Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Week on Baldy makes Ancient Skiers feel young again

Nelson Bennett and John Woodward remember the sport?s good old days

Express Staff Writer

Nelson Bennett, 92, left, and John Woodward, 91, are early pioneers of Sun Valley skiing. They returned to the Wood River Valley last week to ski and share some of their memories. Photo by Willy Cook

Let's say metaphorically that the history of American skiing is a big cruise ship piloted from the captain's bridge by someone like the late, great Otto Lang—a public relations innovator who could focus the spotlight on a sport that was new to the United States.

In that case, with Lang upstairs mingling with the moneyed people, working class heroes like Nelson Bennett and John Woodward would be down in the engine room and crew's quarters. They would be tinkering feverishly with the raw materials of skiing to bring the sport into widespread acceptance.

Early skiing represented some of the best American improvisation.

As young men, Bennett and Woodward never thought of themselves as pioneers of skiing. The thought never crossed their minds.

First skiing on barrel staves at age 6, Bennett recalled of his early days growing up on a small farm in New Hampshire, "All we were doing was climbing up the hill so we could go straight down. That's what we all did in those days. That got boring after a while so we built jumps."

"Those days," were the 1920s and 1930s. Bennett was a 21-year-old dishwasher at Peckett's-on-Sugar Hill in Franconia, N.H., when Lang first arrived in the U.S. in December 1935 to teach the Hannes Schneider Arlberg turning technique at the site of the first American resort ski school.

It was wild and woolly on the slopes. Then the Europeans arrived to put some structure into America's age of innocence with skiing.

Amazingly, Bennett and Lang both ended up in Sun Valley five years later, Bennett becoming director of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol for 20 years and Lang heading up the Sun Valley Ski School in 1941-1942 on his way to a long, illustrious career in films, photography and writing.

Woodward, 3,000 miles away from Sugar Hill, was a 19-year-old Washington college student from the flatlands of Iowa when he raced in the first of the famous Silver Skis races on Mount Rainier in 1934. He busted his ski tip clear off but somehow managed to finish, if only because the first Silver Skis was such a big deal in the Pacific Northwest.

Everybody wanted to be in the Silver Skis, said Woodward, who two years later raced in the first Harriman Cup at Sun Valley that further popularized the sport in the region.

Woodward had an Otto Lang connection as well.

When Lang made the U.S. Army promotional film "Basic Principles of Skiing" in 1941 to draw attention to the new 10th Mountain Division ski troops, John Woodward was one of five 15th Infantry Ski Patrol skiers stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., who were featured in the influential film.

Lang filled out his roster of skiers for the film with Sun Valley ski instructors like Fred Iselin and John Litchfield. It was filmed so beautifully with such skilled skiers that the actual ski troops would later say the film was nothing like real life.

But Woodward was certainly real, one of the best ski racers ever in the Pacific Northwest. "John is not a skier," said Bennett. "He is a ski racer."

And Woodward still has a bone to pick with Lang. "Otto would never put the names of the five Army guys in the film credits, and I furnished the names to him several times," he said with a devilish smile last week during a break from his skiing at Carol's Dollar Mountain Lodge in Sun Valley.

What's most remarkable about Bennett and Woodward isn't what they've accomplished in skiing, and that is plenty, but it's the fact that both are still skiing, at ages 92 and 91 respectively. They were in Sun Valley last week for the annual visit of the Ancient Skiers club of skiers over 60 from the Pacific Northwest.

Bennett has said that skiing extends life and the New Englander, who has called Sun Valley his adopted home for 67 years, is a perfect example of longevity—sharp as a tack, quick with a quip and boasting the smile of a Cheshire cat and a shock of hair worthy of someone 40 years younger. At 90, Woodward was a member of the USSA Alpine Masters Western Regional racing team based on World Cup points.

Thanks to Sun Valley Co. marketing director Jack Sibbach, Idaho Mountain Express photographer Willy Cook and I sat down with Bennett and Woodward for cups of coffee and hot chocolate at Carol's Dollar Mountain Lodge Friday, Jan. 26.

