In 1939 a narrow dirt road led west from the almost-abandoned mining town of Ketchum, Idaho. About two miles further an even narrower ski trail had been cut the summer before and wound its way down from the summit of 9,000-foot high Mount Baldy. Just upstream from this point, where the trail meets the valley floor, hot sulfur springs flow into the Big Wood River. Here and there were natural pools that you could soak your tired body in – even during the below-zero days of January.
On the eastern side of Mount Baldy, and about three miles downstream from the hot springs, one of the first chairlifts in the world carried skiers across its steaming waters. The River Run chairlift was the first of three that could carry 426 skiers an hour 3,000 vertical feet to the top of Baldy in less than a half an hour.
Skiing was coming of age in America while war was beginning to rage across Europe.
A young man named Dick Durance from Florida – by way of Germany and an eighth-place finisher in the 1936 Olympics – was the pre-race favorite to win the first downhill race ever held from the top of Baldy. This downhill was named after the visionary who founded Sun Valley, Averill Harriman, and would prove to be the toughest that America had to offer at the time.
Part way down the winding narrow trail there was an awesome steilhung that faced due south. At the bottom there was a wicked transition and left turn that could give any skier with enough courage more speed than their poor equipment could handle.
I’m referring to seven-foot-six-inch stiff, wooden, ridge-top skis without safety bindings, plastic bottoms or offset edges. With bindings like these, your body would sometimes revolve more times than your legs would.
Halfway down Warm Springs the race-trail designer, Friedl Pfeiffer, had cut seven narrow turns in a part of the hill that was very steep. The better racers tried to straighten out the turns for more speed, but missing the trees on either side by inches took courage.
Dick Durance, with all of the skill born of nearly a dozen years of ski racing experience, kept inspecting the course and looking for a faster way through the many turns. There were no control gates in this part of the course because the trees were so close together you had to turn. Dick spent a lot of time inspecting this part of the course, sighting through the trees, looking at them every which way, when he finally had it figured out. If one special tree was cut down he could straighten out all seven turns and save an enormous amount of time.
Late in the afternoon on the day before the race Dick climbed up Warm Springs with a saw, a shovel and a friend. Together they cut down the one tree that stood in the way of Dick’s shortcut through the seven turns. They dragged the tree out of the way and then covered the scattered pine needles with snow.
Dick climbed back up the course, got his straight line figured out through the seven turns. Then they cut down a smaller tree and propped it up in the same place as the larger tree. Then after a half-dozen practices of quick tree removal by Dick’s partner their plan was all set.
As soon as the racing numbers were drawn and his partner was clued in, he would simply snatch the small substitute tree out of the way just before Dick came down straight, missing all seven turns. Then he would quickly put it back in place so no one else could take the same straight line.
Everything worked perfectly as the first five skiers raced through the seven turns while making their way down the mountain.
“O.K., yank out the tree, NOW!”
Dick roared through on his one-of-a-kind straight line and the substitute tree was immediately put back in place while he kept on roaring down the course in complete control.
Dick forgot one thing: He roared out of those seven turns at such a high rate of speed that he missed the final right turn to the finish line and wound up splashing around in the creek. He had to climb back up to the finish line. And he still won the race by two full seconds.
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