Vail loses ski- jumping legend

Caramie Schnell
Vail CO, Colorado
Daily file photo Local painter and Colorado Ski Hall of Famer Erich Windisch poses in his studio at his home in Vail. Windisch has an exhibit at the Vail Library that opens today and runs through Feb. 28.

VAIL ” Humble as he was, it’s possible that one of longtime Vail ski instructor Erich Windisch’s greatest accomplishments is unknown to some.

As a competitive ski jumper in Germany, Windisch pioneered the arms-down ski-jumping style that is used today after a dislocated shoulder forced him to jump with his hands at his sides.

“I decided to keep my hands down, try something new, and I won the Bavarian championship, which I couldn’t believe because the other guys trained for it and were really in top shape,” Windisch said on a Vail Daily video filmed a year ago when he was interviewed for a story on his ski-jumping legacy.

Soon after that competition, other jumpers caught on to the aerodynamic form, he said.

Windisch died at Vail Valley Medical Center on Wednesday morning after a battle with cancer. He was 89 years old. Windisch is remembered by his family and local residents as a compassionate, caring and humble man; an artist and a teacher; a man who loved Vail Mountain ” where he worked and taught for 39 years ” second only to his family ” his wife, Elena, and their daughter, Sasha, 19.

Support Local Journalism

” He was my hero,” Sasha said, tears filling her eyes. ” He was the most caring, considerate person ” just a very real and loving person.”

” We were privileged to find each other,” Elena said about her husband, ” and to have been blessed with our Sashili.”

Longtime friend of the family Dave Gorsuch said it simply: ” He absolutely adored his fami-ly. He was a great asset to the community and to the ski school. He was a great man, always extremely cordial to everyone, and he always had a smile on his face.

Controlling patrollers

Though Windisch was born in Shoeneck, Germany, he spent much of his life in Garmisch, where he began his ski-jumping career. He made the German Olympic team in both ski jumping and Nordic combined for the 1952 Games in Oslo, Norway, but he again dislocated his shoulder and was unable to compete.

Shortly after, Windisch stopped competing and began to teach skiing.

Eventually he took over as ski-school director at a ski resort near Garmisch, Germany. He continued teaching after he came to the U.S. in 1956 ” for the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, at Red River, N. M., and finally as ski-school direc-tor at Arapahoe Basin.

While at Arapahoe Basin he met Vail founder Pete Seibert. Seibert was an examiner at the resort and gave Windisch the teaching-certifi-cation test.

“He passed with flying colors,” Elena said. The examiners were so impressed with his skills that he was brought on to teach ski instruc-tors. Not long after the test, the resort asked him to lead a clinic on European skiing technique known as short-swing (tight, fast turns called wedel).

“They gave him 99 people for the clinic and he didn’t even blink,” she said. “He just organized them into two lines, and they came down the mountain.”

Seibert tried to convince Windisch to come work for him in Vail, but Windisch was convinced the resort was too far from Den-ver. Two years later, in 1968, Seib-ert was back, telling Windisch that this time he really needed his help because the ski-patrol guys were threatening to unionize. Windisch relented and came to Vail, where he served as ski-patrol director for a year.

Vail resident Steve Boyd was one of the unruly ski patrollers of whom Windisch was put in charge. “Being German, I think they thought he could instill a little discipline into us,” Boyd said. “He failed, but he was nice about it. We were a wild bunch back in the ’60s.”

Windisch made the patrolmen foot pack some of the steeper runs toward the bottom of the mountain, runs like Head First.

“There was no grooming in those days, it was sidestepping on skis,” Boyd said.

Boyd didn’t mind so much, he said, but some of the other men refused to do it.

“We’d laugh about it over the last few years,” Boyd said. “He respected me for trying to get the guys in order.”

The next season Windisch moved to the ski school as a super-visor under then-director Roger Staub. His heart was in teaching, he said, and for the next 30-some years, Windisch supervised ski school on Vail Mountain. For the past nine years, Windisch donned the blue suit, teaching rather than supervising.

“The most rewarding thing for him was to see someone grin when they started to connect their turns,” Elena said

A young thinker

Vail resident April Carroll taught ski school in the ’80s, and Windisch was her immediate supervisor.

“Everyone at the ski school very much respected him because he had a real love for teaching; he was a fantastic teacher,” she said.

What Carroll respected most about Windisch, she said, was his never-ending quest for knowledge.

“He was such a fantastic skier, and he always wanted to learn new skiing techniques,” Carroll said. “I remember he had a goal that every day he wanted to go up and ski at least one run on Highline. He wanted to improve his bump skiing, and at that time he was 60 years old.”

It was his forward thinking and his will-ingness to change with the times and con-tinue learning that kept him young, she said. Up until last April, at age 88, Windisch taught skiing full time on Vail Mountain. He surveyed Windisch Way, the run that connects Golden Peak with the rest of the mountain, and though nearly everyone on the mountain referred to the run as such, it wasn’t named offi-cially until 1994, in celebration of the pioneer’s 75th birthday, Elena said.

” It was important to him so that the children and the classes could have access to Golden Peak,” Elena said.

That same year, Windisch was recog-nized as ski instructor of the year and was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame. In 2005, Windisch was inducted into the Veteran’s Professional Ski Instructors Association, Elena said.

Bill Jensen, Vail Mountain’s chief operations officer, was saddened to hear of Windisch’s death.

” There’s a quality about Erich that found a way into my heart,” Jensen said. ” He lived a wonderful life, but it’s still a loss.

” Erich Windisch was part of the fabric of Vail and forever will remain a Vail leg-end,” Jensen added. ” Everyone who had the privilege of knowing him and sharing his friendship cherishes Erich’s spirit and love for skiing and the mountains.”

Andy Daly, former president of Vail Resorts, agreed, calling Windisch an ” institution.”

” Erich had a passion for his family, for the mountains and for teaching skiing,” Daly said. ” I don’t know how many peo-ple he touched over the years, but it has to be tens of thousands, and to each one of those he passed on his love of the sport.”

A public memorial service will take place at a date to be announced, the fami-ly said

Ed Stoner contributed to this story.

Staff Writer Caramie Schnell can be reached at

Support Local Journalism