They Found a Snow-Covered Paradise, Founded an Industry

Times Assistant Sports Editor

They gave a party for skiing here recently, and everybody came.

Well, just about everybody. The guy who started it all 50 years ago, W. Averell Harriman, couldn't make it. He lives in New York, and he isn't quite as mobile as he used to be. He's 94.

But Jackrabbit was here. That's the nickname Herman Smith Johannsen was given in his school days around Montreal, when he was usually the hare in the game of hare and hounds, played on skis. Jackrabbit is 110.

He doesn't hear quite as well as he used to, but somehow he communicated OK with Stein Eriksen, another native of Norway. Yes, Stein was here, too, having come over from Deer Valley, Utah, where he is an innkeeper and the resident ski celebrity. Stein is only in his 50s.

Veterans of the 10th Mountain Division, 150 of them, were here, and they held a reunion one night, which Jackrabbit also attended. Speculation about whether he had been a member of the division ended when someone pointed out that the longtime skier was too old to have fought in World War II, and, in fact, was probably too old to have taken part in World War I, having been 43 when it ended in 1918.

Forty-four members of the National Ski Hall of Fame were here to honor the hall's newest inductee, Christin Cooper, 1984 Olympic giant slalom silver medalist. Cooper is a Sun Valley resident and the stepdaughter of Bill Janss, who owned this resort from 1964 until he sold it to Earl Holding in 1977. Janss, a member of the 1940 U.S. Olympic ski team, which because of Hitler never had a chance to compete, was also here for the festivities.

Other former Olympic racers, too numerous to list, were also here, but perhaps the most notable of this group were Dick Durrance, Gretchen Fraser and Andrea Mead Lawrence.

Durrance is a three-time winner of the Harriman Cup, for many years Sun Valley's annual international ski race.

Fraser, who became the first American to win an Olympic skiing gold medal when she placed first in the slalom at St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1948, lives in Sun Valley and has been immortalized in the name of one of the lodge's restaurants--Gretchen's.

Lawrence, who won two Olympic gold medals in 1952 at Oslo, in the slalom and giant slalom, came up from Mammoth Lakes, where she is a city councilwoman.

Co-host for the party was Ski magazine, which, like Sun Valley, also turned 50 this winter.

It may be a bit presumptuous to say that American skiing is only 50 years old just because one resort and a magazine happen to be that age. A fellow named John A. (Snowshoe) Thompson carried the mail over the Sierra on skis as long ago as 1856. And other Norwegian immigrants introduced skiing to the Midwest in the late 19th Century, both as a means of transportation and as recreation.

In the East, Alpine skiers first had to climb up any slope they wanted to ski down, until America's first rope tow appeared at Woodstock, Vt., in 1934. Then, spurred by fallout from the successful 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y., and an active ski team at Dartmouth College, Eastern skiing took off.

Harriman, who was then board chairman of the Union Pacific railroad, decided the sport might be here to stay and moved right in on the ground floor. He hired an Austrian, Count Felix Schaffgotsch, to find the ideal location for America's first major ski resort.

The Count traveled throughout the West--the territory served by Harriman's railroad--rejecting sites from Mt. Rainier to Big Bear to Jackson Hole. The idea, besides finding the proper terrain and snow conditions, was to place it far enough from any major city that skiers would have to take the Union Pacific to get there.

Schaffgotsch finally found his way to the old mining town of Ketchum, Ida., on the twice-a-week-train that chugged up the spur from Shoshone, and he told Harriman to jump in his private railway car and come take a look.

"I remember very vividly getting off the car in Ketchum. I put on my skis and skied into Sun Valley on this powder snow," Harriman said. "I fell in love with the place then and there."

Construction began almost immediately on the first resort in the United States designed primarily for skiing. Sun Valley Lodge was built at a cost of $1.5 million--that's 1936 Depression dollars--and Harriman put his engineers to work devising a way to get skiers uphill in comfort, rather than having to cling to a rope for dear life.

The winning idea was submitted by Jim Curran, who adapted a conveyor belt used for loading banana boats into the world's first chairlift.

Next, Harriman hired Steve Hannagan, a Miami Beach press agent, to attract people to his new resort. Hannagan, who hated snow and cold weather, came up with the name of Sun Valley, turning the drabness of winter into a bright and cheery image.

It worked. Skiers came from all over, via Union Pacific, to learn the sport under the guidance of instructors imported from Austria. Movie stars came from Hollywood to attach themselves to this glamorous "new" way of life. And a multibillion-dollar industry was born.

The real ski boom in this country was still a few years off, however. World War II both delayed and then helped it along.