A two-hour chat seemed to fly by in five minutes. The combined ages at the table of four was about 300. But it seemed like we were youthful co-conspirators, heads pressed together, leaning forward on forearms, listening to story after story about skiing, laughing frequently and certainly grateful that someone didn't come, lock us up and throw the key away for having so much fun.

That's why the Ancient Skiers come to Sun Valley each year, to rediscover the fountain of youth provided by a few wonderful turns on perfectly groomed Baldy runs.

Bennett, like Woodward a member of the National Ski Hall of Fame, will give the keynote address today, Wednesday, Jan. 31, at the annual membership meeting of the Sun Valley Ski Club Reunion Week. He'll be introduced by the appropriate Sun Valley Co. officials like Sibbach, Rick Hickman and Mark Thoreson.

I asked Bennett what he's going to talk about in his speech. He replied without hesitation and with a twinkle in his eye, as if he'd been anticipating the question all along.

Never betraying a smile, Bennett said, "It all depends on the introduction. If it's flattering, I'll get up and sit right back down because I don't want to spoil it. If it's not flattering, I'll talk all afternoon.

"But I have enjoyed a somewhat unique career."

About 200 Ancient Skiers enjoyed bluebird skies and very nice temperatures for their visit last week.

Woodward followed a certain routine. He would ski five or six runs on Seattle Ridge, have lunch with the group and frequently meet local skiers who would take him to places that he doesn't normally visit.

"But the main thing I come for is to see my friends, who are getting fewer," he said. "Still, it's amazing the number of old ones still here."

Being an old ski patrolman, Bennett can't stay away from the shop. "First thing, I'll go up and visit with the ski patrol," he said. "Then I'll make a trip down College run all the way." All the way means all the way.

Any conversation with Nelson Bennett includes quite a few historical references sprinkled with "Benny" anecdotes. He seems to know just about everything about Baldy and Ketchum. You get the idea that if Bennett stashed away a then-invaluable piece of ski equipment for safe keeping in a Ketchum residence 50 years ago, he could go and find it today—if the house wasn't a bank.

Continuing his story about a typical day of Baldy skiing at age 92 and his path down the hill, Bennett talked about Lower College like no one else can talk about Lower College.

He had bushwhacked through the trees where Lower College is now located and thought it would be a good idea to extend College in 1948. The terrain that dictated Lower College's slope and the narrow cat track that took a skier back to River Run— Bennett has all the history in his head and readily makes it public.

Bennett might have a cup of coffee and read the newspaper at River Run Lodge, but invariably he'll end up holding court for lunch at what he calls the "flat-top restaurant" on Baldy's summit, Lookout Restaurant.

People like Bennett and Woodward are the royalty of alpine skiing, toughened by early beginnings. Both were 10th Mountain Division ski troopers who served in Italy at the end of World War II. It was the 10th Mountain Division veterans who came back and formed the foundation of the post-war skiing industry

"Hundreds of us ended up in the ski industry," said Woodward, adding with a smile and some humility, "I don't know how much good it did."

"Benny" and his younger brother Edmund walked to a one-room schoolhouse one mile from their family's small farm near Lancaster, N.H. They would check their trap line for muskrats, marten and red fox on their way to and from school. Babe Ruth was arriving in full regalia in the city to the south—early 1920s.

"There were at least two incidents where my brother saved my life," said Bennett.

"The first was when I was 12 and Edmund was 10 and a half and we were building a snow house in the backyard. I was chipping snow and all of a sudden I was buried under 4 feet of snow. Ed got help and got me out. I didn't know much about snow then, but if you ask me now I'll talk about the properties of snow for the rest of the day.

"The second was in a foxhole in Italy. I'd been having stomach problems and was down to 120 pounds. I could hardly lift the rucksack. But Edmund was responsible for getting me to the hospital and getting help."

Nelson said he had no intention of becoming a ski patrolman. He went to the University of New Hampshire and got his bachelor's degree in forestry in 1940. He decided against a job in British Honduras and did the Led Zeppelin "Going to California" thing instead, and when California didn't work out he made his way up to Sun Valley in October of 1940.

