Friday, March 6, 2009

High caliber skiing


Ten years ago in Deer Valley, Utah, I was listening to the crackling of hand-held radios held by Bill Clinton watchers. It made me think about a similar incident with a head of state in Sun Valley in 1948.

The Shah of Iran had flown to Sun Valley to ski with ski school director, Otto Lang. Accompanying the Shah was an airplane load of other people—servants, cooks, porters, food tasters, equipment and luggage handlers, interpreters and 16 bodyguards. No one in his group of about 30 servants could ski so the head of the ski patrol, Nelson Bennett, asked for volunteer "bodyguards" who could handle 45-caliber automatic pistols.

Four members of the ski patrol seemed like the right number of men for the job. Four former 10th Mountain veterans stepped forward and were issued army surplus automatic pistols. They were told, "Drive out to Warm Springs and practice firing a half dozen magazines. Try a few rounds while you hang on the running board of a car to pretend that you're firing while skiing. Adjust your shoulder holsters and be ready to ski by O-dark-thirty tomorrow morning."

You may be wondering about how dangerous it would be to fire a 45-caliber automatic while driving around Warm Springs. Well in 1948 there was nothing in Warm Springs except a dirt landing strip for a proposed, someday-to-be-built airport.

Everything worked to perfection, just as if everyone knew what everyone else was doing. Two of the ski patrolmen skied in front of the Shah and Otto and the other two patrolmen skied behind him. After a few days of skiing like this, everyone at Sun Valley became used to the group and the guards began to gradually relax their vigil. During lunch in the Roundhouse on the fifth day, the ski patrolmen hung their automatic pistols on the clothes rack, covered them with their ski patrol parkas, went over to the cafeteria line and ordered their lunch.

Watching all of this, a friend of mine said, "Why don't we switch parkas with them, take a couple of the parkas and a couple of the guns and see what'll happen?"


After scoping out the line of sight between the revolvers hanging on the wall and the ski patrolmen, I walked over with my unnamed friend. Since I was the tallest and weighed the most, I stood in the line of sight between the parkas, the guns, the patrolmen, Otto and the Shah. I stood there trying to look nonchalant while my partner switched our two red parkas for theirs and took two of the 45-caliber pistols. He handed a parka and a gun to me as we were headed out the door.

We climbed into our non-release bear trap bindings, tightened up our Arlberg straps, shoved off and raced down the Roundhouse slope, turned left, then a couple of turns in the bottom of the canyon, lined up the narrows, took them straight and then straight down River Run. We coasted across the bridge over the Big Wood River. We left the two guns and holsters hanging on a fence, covered them with the ski patrol parkas and told the lift operators to keep their eyes open for Otto, the Shah, and the four ski patrolmen/bodyguards later in the day.

The two patrolmen who couldn't find their guns wisely decided to just fake it for the rest of the day. Otto and the Shah never did know that the firepower of their guards had been cut in half. They skied the rest of the afternoon with a great sense of inner security. On the final run they made it to the bottom of River Run. The lift operator hollered as they skied by. One of the ski-patrol-guards-without-a-gun skied over and was handed the two guns and parkas we had stolen at lunch.

That evening I was still living in our eight-foot long trailer in the parking lot where the thermometer read 11-below-zero and since our kitchen was outside, it was also 11-below-zero in the kitchen. The pressure cooker was hissing on the gasoline stove and we were looking forward to another round of rabbit stew. Inside the nearby Harriman Cottage, the Shah of Iran's special chefs were cooking up a banquet of Iranian food for the celebration of yet another wonderful day of feeling secure while skiing with Otto Lang and such alert and highly trained bodyguards.

Warren Miller is an internationally known ski filmmaker.

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