The 1950 FIS World Championships in Aspen paved the way for future ski racing events
|Dick Durrance arrived in town as Aspen Mountain’s third general manager in 1947.|
Durrance was America’s most accomplished skier at the time, having notched the highest-ever finish for an American when he placed 10th in the alpine combined event at the 1936 Olympics in Germany, according to his biography from the International Skiing History Association.
One of his first orders of business after coming to Aspen was to cut a number of new ski trails on Aspen Mountain, including Ruthie’s Run, Spar Gulch and Silver Queen, said his son, Dick Durrance II. Ruthie’s in particular was unique because no one was cutting big, wide ski runs like it at the time, he said.
“It’s really one of the great runs anywhere in the world,” Durrance II said.
But perhaps even more important to Aspen’s establishment as a world-class ski resort was Durrance’s idea to try and get the 1950 FIS World Championships to come to Aspen Mountain, he said.
At the time, Aspen was only in its fourth year as a ski resort and was still a small, mountain town with mostly dirt streets and a population of just 990 residents, Durrance II said. Durrance II recalled building soapbox derby cars as a kid and racing them down the hill on Main Street, which was the only paved road in town, between Second and Third streets.
With the help of others, Durrance put together a pitch for the 1950 races for American and European ski officials and was somehow awarded the championships, Durrance II said. The races had never before been held in the United States.
“It was a surprise,” he said. “At that time, U.S. skiing was not considered in the same class as European skiing.”
But Durrance knew that with a little work, Aspen Mountain had the chops to hold a world-class ski race, Durrance II said. So he tapped beer magnet Adolph Coors to head a fundraising committee that came up with $72,000 to put toward improving the mountain and paying for the races, he said.
“He promised he would have a (men’s) downhill course that would make their eyes pop,” Durrance II said.
True to his word, Durrance mapped out a screaming men’s downhill run. It started near the top of what is now the FIS run and ran down into Spar Gulch, which at the time was more of a V-shape than the current U-shape, which meant racers had to stay high on one of the sides of the gulch, said Lisa Hancock, curator at the Aspen Historical Society.
Racers then cut across the top of Niagara, located below the current Kleenex Corner, before heading down into Schuss Gulley and the race finish, she said. The run across Niagara was particularly hairy because it was a 35-degree slope that could easily throw off the speeding ski racers, Durrance II said. A picture and a video clip from the 1950 championships shows racer Stein Eriksen crashing spectacularly on that portion of the course.
“(My father’s) dream was to have a start gate and a finish gate and you had to figure out how to ski it,” Durrance II said. “That downhill blew their minds.
It was really difficult.”
The 1950 FIS Championships also featured a women’s downhill course as well as slalom and giant slalom courses.
It was the first year giant slalom appeared in the FIS Championships.
The championships were held Feb. 13 to 18 and featured racers from Italy, France, Switzerland, Norway, Austria, Canada, Sweden and other snow-
Klaus Obermeyer, who moved to Aspen in 1948 and celebrated his 97th birthday in December 2016, remembered the championships and the festivities warmly.
“The races were sensational,” he said. “People from all over the world couldn’t believe (Aspen) was so beautiful.”
However, the days leading up to the race were a bit nerve-wracking for Aspenites because it began to rain, Obermeyer said.
“Aspen never gets rain in the winter,” he said. “But just before race week, it rained. Everybody was kind of sad about that.”
But, just in time, the temperature dropped and the rain turned to snow, Obermeyer said, and the powder began to fall.
“It turned out so perfect,” he said.
In fact, Obermeyer said the “Champagne powder” was so good, even the Europeans were impressed.
“The kind of snow we had you only
get in Europe at 3,000 meters or higher,” he said. “(In Aspen) it was a totally (different) quality of snow than they’d seen in the Alps.”
Obermeyer said he was on Aspen Mountain along with many town residents and ski racing fans during
“It was so fantastic,” he said. “The spirit was so good.”
Obermeyer said he remembers the men’s downhill course still had a dam at the bottom of Lift 3 that racers had to jump at high speed “or they would have flown down half of Spar Gulch.”
Zeno Colo of Italy won the men’s downhill and giant slalom races, and came within three-tenths of a second to taking first place in the slalom course. Obermeyer said he distinctly remembers the Italian lumberjack.
“When he was doing his training runs, he was smoking (cigarettes),” Obermeyer said, laughing at the memory. “He had a big smile on his face. He was so solid and so good.”
Trude Jochum Beiser of Austria
won the women’s downhill, while fellow countrywoman Damar Rom took first
in the slalom and giant slalom.
“She was also sensational,” Obermeyer said of Rom. “She skied so well and she was so pretty.”
The 1950 championships showed the Europeans that skiing in the United States was just as good, if not better, he said.
“It’s really what put Aspen on the map,” Obermeyer said. “All the racers loved it. They thought (Aspen Mountain) was as difficult as it could have been and as beautiful as it could have been.
“Then they went home and talked about how Aspen is the best ski resort in the world.”
Durrance II agreed.
“Word spread (after the 1950 championships) that Aspen was a great ski mountain,” he said.
The creation of the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival would later solidify the town’s vaunted place in the realm of world-class ski resorts, but the 1950 championships started that reputation, Durrance II said.
Editor’s note: The 1950 championships were not the same event as the World Cup Finals, which Aspen hosts in March. That event is the World Cup Finals, which is held every year at the end of the World Cup ski-racing season.
The FIS Championships are held every other year, most recently in Vail-Beaver Creek in 2015. The 2017 Championships will be held in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
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