The 10th Mountain Division evolved out of the National Ski Patrol System that had been organized by Charles Minot (Minnie) Dole in 1938. Its first unit, the 87th Infantry Mountain Regiment, was organized at Ft. Lewis, Wash., in late 1941, and this regiment later became the nucleus for the 10th when the Army decided to go into mountain warfare in a big way, in 1943, at newly constructed Camp Hale, Colo.

Malcolm (Mac) MacKenzie, 60, of Keene, N.H., president of the 10th's alumni organization, recalled here how the German General Staff in 1945 called his division "the elite American troops," shortly after it arrived, 12,000 strong, in Italy, for the final months of World War II.

"We had recruited skiers from all over the country," MacKenzie said. "And John Jay helped by producing a film that showed beautiful girls trailing after our handsome ski troopers. A lot of young men figured, 'Now, that's the way to fight a war.'

"Because we had more than 25,000 applications, we could be very selective, and the average IQ at Camp Hale was 135, which was five points higher than what was needed for Officer Candidate School.

"We even had some Southerners who had never seen snow but wanted to fight in the mountains. They called the 7-foot 6-inch skis that we used 'torture boards'."

The division distinguished itself in battles such as Riva Ridge, fighting mainly on foot rather than on skis, and lost nearly a thousand men.

When the war ended, two things happened: Many of the ski-troop veterans immediately set about becoming involved in the burgeoning ski industry, and all of their surplus winter clothing and equipment went to surplus stores and soon appeared on ski slopes around the country.

More ski resorts appeared, such as Alta, Utah; Aspen, Colo.; Squaw Valley, Calif., and, in the early 1960s, Vail, Colo.

It was a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division, Pete Seibert, who got Vail off the ground, ultimately selling enough limited partnerships at $75,000 a crack to open for business. Seibert, who was here for the 10th's reunion, later sold his interest to the Goliad Oil and Gas Co., which in turn sold to the Gillett Group--a familiar pattern in American skiing that has seen most of the major resorts change hands from individual entrepreneurs to conglomerate ownership.

Vail soon became symbolic of what was happening in this country. Where Sun Valley had been just a lodge with some ski lifts, Vail, also created out of nothing, was turned into a full-scale city oriented toward skiing.

Janss, meanwhile, also saw the changes that were occurring, and in 1964, the Janss Corp. bought Sun Valley from Union Pacific.

"I had a great love for this place and my goals for the resort were privacy, quality of experience, first-class architectural design, service, comfort and a friendly atmosphere," Janss said. "We also wanted to keep Sun Valley dense in the middle, so people could walk, and also make it more of a family resort.

"I was criticized for building condominiums, but the fact is, only 15% of the valley can ever be developed. That was one of my legacies.

"Baldy, when we arrived, had few trails and no lifts on the Warm Springs side. We cut more trails and installed more chairs. In 1976, we added snowmaking, which paid off when the drought struck the following winter.

"I see my plans continuing under Earl Holding. I've heard people say he won't hang onto the place for long, but I don't agree with them. He's too involved and enthusiastic about Sun Valley to sell it."

Sun Valley, of course, was not the first ski area to use snowmaking--the process of converting water into man-made snow, through a system of compressors and hoses, when the temperature drops below 32 degrees. Many Eastern resorts and several in Southern California had been more or less dependent on it since the early 1960s.

In fact, snowmaking is probably one of the major contributing factors to the enormous boom in skiing that has occurred in the past 25 years, dwarfing the growth of the previous 25. among the others, randomly selected after a canvass of several experts here:

--The 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, which was seen widely on television in this country, exposing the sport's trendiness in those pre-Yuppie days.

--Stretch pants. No kidding. They made skiing an extremely sexy sport.

--Shorter skis, which enabled beginners to quickly learn how to turn and stop, allowing them to ride the same lifts as the experts to the top of the mountain.

--Improved snow-grooming techniques and machinery, which converted previously cruddy snow surfaces into near dance-floors.

But although more than 20 million U.S. skiers are now spending about $2 billion annually to play their little joke on Mother Nature--making winter something to enjoy--there are a few clouds on the horizon that may produce some stormy days.

The number of American ski areas, for example, has dropped from a high of nearly 950 to 680 since 1975, primarily because of environmental opposition and increased operating costs--chiefly in the rising premiums for liability insurance.

As a result, ski resorts have become more crowded and lift lines frequently longer. Perhaps, more skiers will be following Jackrabbit Johannsen's lead and take up cross-country skiing. He is certainly a good role model. Until last year, he skied at least one kilometer every day, he said, but at 109, it finally became too rigorous.

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