When he arrived, Bennett opened the door of the Sun Valley Challenger Inn and the first person he saw was Dick Durrance, America's first great ski racer.

"Dick was at Dartmouth when I was at New Hampshire," Bennett said. "He introduced me to (Sun Valley general manager) Pat Rogers. Pat promised me a job."

Bennett, then 26, returned to New Hampshire via New Orleans and sweated out the arrival of a free Union Pacific railroad pass that would take him from Lancaster, N.H., to Shoshone, Idaho. It finally came Dec. 9. The Vermont railway wouldn't honor it, so Bennett ended up paying only the Vermont portion, $2.50, for his ride to Idaho.

It was a good investment.

Bennett became the head of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol in January 1941. After the war he served as Sun Valley's superintendent of recreational facilities (ski patrol, trail maintenance, race team and mountain management) from 1945 to 1960. He was general manager of White Pass (Washington) from 1960 to 1984. A skiing consultant since, Bennett has served on virtually every committee in the sport of skiing and was involved organizing U.S. Winter Olympics in 1960 and 1980.

Given a choice, he'd probably avoid talking about ski area development or the obligations of being a technical delegate and instead talk about the early days at Sun Valley—the weasel, the ski patrol and the rescue toboggan, specifically.

Bennett and his brother Edmund invented a prototype of today's sophisticated trail grooming equipment. They found an Army surplus "weasel" over-snow vehicle used to haul hay in Oregon after the war. Edmund went and got it and brought it back to Sun Valley. Together, they designed a series of scrapers and drags in the Sun Valley shops. Placed behind the weasel, the drags smoothed and compacted the snow.

The weasel was narrow enough to fit in the bomb bay of a B-17 but it was too small to go into combat, Woodward said. Plus, it was poor on hills because it tipped over too easily.

"But it worked beautifully on the cat tracks," Bennett said. "We did a study and found that one man in a weasel pulling a special set of runners with a blade fixed between them could smooth the College run cat track in just less than 30 minutes. Before that, it took three snow shovelers and packers a half day to accomplish it. The machine-compacted snow was more dense and free of ruts and bumps for a longer time."

Edmund's first weasel is now in the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame. "If the operator knew how to handle it, the weasel was a good machine," said Nelson about the grooming invention, which dates back to 1946.

Nelson likes to call his era at Sun Valley "1940 to 1960 B.C.," adding with the usual "Benny" twinkle, "Before Cats and Before Choppers." The Sun Valley Ski Patrol at that time served as a search and rescue patrol in the surrounding mountains. Bennett and a cadre of four or five patrollers would be called to airplane crashes or lightning strikes.

Bennett developed a toboggan that would fit in a backpack.

To bring injured skiers down the mountain, Bennett also developed what was called the Sun Valley Rescue Toboggan. Giving ski patrollers better control of the rescue sleds and victims a more comfortable ride, Bennett's sled was designed with rigid wooden shafts to the front and metal guides to the rear. It became a standard for the National Ski Patrol.

Our conversation lagged for a moment, but Bennett and Woodward quickly filled the gap with views of the best skier they had ever seen, and Bennett said with some conviction that many people including Emile Allais called Sun Valley ski patrolman Lew Witcher the all-time best.

"We waxed skis in 1925 the same way we do today," Woodward said as the talk turned to early ski bindings.

A partner for 25 years in the A&T (Anderson and Thompson) Ski Co., which developed the world's first laminated ski, Woodward started discussing ski equipment and asked to borrow a piece of paper and pencil.

Bennett, never an advocate of skiing at high speeds with release bindings, said while Woodward drew, "The safety factor was through your ears and not on your feet."

Woodward, who patented the first flexible heel release binding, started sketching the most popular pre-war binding in the Northwest—the bolt binding. He added a toe strap here, and a heel strap and toe irons there. He penciled in a tightening clamp and, I swear on my cup of cold coffee, he drew in a coat hanger at one point to illustrate one of the early solutions to binding releases.

