Feature December 17, 2015

Sun Valley's Ski Racing Roots

How a Community of the World's Fastest Skiers Built a Culture to Last

One of the true cultural and historical gems of the Sun Valley area has for years lined the hallways of the Sun Valley Lodge: an extensive collection of black and white photographs depicting movie stars, politicians, musicians, Hemingway (of course), and, significantly, ski racing stars. With the recent remodeling of the Lodge, many of the racers—with the exception of Gretchen Fraser and Picabo Street—have been moved to the upper floors. Nonetheless, the classic images acknowledge and honor the ski racing roots of the area, as well as the great ski racers who contributed far more to the organic culture and history of Sun Valley than, say, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable or the Shah of Iran. Peppered throughout the Lodge are photos of Dick Durrance, Stein Eriksen, Jack “Red Dog” Reddish, Christian Pravda, Dick “Mad Dog” Buek, Jannette Burr Johnson, Jimmy Griffith, Pete and Susie Patterson and Christin Cooper, all icons of ski racing and the history of Sun Valley.

For me, personally, ski racing and Sun Valley skiing and, thereby, Sun Valley itself are synonymous. To think of Sun Valley without the influence of Dick Durrance is inconceivable. Durrance as a ski racer won 17 National Championships and three Harriman Cups, including the first. He envisioned and helped cut the first ski runs on Baldy, has a mountain north of town named for him and was Sun Valley’s first photographer and consultant. He personifies Sun Valley’s history.

The significance of ski racing history to the present culture of the larger community has changed, but for me they are inextricably entwined. I first arrived in Sun Valley in 1953 at the age of 14 after an all night drive from Reno, Nevada, with two friends. We came for the American Legion Western States Championships, a combined slalom, downhill and jumping competition (on the old Ruud Mountain jump, still visible next to the chairlift; the outrun, however, is now covered by a Fairway Road home), a big event in junior skiing at the time. The competition was wonderful (among the competitors was Marvin Melville, a Utah Olympian well known to Sun Valley skiers and my Nevada teammate Lynn Johnson who has lived in Warm Springs for more than 20 years), but it was the skiing and ski racing culture found only in Sun Valley that made the deepest impression.

Baldy was the finest ski mountain I’d ever seen and immediately became (and remains) my favorite place to ride lifts up and ski back down. But, for a 14-year-old boy whose passion was skiing, there was nothing—nothing—to match the sight of Stein Eriksen skiing a run called Canyon. In 1953, few people could beat him in slalom or giant slalom, and only then on some days. But no one has ever skied quite like Stein. It was magic to a young skier’s eyes, magic born of and developed through ski racing. Some of the other skiers we studied, emulated, idolized and made friends with included Christian Pravda, Jack Reddish and Dick Buek, all of them working as instructors or patrolmen for Sun Valley in 1953. Can anyone today even imagine Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety, Bode Miller, Mikaela Shiffrin or Marcel Hirscher working for Sun Valley, living in the dorms, eating in the employee cafeteria, training and racing on the side and being a normal part of the working culture of Sun Valley?

Through the 50s and early 60s, I visited Sun Valley for a few days or a week more than once every season, for ski races—Harriman Cup, Western States, the Sun Valley Open—and to train or just enjoy the skiing. There were always a few of the best ski racers living, working, training and racing out of Sun Valley, including Hall of Fame skier Janette Burr Johnson, who incidentally was Lucille Ball’s double in the film “Lucy Goes to Sun Valley.” Unbelievably, Johnson was relegated to teaching beginners on Dollar Mountain. Most of the racers then were on their own, unsupported by the structure and nutritious system of team, coach, regimen and group dynamics in both good and bad times. We were, for better or worse, solo acts in terms of economics, training, guidance and perspective. However, sometimes-disparate racers would band together to train, set courses, critique and encourage each other and enjoy the camaraderie of kindred spirits.

In 1956, a group of us were practicing slalom on Round House Slope in preparation for the Harriman Cup when Jack Reddish, one of America’s greatest ski racers, skied up and asked if he could train with us. Though he had retired, Jack wanted to try one more Harriman and earn a diamond Harriman pin for placing in the first three in five different Harriman Cups. We could barely contain our pleasure and excitement to ski with a legend, and he ran gates and offered advice to each of us. And he won his diamond pin, not to mention my gratitude for his care.

Pictured here are parts of the official 1959 course plans approved by engineer James A. Patterson for the Harriman Cup Downhill on Bald Mountain. The men’s race began at the top of Ridge, ran down Rock Garden, across to Roundhouse Slope, then down Exhibition to Lower River Run where Olympic  comes in.Two years later in Portillo, Chile, Stein Eriksen dropped in on a different group of us training slalom with the same request, but Stein just wanted a break from running Portillo’s ski school to spend time with younger, kindred spirits. He advised and inspired us, earning our unending gratitude. 

After college, I spent the winters of 1962-1963 and 1963-1964 in Sun Valley. The wonderful Ned Bell (his wife, Betty Weir Bell, was a member of the 1952 Olympic Ski Team) managed the Challenger Inn and arranged jobs for me that included room and board, some spending money and enough time off to train and go to races. My good friends Ron Funk, Jim Gaddis and Tammy Dix were consistent training and racing companions. I lived in the employee dorms—one year the irrepressible freestyle pioneer Bobbie Burns was my roommate—dined in the employee cafeteria and, like many ski racers before then, was a small part of the culture and social fabric of Sun Valley life.

The ski racer relationship with the community changed as ski racing became more organized, disciplined (regimented even), team centered and scheduled. And expensive. Every ski area, including Sun Valley, has many more racers of all ages and levels than in the solo days of the 40s, 50s and 60s. The standard of racing skills has risen considerably, and very few if any modern racers are not associated with teams. In Sun Valley, that change is embodied in the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, Sun Valley Ski Academy at Community School and the Sun Valley Ski Club Masters. These are wonderful organizations that continue to help young (and not so young) people in love with skiing become better ski racers and members of the Sun Valley community and the larger cultures of the world.

That is, whether it is acknowledged or not, ski racing continues to be integral to the community, evolution, traditions and history of Sun Valley, thank Ullr! (old Norse god considered the patron saint of skiers). 

This article appears in the Winter 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.