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Vail Daily column: Big-name instructors starred at early resorts

Warren Miller
Valley Voices

As the ski resorts began to be developed across America, it was necessary to have a famous ski racer or instructor from Austria hired as the head of the ski school.

By 1950, there were still fewer than 15 chair lifts in America. I believe in 1950, Squaw Valley became No. 15 but only the third chair lift in California.

Most of the Austrian instructors had been able to escape from the German invasion of Austria, some less than a week before it happened. Hannes Schneider was one of the last of them to escape, and he established his first ski school in America at North Conway, New Hampshire.

Many people credit Hannes with the invention of the Arlberg technique and its teaching curriculum, which features the snowplow turn, with ski tails far apart and tips together and with turning done by shifting weight.

Friedl Pfeifer was a world-class ski racer and left Sun Valley in the winter of 1946-47 to build the first two single chair lifts in Aspen.

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When the Jackson Hole gondola was built, Pepi Stiegler had just won the gold medal in the men’s slalom in the 1964 Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria, by two hundredths of a second. Because of that gold, he got the job at Jackson Hole instead of getting the job at a small resort in Michigan.

It is no longer deemed necessary to have big-name ski racers as the heads of the larger ski schools, but more important is the quality of the teaching, which brings skiers back time and again to improve their ability to find more freedom. At the bigger resorts such as Vail, it is reported that sometimes during the winter they have over 1,200 ski instructors giving lessons on a daily basis, and the director of the ski school has to be more of a management executive than a ski instruction technician.

It is no mean task to sort out the ski ability of over 1,000 pupils in less than 30 minutes during the middle of a windy snowstorm at 9:30 in the morning.

One of the most famous Austrian ski instructors of the 20th century was Otto Lang. He was born in Bosnia. After World War I, in 1919, his family moved to Salzburg, Austria, where Otto acquired his first pair of skis. He stood at the head of a line under a small light bulb all night so he could be first in line to buy a pair of Austrian Army surplus skis from World War I. He paid the equivalent of 10 cents for them and his life was changed forever. He spent his teenage years in Austria as a ski jumper, racer and ski instructor in the Hannes Schneider ski school in St. Anton.

Otto established his first ski school at Mt. Rainier in Washington in 1937 and then two more schools in the Northwest, Mt. Baker and Mt. Hood in 1938, running all three concurrently. He next was the ski school director at Sun Valley, Idaho, before and after World War II. Sun Valley closed during the war and was a Naval hospital.

In the fall of 1948, I was living in Sun Valley and just starting my nylon parachute shroud shoelace business when I heard that Otto Lang and his Sun Valley ski school was having tryouts on Dollar Mountain. I dug out my Army surplus, 7-foot-3-inch white skis and my ski clothes that had the fewest holes and Army labels on them, and then showed up on Dollar Mountain and survived three days of demonstrating the Arlberg technique.

As a beginning ski instructor Otto paid me $125 a month, room and board and a free season ski pass for teaching six days a week.

One of Otto’s private lesson pupils was Daryl Zanuck, a very prominent Hollywood motion picture producer and director at the time. After skiing all day they would watch dailies that had been shot in Hollywood and shipped up to them. Otto sat in on those screenings in the Sun Valley Opera House and listened to Daryl’s criticism of them.

Just prior to World War II, Otto was asked to direct the ski action sequences of a film called Sun Valley Serenade, featuring Sonja Henie, who was an Olympic gold-medal figure skater from Norway.

Otto went from a second unit director for those initial ski action sequences to producing and directing literally dozens of Hollywood feature-length films and in the process received several Academy Award nominations.

I was really lucky when I met Laurie because she had been a good friend of Otto’s in the ski world, as had her parents, and so we had several dinners together in Southern California and Otto and I became good personal friends after being employer/employee in the early days.

Otto wrote a couple of really good books about his life and career called “Bird of Passage” and “Around the World in 80 Years.”

Otto was really great at getting still photos on all of his feature film assignments. We have several of his most outstanding works. One is of the only shot I’ve ever seen of the pyramids in Egypt with trees in the foreground. Otto had a unique eye for content of a picture and in many cases even better eye for composition of the picture.

Otto truly was a Renaissance man. I don’t think he ever put on a pound of excess weight, always wore a cravat, sport coat or a suit, as though he was on his way to the opera.

When I went to work for Otto in 1948 I had just spent two years living in a small trailer in the Sun Valley parking lot, and I learned an awful lot of stuff from Otto besides how to turn skis.

As I spent that winter in Sun Valley I never saw Otto engaged in any impropriety or bad manners of any kind.

Unfortunately for me, Emile Allais was also teaching at Sun Valley that same winter and I had become very enamored with the French ski technique that was based primarily on side-slipping and rotation rather than the snowplow and weight shift. As a result of this conflict in teaching and my young age at the time I did get sideways with Otto a couple of times, but everything worked out in the end.

Fortunately, Otto lived to be 97 in west Seattle and I had the privilege of spending a lot of time with him in his later years.

Otto often reminded me of the Hannes Schneider quote, “There would be no wars if everyone skied.” The world was a better place when Otto was around.

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, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.


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