Thank goodness the 10th Mountain Division had somebody like Woodward at the start of the war.

Many of the new Army ski patrollers weren't experienced skiers, so Lt. Woodward, who entered the Army in 1940, had to teach them. He was familiar with Mount Rainier and took the men on lengthy training trips. He commanded the Mountain Training Group at Camp Hale in Colorado.

But the stiff skis were a problem.

The Army sent a shipment of about 5,000 pairs of skis to Camp Hale. Made of hard southern hickory and incredibly stiff, the skis were almost impossible to turn. The Army sent someone to look into the problem and asked Woodward for his advice.

Woodward explained, "You know how a bow and arrow works? Well, if the bow won't bend, it won't work. And if the ski won't bend, it won't work either. And there are two testers now in the hospital with broken legs who would like to talk to you."

Needless to say, Woodward got approval to remove bindings from the stiff skis and send them away for ridge-topping to soften them.

Born in Iowa, Woodward started skiing at 7 and moved to Seattle at 12, after his father prophetically sold a string of gas stations before the stock market crash of 1929.

He doesn't talk much about his ski racing accomplishments, mostly drawing from keen memories of being airborne and dodging trees and somehow through the grace of God arriving at the bottom of a run.

Three times he raced in the Silver Skis, then called America's wildest ski race that mass-started from the 10,000-foot Camp Muir on Mount Rainier and dropped 4,600 feet in three-and-a-half ungroomed miles to Paradise, according to ski historian's Lowell Skoog's account.

The winner of that first horse race on skis in April 1934 was the first making it to the bottom. Sixty started. Forty finished. Woodward rolled a few times, broke a tip and finished about 30th. The winner was future Olympian Don Fraser, later the Sun Valley publicity director, in just under 11 minutes.

Just after the opening of Sun Valley, in the winter of 1936-1937, Woodward was one of the Seattle-area racing studs invited to the first Harriman Cup at Sun Valley. Woodward had just finished fifth in the 1936 Olympic trials and was officially an alternate to those Winter Games.

"They paid our way on a Union Pacific pass," Woodward said. "They could only get half of us in the lodge and the rest stayed in Pullmans. I remember eating in the Lodge Dining Room, and going back to Seattle with stories about the waiters' tails and white gloves. Stories like that were one reason why skiers from Seattle loaded up the Sun Valley guest list in the early years."

Racing in three of the early Harriman Cups, which were America's premier ski races and national championships from 1937 to 1940, Woodward said he will always remember the first Harriman Cup staged in the Boulder Mountains north of Ketchum on what came to be known as Durrance Mountain.

He took off in the air coming down the downhill run. "And one tree turned into two," said Woodward, still amazed he avoided serious injury. The college ski teams across the nation were pretty evenly matched in those days except for Dartmouth College, far ahead of the pack chiefly because of Durrance, who won the first Harriman Cups.

"Ever break a bone?" I asked, perhaps unwisely. Bennett and Woodward shook their heads and knocked on the wood of the Dollar Lodge table several times—a habit that started many years ago for both and still applies to 90-plus skiers.

Bennett said, "After skiing since 1920 I have concluded that very likely I have successfully reached this point in time because I learned to ski at a young age, and that I have stayed in condition, and that I learned the hard way by walking and climbing on skis with my skis more or less firmly attached to my boots."

Commenting on longevity, Woodward, who will be 92 on Feb. 18, said, "I guess we're just lucky that somebody chose our grandparents right."

Woodward and his wife of seven years, Lois, live in Walden, N.Y., and Mesa, Ariz. They left Sun Valley Saturday for Vail, Colo., and the Ski Heritage meeting there. Then the couple will do 70-plus NASTAR racing at Snowmass, Colo. Bennett plans to return to Yakima and fly with his companion Madi Kraus to New York City Feb. 27.

They'll drive to North Conway, N.H., for the Hannes Schneider Meister Cup sponsored by New England Ski Museum. This will be the 11th year that Bennett, 93 next Dec. 6, has raced dual giant slalom at the Hannes Schneider Meister Cup.

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