Roots of Racing series: Austrian instructors, U.S. collegians help develop alpine racing
and Snowboard Museum
Special to The Aspen Times
This winter, Vail/Beaver Creek hosts the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships for a third time. The Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum has opened its ski-racing archives to tell stories that connect the dots between today’s spectacular made-for-TV competition extravaganzas and their humble beginnings. Roots of Racing, of which The Aspen Times will publish several installments in the coming weeks, features many of the significant milestones instigated in Colorado by individuals now enshrined in the Hall of Fame, which helped shape skiing and international racing. For more information, go to http://www.skimuseum.net.
A root of today’s alpine ski racing can be traced back to Arlberg, Austria, in the late 1920s. Mathias Zdarsky is credited with incorporating a movement he referred to as a “stem” into his skiing: Bracing the ski at an angle against the snow, allowing the skier to make quick turns and stops on the steep pitches in the Alps. The stem required less skill than the telemark turn and provided much-needed speed control. Hannes Schneider adopted the stem method and is credited with organizing the first commercial ski school at the Hotel Post in St. Anton, Austria. He mass-produced skis in an assembly-line teaching system, the Arlberg Technique, based on the stem turn. Austrian Friedl Pfeifer, a Hall of Fame member who would eventually immigrate to the U.S. to teach skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho, before settling in Aspen, joined the staff of Hannes Schnieder’s famous ski school at age 14. Pfeifer became one of the best instructors and alpine racers in Europe, winning the famous Kandahar downhill at 22 years old.
The Arlberg Technique, coupled with rope tows that eliminated the arduous task of climbing back uphill, resulted in alpine skiing becoming immensely popular in Europe by 1925. Wealthy Americans from the Northeast, who traveled to Europe by steamship for winter vacations in the Alps, learned the new ski technique from their Austrian instructors. Exposure to this growing sport, primarily enjoyed by the wealthy, led to the introduction of alpine skiing programs to many elite northeastern colleges. United States colleges recruited hundreds of accomplished Austrian and German instructors and racers to coach their ski programs. Because of the German occupation and impending annexation of Austria, the decision to immigrate to the U.S. was easy.
Dick Durrance, a Hall of Fame member and a top American skier during the 1930s, once said in an interview, “Collegiate skiing (in the 1930s) was skiing in this country.” During the 1930s, many Eastern private boarding schools created skiing programs to feed collegiate teams.
Due to the growing popularity of collegiate skiing and increasing European influence during the 1920s and ’30s, skiing grew to a regional sport. The Boston and Maine Railroad ran the first “snow train” from Boston to mountains in New Hampshire in 1931. The increased accessibility to ski mountains with snow trains created a boom in skier numbers throughout the 1930s.
For the Love of the Sport
Originally, the majority of ski clubs and individuals who built rope tows did it for the love of the sport, not for profit. Small towns adapted to capitalize on the increasing number of winter visitors. Resorts were built close to train stops and trails were cut as ski areas and capable of generating profit. European experts filled the need for qualified instructors as the sport increased in popularity, greatly influencing the culture of skiing.
Sun Valley became America’s “destination resort” in 1936, when the Union Pacific railway developed a ski resort only accessible by its transportation. The area replaced the Alps as the destination for America’s wealthy skiers. That same year, Sun Valley revealed the world’s first chairlift and became a model for a successful ski resort.
While Colorado’s mountains held better snow and steeper terrain than the Alps, they lacked easy accessibility. Some of Colorado’s now-lost resorts such as Genesee Mountain hosted national ski-jumping competitions, a discipline introduced in Colorado by Norwegian immigrants.
Colorado natives, such as athletic phenomenon Barney McLean, a Hall of Fame member who grew up in Hot Sulphur Springs, won many of the national junior Nordic jumping competitions of the time. McLean switched to alpine skiing in 1935 and collected awards from every major race in North America, including the national downhill, slalom and combined championships. He traveled to races around the world and was the first U.S. alpine skier invited to South America (Argentina, specifically) to race and train with those teams. At the time, there was no financial support for traveling ski racers. McLean had to work full time for the Denver-based Groswold Ski Co. to afford racing. Often, McLean traded his winnings for food, gas or clothing.
The surge of alpine skiing in the United States halted in December 1941 when America joined World War II. Most of the U.S.’s ski resorts closed, and its college ski racers joined the ski troopers of the 10th Mountain Division.
Next in this series: The combination of the 10th Mountain Division’s love of skiing and the influx of knowledgeable instructors nationwide gave America an opportunity to break onto the ski-racing scene.
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