When Averill Harriman was skiing in St. Anton in 1933 and 1934 he became aware of how Hannes Schneider and his ski school were able to keep the Post Hotel and several other smaller hotels open all winter to house his many pupils who came from all over the world to learn how to ski.
Averill also saw the dark scepter of Hitler and his inevitable war not far over the horizon.
Harriman made these observations and discoveries while he was wrestling with trying to control long, stiff skis without metal edges. His boots were hardly more than soft hiking boots that offered very little lateral control. Ski poles were made of bamboo or willow trees with very large diameter and heavy baskets. Ski clothes were heavy wool and when he fell the snow clung to him like glue.
When he executed the occasional turn without falling, the one-week trip from New York on an ocean liner was worth it. That’s one week each way on a slow boat to ski in Europe. And no one had yet invented the ski lift.
While Harriman was climbing for every turn he would make he was wondering when Hitler would make his move and skiing as he knew it would end.
A few years later a young house painter in St. Anton named Franz Gabl was beginning to win junior ski races. Harriman once again went back to his job as president of the Union Pacific Railroad and Franz Gabl was conscripted by Hitler and forced to fight on the Russian front for three and a half years.
Harriman put his money where his dream was and financed the building of America’s first destination ski resort in Ketchum, Idaho and named it Sun Valley.
Harriman’s engineers, in his railroad yard in Omaha, Neb., were given the assignment of finding a better way to get people up a hill than with an arm-stretching, exhausting rope tow. In the process they invented the world’s first chairlift in July, 1936.
World War II seemed as though it lasted forever. Franz Gabl was wounded on the Russian front and went back home to recover in St Anton. He was then sent back to fight again in Stalingrad.
In 1948, in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Gabl, recovering from his very serious war wounds, was the first Austrian skier to win an Olympic Gold medal when he won the downhill.
Over the years, Harriman was able to find refuge in America for many of Hannes Schneider ski instructors including Hannes himself. Those instructors spread the gospel of skiing across North America. Men such as Freidl Pfeiffer who helped develop Aspen and Buttermilk in 1946/47. I worked for Otto Lang when I was a ski instructor in Sun Valley in 1948/49, and for a couple of those early years, he directed the Mount Hood, Paradise and Mount Baker ski schools.
In 1948, Ward Baker and I were spending our second winter living in the Sun Valley parking lot in a eight-foot long, tear-drop trailer.
In January of 1948, we tried to get the Sun Valley Ski Club to buy us a couple of tank’s full of gas to go on the Idaho, Utah, California racing circuit, but they laughed at how we were dressed and didn’t think we could place. So we raced as the Parking Lot Ski Team and I placed second in Bogus Basin and first in a field of more than 120 in Ogden.
Two years later, Franz Gabl would come to America and race in the World Championship in Aspen while I was teaching at Squaw Valley and producing my first feature length ski movie. After a winter at Sugar Bowl, Gable went on to Banff and eventually to Bellingham where he owned and managed a ski shop and taught skiing at Mount Baker.
Fortunately, those early pioneers gave so many of a chance to get hooked on the freedom that skiing has to offer, including men such as Averill Harriman who build ski resorts and the men and women who teach the rest of us how to enjoy what they have built. We honor them.
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