America discovers downhill skiing
Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum
Vail, CO Colorado
In order to fully understand the significance of the 10th Mountain Division, it is necessary to examine the transformation and growth in popularity of downhill skiing before World War II.
Wealthy middle and upper class families in the Northeast represented the majority of downhill skiers during the 1920s and early ’30s because they could afford trips to the European Alps, receive expert instruction, and send their children to colleges with ski teams. Dick Durrance, a top American skier during the 1930s, once said in an interview, “Collegiate skiing [in the 1930s] was skiing in this country,” emphasizing the importance of college ski teams to promote the early growth of the sport. During the 1930s, many Eastern private boarding schools began skiing programs of their own in order to provide collegiate teams with seasoned skiers.
However, across the Atlantic, ski instructors at the St. Anton ski school in Austria had affected the increase in skiing throughout Europe before bringing more popularity to the sport in America. Skiing became a social phenomenon in Europe by 1925, partly in thanks to St. Anton. Friedl Pfeifer, a young instructor at St. Anton, learned the Arlberg skiing technique under ski legend Hannes Schnieder. When the Nazi Party began to spread across Europe, many instructors, including Friedl, left Europe to teach in America. German Otto Schniebs, coach of the Dartmouth ski team from 1930-36, was succeeded by Walter Prager, one of the world’s best ski racers. Together, Schneibs, Prager, Schneider, and Pfeifer represented a growing trend of ski schools to recruit instructors from overseas, who brought new techniques and provided a safer learning environment. When America eventually joined World War II, many of these European skiers, as well as famous American athletes, entered the 10th Mountain Division.
Although collegiate students are known as some of the finest downhill skiers on the East Coast during the 1930s, many more enjoyed the sport. Thrill seekers cut difficult ski runs, like the Thunderbolt on Mount Greylock in the Berkshires, and while recreational skiing did exist among the lower and working class populations, only those who were completely dedicated pursued the sport. Many of these ski addicts later joined the 10th Mountain Division, organized and bound by a passion for skiing. This unique nature of the ski troops pushed them to continue skiing and jump-start the ski industry after the war.
To learn more about the budding ski industry in America during this time period, as well as the history of the 10th Mountain Division, visit the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum in Vail Village. Free admission every day.
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