular structure. After weeks of recuperating in Brazilian hospitals, he returned home only to face many more months of recovery.
“We thought he would never walk again,’’ recalled Gary Bakkala, who is married to Noble’s daughter, Julie. “I asked him if I should cancel the family heli-hiking trip that summer and he said no, it would give him something to train for. Not only did he make it hiking, he was also back skiing that winter’’ (11 months and eight days after the crash).
Noble lived life with a can-do spirit, a trait he infused in everyone who met him, even when they started with their own self doubts.
Bakkala recalls how he was forced to learn to ski, when his wife said she couldn’t take over her father’s heli-ski business if her husband wasn’t a skier.
“I was into snowmobiles and dirt bikes,’’ Bakkala said, “until Fred said he would teach me to ski.’’
They began together, with Bakkala learning to holding the controls behind Noble’s sit ski, a device that enables users to ride down slopes despite having no control of their legs.
Before long, Bakkala got the word: He was ready, and they would be going helicopter skiing together.
“I was scared out of my wits, then I looked at Fred in his wheelchair,’’ Bakkala said. “I told myself, it’s only snow, and I have to do it for him. The trust he confided in me got me through it.’’
They skied together after being dropped off by helicopter in front of the Bugaboo spires, among the most awe inspiring mountains in Canada. Noble became, on that trip, the first person to make a helicopter descent in a sit ski, on his birthday in 2012.
The Bakkala couple will maintain the helicopter booking service as part of the Noble Legacy they have created.
Noble was born in San Francisco and spent the first 10 years of his life in an orphanage. He attended Franklin High School in Portland, served in the U.S. Army before establishing a career as a maintenance worker on high towers and other features that require safety lines.
Most of his work was done in good weather months, which left him time to ski in winter. His longest association has been with Mt. Hood Meadows, though much of his early years, from when the resort opened in 1967, were spent out skiing the ski patrol to get away after he pulled off something outrageous. He later went legit, in the eyes of the ski area, with the ALS fundraisers.
Noble took it upon himself to meet Warren Miller, the famous ski moviemaker, and wound up skiing in three Miller films and hosting eight annual appearances in the heady days when the Miller film launched the Portland ski season in the 1980s.
Noble lived life with a simple motto: “Life for me is one big ass adventure, even when I’m bed ridden and in a wheelchair,’’ he said, two years before ALS took his life.
As the end near, Noble survived a half-dozen episodes where the family thought he was gone. He pushed through his third Ski to Defeat ALS event in early April, followed by his birthday, the debut of a film of his life, “The Noble Spirit,’’ and all the way to May 1. That was an important date, being the birthday of the mother of his daughter as well as that of his granddaughter. He also knew the Veterans Administration would chip in on that day about half the $20,000 he required for monthly care.
“The last week of Fred Noble’s life was absolutely beautiful,’’ said Bakkala, who noted it was Noble who decided when the time had come to discontinue supplementary feeding and respiration. “The Fred Noble spirit is still dancing around in his house.’’
Portland photographer Andrea Johnson, who made the video of Noble’s life, said this about Noble: “He lived fully to the very end, even calling the shots on the process of when and where he died. It’s rare to meet someone who is in that much control.’’
Noble is survived by his daughter and her husband, Julie and Gary Bakkala of Keizer; two sons, Bob Noble of Salem and Cris Noble of Portland; a brother, Ray Noble of Portland; three brothers and sisters in California; 10 grandchildren and three great-granchildren.
Remembrance will be on a drop-in basis at Omega Funeral Home, 223 S.E. 122nd Ave., Portland, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Friday, May 9, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., on Saturday, May 10.
Here are some pertinent links in the Fred Noble saga:
A profile of Fred Noble published in The Oregonian and on OregonLive.com in 2012 after he announced he was diagnosed with ALS, a disease that robs the afflicted of control of their body. It’s a slow, degenerative disease that has no cure.
The event website for Noble’s fundraiser is: www.SkitoDefeatALS.org.
Fred’s page for anyone who wants to donate in his honor:web.alsa.org/goto/TeamFredinator.
A photo essay by Oregonian photographer Jamie Francis on Fred Noble coping with the early stages of ALS.
Fred Noble celebrates his 75th birthday by making the first helicopter sit-ski descent (click to watch the video) in the Bugaboo Mountains of British Columbia with Canadian Mountain Holidays.
Read Fred Noble’s blog.
Fred Noble stars again at Mt. Hood Meadows in 2014; send in your favorite Fred story.
Ski to Defeat ALS at Mt. Hood Meadows shoots for half-million dollar markApril 12, 2014.
To contact the Noble Legacy, email Julie Bakkala at email@example.com.
— Terry Richard