‘Norskis’ look back on early days of Snowmass
January 11, 2016
When Martin Nordhagen, Kjell Vanghagen and Magne Nostdahl get together, the stories just flow, even though many of them happened almost 50 years ago.
There are stories about skiing, stories about partying — which Nordhagen likes to debate his involvement in — stories about friends long gone or still living close by. And often, the stories circle back to Stein Eriksen, the skiing icon who recruited the men as instructors in the 1950s and '60s.
Nordhagen, Vanghagen and Nostdahl, all born in Norway, are three of what Nordhagen guesses are about 15 European men and women still living in the valley who Eriksen recruited for his schools, some at Aspen Highlands in the 1950s and then at Snowmass in the late 1960s. On Thursday, they were reminiscing about the old days and about their old friend, Eriksen, who died at his home in Park City, Utah, on Dec. 27.
Nostdahl joined Eriksen's team at Aspen Highlands in 1959 and would later work at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass, too, retiring five years ago in his golden anniversary season of instructing in the valley. Nordhagen and Vanghagen followed Eriksen to Snowmass from Sugarbush, Vermont, where they each taught for one season after coming over from Norway.
"I read an ad in the paper in Norway that said Stein wanted instructors for his ski school in Vermont," Nordhagen said. The ad described the team as "Stein Eriksen and his cream-of-the-crop European instructors," Nordhagen said, and he and Vanghagen both arrived with several friends that season.
But that season in Vermont did not prove to be much of a winter; in fact, it started raining in January, and Vanghagen describes being able "to see the lingonberry leaves through the ice" on the slopes. So when Eriksen accepted an offer to lead the ski school at the new resort of Snowmass-at-Aspen in 1967, most of his European recruits followed.
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"When we came here, we got a pretty good deal," Nordhagen said. They had good snow, living quarters on the Snowmass Village Mall and, because Eriksen's school was distinct from the others in the company, better pay than the Aspen instructors, Nordhagen said. Stein's mother knitted blue Norwegian sweaters for all of the Snowmass instructors.
"The Snowmass ski school took a lot of business away from Aspen," Nostdahl said, in part because the new team had younger, fresher instructors, but also largely because of Eriksen.
"He was the idol in skiing," Nostdahl said.
"Anyone who knew anything about skiing, Stein was their ski god," Vanghagen said. "People would come just to see him."
Everywhere he taught, Eriksen ran a tight ship.
"One of his big things was we should be dressed to the hilt," Nostdahl said. "We had to be the best-dressed ski instructors in the country."
But when it was time to celebrate, he was just one of the boys again, Vanghagen said. The Europeans would play poker on Sunday nights, listen to music at the Leather Jug from well-known bands and, in their second season, a young man named John Denver. They also would post up at the bar at what was then the Refectory and later the Mountain Dragon. The Mountain Dragon was the site of their annual New Year's Eve party when they would don their handmade sweaters and toast the new year at 4 p.m., or midnight in Norway. This year, they were able to continue that tradition at Turks, which just opened in the former Mountain Dragon space, and they also took the opportunity to remember Eriksen.
The three men saw their friend in the past few months: Vanghagen visited him last summer, and Nordhagen, Nostdahl and some other instructors visited Eriksen and his family in November.
Nordhagen said Eriksen served as Snowmass ski school director for two seasons and then one year as director of skiing before moving over to Park City. Most of the European instructors he had brought with him stayed put in Snowmass, the men said.
Vanghagen is one of two of the Europeans, sometimes called the "Norskis" or "Norwegian Mafia" back then, still working in the ski school.
"Once I came here, and I think Martin would say this, too, we said, 'This is it,'" Vanghagen said. "We found our place."