Every Christmas Eve, Sun Valley’s Dollar Mountain has been graced with a majestic torchlight run by ski instructors, capped off by one of the Valley’s best fireworks shows.
The event will kick off this year at 5:30 p.m., continuing a celebration that pays homage to the traditions of Austria and its contribution not just to the sport of skiing, but to Sun Valley’s beginnings in the 1930s.
Torchlight runs, also called flare runs, are popular on nearly every continent where people ski. From France’s Courchevel, to Italy’s Bormio, to Colorado’s Monarch Mountain and even Australia’s Thredbo, the illuminated spectacles are a popular and impressive Christmas and New Year celebration worldwide.
Although many countries around the world practice the torchlight flare runs, the tradition itself hails from Austria.
Krampuslauf, or Krampus run, is an event held across Austria to celebrate St. Nicholas’s companion, who in Austrian folklore punishes naughty children during Christmastime. During these parades, costume-laden partygoers carry torches along the route.
Throw some skis on, take those traditions down a mountain, and you have yourself a torchlight ski run.
Along with torchlight runs, Austria’s extensive contribution to skiing had quite the impact on Sun Valley.
Names like Schaffgotsch, Engl and Froelich made significant contributions toward making Sun Valley the skiing paradise it is today. So, its no wonder that Sun Valley would preserve a tradition from the country that pioneered alpine skiing, at the resort that helped make skiing a worldwide phenomenon.
The colorful history of Austrian alpine skiing began with a man named Mathias Zdarsky, who first descended a snow-covered peak in Schneeburg, Austria, in the late 19th century. At the time, skis were simply wooden planks attached to boots with rope. Zdarsky used a long pole to give himself leverage to change direction quickly. His technique caught on and the new sport took off, with races growing commonplace across central Europe, according to the American Alpine Club.
Fellow Austrians Hannes Schneider and Toni Seelos eventually mastered Zdarsky’s method and perfected his technique with stem and parallel turns. After these techniques became commonplace amongst the skiers of Central Europe, skiing academies began to pop up across the continent, with the very first founded by Schneider in St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria in the 1920s.
Fast-forward a decade, to when Union Pacific Railroad’s Averell Harriman recruited the help of an Austrian to find the best location in North America for a brand-new ski resort. Count Felix Schaffgotsch selected Sun Valley as the ideal location for Harriman’s project.
With Sun Valley’s opening, skiers from all over the nation began flocking to the beautiful slopes to learn the sport that hadn’t quite found its footing in the United States. Naturally, another Austrian, Hans Hauser, began the resort’s first ski school.
For Austria as a nation, the next few years were tumultuous. Adolf Hitler had believed that the Austrians, a German-speaking people, were destined to be a part of his German nation. His armies rolled through the country with little to no resistance in an event that is known to history as the Anchluss, German for “the connection” or “union.”
For Sun Valley however, there was a silver lining, as Austrians escaping the Nazis found their way across the Atlantic, bringing some of the best skiers in the world as refugees to Sun Valley.
Some who were here before the war and had complicated ties with the Nazis. Schaffgotsch, the man who had discovered Sun Valley for the Union Pacific, was killed fighting with an S.S. division during Germany’s invasion of Russia. But others decided not to abandon their new home in the United States. In fact, two of them—Sigi Engl and Sepp Froelich—still have statues in the Sun Valley Village to this day.
Engl, perhaps one of the most impactful skiers in history, was born in Kitzbühel, Austria, and emigrated to the United States in 1936. Engl made his fame during World War II, when he was invited to the Sun Valley Resort to compete in the Harriman Cup Downhill in 1940 and the Diamond Sun in 1941—two events which he won, according to the biography from the U.S Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. He eventually joined the U.S. Army, and fought in the Italian theatre of the war. After the war, Engl returned to Sun Valley where he would eventually become the director of the Sun Valley Ski School, along with Froelich. Sun Valley immortalized Engl, who was inducted in tho the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1971, with “Sigi’s Bowl” on Bald Mountain.
Next time you enjoy the majestic torchlight run, or glide through Sepp’s or Sigi’s Bowl, remember the impact the tiny nation of Österreich had on making Sun Valley what it is today. ￼
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