Stein Eriksen left his mark on Aspen
Friends and former ski instructors recruited to Aspen Highlands and Snowmass by the legendary Stein Eriksen remembered him Monday as a charismatic ambassador for skiing who helped shine the spotlight on Aspen.
Eriksen passed away Sunday at his home in Park City, Utah, at age 88. He was most closely tied to Deer Valley Resort, where he served as director of skiing for more than 35 years. However, he left a huge imprint on Aspen in the 1950s into the 1980s, first as an athlete, then as a ski school director and ski shop owner.
He recruited several of his countrymen to the various resorts where he worked over the years. Former Aspen Times Editor Mary Eshbaugh Hayes credited Eriksen with bringing in a couple waves of “Norskis,” first as ski school director at Highlands in the late 1950s, then when he returned to the area as ski school director at Snowmass in 1967. Hayes wrote about “The Norwegian invasion” in a Dec. 6, 1984 article after some of the instructors were celebrating 25 years in the Aspen area.
Not all of Eriksen’s instructors were Norskis. Gene Clausen practiced the “reverse shoulder” style of skiing that more closely resembled Eriksen’s style than what was being taught on Aspen Mountain in 1960. That skiing kinship helped earn Clausen a job at Highlands for three seasons starting in 1960.
“The key thing that I saw of Stein was he was able to commercialize his winnings in the Olympics,” Clausen said. “Worldwide, his name recognition helped put Aspen on the front page of the magazines.”
Eriksen didn’t fade away or work in some obscure ski industry post after his racing career ended. He remained an icon when skiing swept the U.S. in the 1950s and ’60s. Women swooned over him. Men emulated him. Everyone from ski area owners to ski filmmakers wanted his endorsements.
Racing success started in Aspen
Eriksen was a technical race specialist from Norway. He was an Olympic champion and top competitor in the World Championship ski races in the 1950s. He parlayed his success on the slopes into fame and a loyal following in the ski world. His first big successes in the international arena came in Aspen during the 1950 FIS World Championships in Aspen.
“Stein splintered his best pair of skis the day before the slalom,” according to the book “Aspen Skiing: The First Fifty Years, 1947-1997.”
“On a borrowed pair, Stein still managed a third place finish,” the book said.
Two years later, he won a gold medal in the giant slalom and silver medal in the slalom in the Oslo Olympic Winter Games. He topped that at the 1954 World Championships in Are, Sweden, by becoming the first alpine skier to snare “triple gold.”
“All of that (success) kept him in the limelight,” Clausen said.
Whipple Van Ness Jones was able to tap into that popularity when he started Aspen Highlands. Eriksen helped lay out some of the original ski trails and came aboard as the first ski school director when Highlands opened in winter 1958-59, achieving 30,000 skier visits.
“Whip Jones gave much of the credit to Stein, who had become, by that time, the first great skiing superstar,” said the book on Aspen’s first 50 years of skiing. “Everybody knew Stein.”
Ski school was like family
Dick Arnold, a longtime Aspen resident who now lives in Telluride, came from San Diego to Aspen to ski in 1961 and ended up attending a ski instructors’ clinic at Highlands. To his surprise, he was hired. He recalled being around a lot of handmade sweaters and pretty girls.
Arnold went back to California after the ski season, but was asked back to Highlands by Eriksen in fall 1962. He returned but his winter was cut short by a draft notice from Uncle Sam. After serving in Vietnam for three years, Arnold returned to California, then got another call from Eriksen, inviting him to come to Snowmass, where Stein was hired as the ski area’s new ski school director. Eriksen also brought several Norwegian instructors with him from Sugarbush, Vermont, where he worked between his hitches at Highlands and Snowmass.
Arnold said it was a tight-knit and fun group at Snowmass. “I was with all those crazy Norwegian guys,” he said.
Martin Nordhagen was among those guys. He met Eriksen in Norway and was recruited to Sugarbush to teach skiing. He worked with him there for three years then was invited to accompany Stein to Snowmass. Nearly all the European instructors followed him. There was a strong sense of loyalty to him and camaraderie with him.
“He was one of the boys, that’s for sure,” Nordhagen said.
Arnold said Eriksen also treated his team right. “If anybody needed anything, we took care of each other,” he said.
A sense of service was instilled in the instructors. “He’d say, ‘We’re here to serve our customers,’” Arnold said. It was good business. If the customers were happy, they would return the next ski season.
Eriksen was hands-on as a ski school director. He would visit all the classes during the course of the day and ask how it was going.
“I think the word ‘family’ is important here,” Arnold said.
Eriksen’s appeal was evident on the slopes. Clausen witnessed the days when Stein would perform a somersault for legions of adoring fans at the base of Aspen Highlands, pretty much every day. He would go off a ramp and sail through the air with the greatest of ease thanks to his training in gymnastics.
The aerial showcase continued in Sugarbush, Nordhagen said, but he didn’t recall Stein flipping at Snowmass. Once he reached 40 years of age, he bowed out gracefully.
Nordhagen recalled Eriksen serving as director of ski school at Snowmass for two seasons, then being promoted to director of skiing. He was recruited to Park City, Utah, by Edgar Stern, who had developed the exclusive Starwood subdivision in Aspen. He later joined Deer Valley Resort.
Eriksen discussed his remarkable career in a December 2011 cover story in The Aspen Times Weekly.
Party like Vikings
Eriksen’s former colleagues talk with nostalgia of the various parties in the different eras. Clausen remembers Eriksen making his special ice cream punch for parties at Aspen Highlands in the early 1960s. They also threw parties quite often at T Lazy 7 Ranch up Maroon Creek Valley.
Customers would come to Highlands specifically to catch a glimpse of Stein, Clausen said. They kept an eye out for him on the slopes as well as at the base during the flips.
“Everybody loved his style, especially the ladies,” Clausen said.
Arnold and Clausen recalled legendary parties toward the end of the season. There would be ski races on courses closed to the public. Eriksen would break out a bottle of akvavit, liquor favored in Scandinavia.
“He’d take out the cork and throw it away,” Clausen said.
An annual gathering, hosted by Eriksen and called “Stein’s Race,” continued in Snowmass after Eriksen moved away, Nordhagen said. He remained tight with his friends in Aspen and Snowmass. Nordhagen estimated about 15 friends and ski instructors from Norway remain in the area. He and four others went over to see Stein in Park City in November. They knew he was ailing. Nordhagen said it was good to see his friend a last time.
When asked how he will remember Eriksen, he said, “I guess it would have to be his charm, and of course he was a hell of a skier.”
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