I just spent a great four days in Sun Valley with the Ancient Skiers. This is a group that takes the word “ancient” and makes the most of it. Here are just a few examples.
John Woodward still competes on the veterans’ racing circuit on almost a weekly basis. He is 96 years old. He is a real sight to see when he is in his skintight downhill racing suit with matching colored brain bucket. His downhill ski poles are bent in graceful curves so he can get in a deeper, more aerodynamic tuck. I was impressed when he remembered that I had made a promotional ski film for him when he worked for Anderson and Thompson Ski Company in 1954. Widowed, he recently remarried and the story goes that he and his wife went to REI to register for their wedding: naming new bicycles, new kayaks and new camping gear. That’s living for the future.
Nelson Bennett ran the Sun Valley Ski Patrol for many years. I hadn’t seen Nellie since I stopped skiing with him 35 or 40 years ago because he refused to use those new fangled safety bindings. He kept saying, “I’ve never been hurt with these Dover Toe Irons.” However, two or three years ago someone at the Denver airport stole his 39-year-old, lace-up leather boots and he almost tore the airport apart looking for them.
Nelson Bennett is also 96 years old. (At only 86, I was beginning to feel very young.)
At the banquet, hostess Anne Marie Wick and her husband Peter, after spending 36 winters restoring wooden powerboats, have finally put their 55-foot Chris Craft on the market. They planned on skiing 100 days this winter but Peter, at 80 years old, broke his shoulder on his third day of skiing.
The afternoon before, Lou Whittaker gave a great speech in the Opera House about what it feels like to summit Mount Everest as the leader of a successful expedition. Lou ran the guiding school on Mount Rainier for many years and has climbed to its summit more than 300 times.
The master of ceremonies at the dance asked anyone with a metal joint replacement to stand up. More than half of the 240 people in the audience stood. Then he asked the people with only one knee or hip replacement to sit down. But this left more than half of the people still standing. When he asked the people with two knees and two hip replacements to remain standing, nine people were still on their feet.
The “Ancient Skiers” honored two of their members who had won Olympic medals. In 1952, Jeanette Burr had won her medal in the giant slalom wearing Buddy Werner’s tights. This was the first time that skintight racing togs were ever worn in a ski race. That year, Peter Kennedy also won a silver medal as a figure skater in the Olympic pair skating with his sister.
Once all of the awards were given out I was asked to interrupt the program with a speech about the real old days at Sun Valley. The real old days being 1947, when the general manager Pappy Rogers let Ward Baker and I live in our eight-foot long trailer and sleep in the Challenger Inn parking lot for two consecutive winters. I earned a season pass and three meals a day by painting cartoon murals on the walls of the employee cafeteria. He said I could eat there as long as I was painting the cartoons on the walls.
After talking for about 10 minutes, my wife Laurie started giving me the sign that I had already talked long enough.
I don’t know about the audience but I sure had a grand time talking to old friends about how good those old days were. But were they really? Snow grooming had not been invented and when I lived in Sun Valley there were very few runs on Baldy. As a matter of fact there were only three single chairs and we could ski in powder snow from one storm to the next. In the late ‘30s, Dick Durrance and his crew designed the mountain trails and they were way ahead of their time as nearly the entire mountain was cut in the fall line. In my opinion, it is probably the single best developed mountain in the world.
These amazing Ancient Skiers were all out on the hill early the next morning for first tracks in the groomed corduroy, which speaks highly for hip and knee replacements.
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