When Averill Harriman was skiing in St. Anton in 1933 and 1934 he became aware of how Hannes Schneider and his ski school was able to keep the Post Hotel and several other smaller pensions open all winter to house his many pupils who came there from all over the world to learn how to ski.
Averill also saw the dark scepter of Hitler and his inevitable war not very far over the horizon.
Harriman made these observations and discoveries while he was wrestling with trying to control 7-foot, 6-inch or longer, stiff skis without metal edges. His best-that-money-could-buy ski 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 them 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.
Averill’s engineers, in his railroad yard in Omaha, Neb., where 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. They had it designed, engineered, built, and shipped to Sun Valley where it was erected on Dollar Mountain and made fully operational by December fifteenth or only five months from coming up with the world changing idea to be able to haul people up a hill in comfort.
World War Two seemed as though it lasted forever for everyone but especially for those of us in the Army or Navy. 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 Franz Gabl, after spending those three and a half years on the Russian Front and recovering from his very serious war wounds, was the first Austrian skier to win an Olympic Gold medal when he won the downhill.
By this time Sun Valley had become the outstanding ski resort in America. Averill Harriman had done everything exactly right. Seven chairlifts, two large hot water swimming pools, accommodations for as low as $2 a night with a shower down the hall, 30 ski instructors, and Baldy Mountain, arguably to this day, the best developed ski mountain in America.
Over the years Averill Harriman was able to find refuge in America for many of Hannes Schneider’s ski instructors, including Hannes himself, who barely escaped Hitler’s Gestapo. 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, before he took over the Sun Valley Ski School, Otto directed the Mount Hood, the Paradise, and the Mount Baker Ski Schools and then went on to become a very successful and famous Hollywood motion picture director. We remained lifelong friends until we lost him at age 98.
In 1948, Ward Baker and I were spending our second winter living in the perfect spot in the Sun Valley parking lot in an 8-foot-long, very crowded, very cold, tear-drop trailer.
In January of 1948, we tried to get the Sun Valley Ski Club to buy us a couple of tanks 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 over 120 in Ogden. Ward was in the top five in both races, as well. Still no sponsorship but I know it helped a lot that the men’s Olympic team was still in Europe racing against Franz Gabl so we didn’t have that much competition.
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 the Sugar Bowl, Franz went on to Banff and eventually to Bellingham where he owned and managed a ski shop and taught skiing at Mount Baker. (Mount Baker amazingly owns the world’s record for snowfall in a single ski season at 99 feet). Fortunately for Franz Gabl he was retired by that record setting snowfall.
Last January when Laurie and I were busy enjoying winter in Montana, Franz Gabl succumbed to those war wounds he received in World War II and over 60 years of standing on the side of a hill teaching other people to enjoy skiing.
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.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.
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