Warren’s World: Skiing with the Shah of Iran

By Beacon Staff

Ten years ago in Deer Valley, Utah, I was listening to the crackling of radios held by Clinton watchers. They were all trying to locate Chelsea and Hillary on their learn-to-ski weekend. It made me think about a similar incident with a head of state in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1948. The Shah of Iran had flown to Sun Valley to ski with ski school director Otto Lang. Accompanying the Shah was an entire airplane load of other people. This included, but was not limited to, servants, cooks, porters, food tasters, equipment and luggage handlers, interpreters, as well as 16 bodyguards. No one in his group of about 30 servants could ski so the head of the ski patrol, Nelson Bennett, asked for volunteer bodyguards who could also handle an automatic pistol.

Four members of the ski patrol seemed like the right number of men to handle the job. Four veterans stepped forward and were issued Army surplus automatic pistols. Then they were told, “Drive out to Warm Springs and practice firing a half-dozen magazines. Try a few rounds while you hang on the running-board of a car to pretend that you’re firing while skiing down a hill. Adjust your shoulder holsters and be ready to ski by O-dark-thirty tomorrow morning.”

You may be wondering about how dangerous it would be to fire an automatic weapon while driving around Warm Springs. In 1948, there was nothing in Warm Springs except a dirt landing strip for a proposed, someday-to-be-built airport. But the entire airport story is for another time.

Everything worked to perfection, just as if everyone knew what everyone else was doing. Two of the ski patrolmen skied in front of the Shah and Otto, and the other two patrolmen skied behind him. After a few days of skiing like this, everyone at Sun Valley got used to the group and the guards began to gradually relax. During lunch in the Roundhouse on the fifth day, the ski patrolmen hung their automatic pistols on the clothes rack, covered them with their ski patrol parkas, and went over to the cafeteria line and ordered their lunch.

Watching all of this, a friend of mine said, “Why don’t we switch parkas with them, take a couple of the parkas and a couple of the guns and see what’ll happen?”

After scoping out the line of sight for the revolvers hanging on the wall and the ski patrolmen, I walked over and stood between the parkas, the guns, the patrolmen, Otto and the Shah. Incidentally all four of the bodyguards were good friends of mine. While I stood there trying to look nonchalant, my partner switched our two red parkas for theirs and took two of the pistols. He handed a parka and a gun to me as we were headed out the door.

We climbed into our bindings, tightened up our Arlberg straps, shoved off and raced down the Roundhouse slope, straight down River Run. At the bottom, my partner in crime and I had enough speed to coast across the bridge over the Big Wood River. We left the two guns and holsters hanging on a fence, covered them with the ski patrol parkas and told the lift operators to keep their eyes open for Otto, the Shah, and the four ski patrolmen bodyguards later in the day.

The two patrolmen who couldn’t find their guns wisely decided to just fake it for the rest of the day. Otto and the Shah never did know that the firepower of their guards had been cut in half and skied the rest of the afternoon with a great sense of inner security. When they later made it to the bottom of the River Run lift on the final run of the day, the lift operator hollered at the group as it skied by. One of the ski-patrol-guards-without-a-gun skied over and was handed the two guns and parkas we had stolen at lunch.

I was still living in our eight-foot long trailer in the parking lot where the thermometer read 11 below zero and, since our kitchen was outside, it was also 11 below zero in the kitchen. The pressure cooker was hissing on the gasoline stove and we were looking forward to another round of rabbit stew. Inside the nearby Harriman Cottage, the Shah of Iran’s’ special chefs were cooking up a banquet of Iranian food for the celebration of yet another wonderful day of feeling secure while skiing with Otto Lang and alert and highly trained bodyguards.

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