Hannes Richter

Austria’s Influence on American Skiing

Hannes Richter

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In the early 20th century, when skiing was in its early stage of development,  Austrian skiers, with their pioneer spirit and love of adventure and challenge, were strongly welcomed in the United States. Whether as racers, instructors, developers of new skiing areas or coaches of some of America’s top ski teams, they introduced Americans to the art and enjoyment of skiing as a recreational sport, and in the process, brought Austrian Alpine culture to America. These ‘Austrian Alpine ambassadors’ became defining figures in the history of skiing in North America and their names are associated with some of America’s finest resorts, such as Sugar Bowl, Stowe, Sun Valley, Aspen, Vail and Jackson Hole.
In a three-part documentary entitled, Legacy: Austria’s Influence on American Skiing, producer and professional skier Ian Scully presents a historical account of the remarkable contributions made by three generations of Austrian skiers to the ski industry in the United States. The film trilogy spans several decades in the history of skiing, beginning in the 1930s with Hannes Schneider (1890 - 1955), known as the “Father of Modern Alpine Skiing.” In the early 1900s at his famous ski school in St. Anton, Austria, he developed the first uniform method of instruction known as the ‘Arlberg technique,’ which later dominated the world of skiing. Once in the United States, he had a long association with the well-known ski area, Mt. Cranmore in North Conway, New Hampshire and under his influence many of his students became some of the world’s most legendary skiers and instructors. The film features interviews with Herbert Schneider, Otto Lang, Bill Klein and Franz Gabl, and relates their accomplishments.

From 1931 to 1971 Professor Stefan Kruckenhauser (1905 - 1988) and his ski instructors dominated and influenced the world of ski techniques. The Austrian Professor of Sport and Biology at the State Ski School St. Christoph am Arlberg had developed a new skiing method (widely known as “wedeln”). American developers of ski resorts encouraged Austrians, such as Othmar Schneider, Pepi Gramshammer and Pepi Stiegler, who are all interviewed in this film, to be the coaches and instructors of this Austrian Alpine skiing technique at some of America’s largest and best-known resorts such as Aspen.

The film also covers helicopter skiing, first pioneered in the European Alps and introduced in Western Canada by Austrian mountaineer, Hans Gmoser, in  the 1960s. Helicopter skiing involves skiing in small groups in remote, unspoiled areas on pristine snow slopes. The film tells of Austrians like Emo Henrich, Hans Gmoser and Mike Wiegele, who began leading helicopter trips into isolated areas in the early 1970s, and using their entrepreneurial skills, eventually developed these areas where they built ski resorts. As Hans Gmoser claimed: “Helicopter skiing will continue to grow…especially in the last frontier, British Columbia. There is a large area of mountains and more of these areas as access becomes easier.”

With excerpts taken from videotaped interviews with well-known Austrian-American ski pioneers, the  producer and director of this documentary series, Ian Scully, shows an Austrian tradition, which has become made legacy through. In the following interview he reveals what motivated him to make this documentary film as well as his personal skiing background and experiences as ski instructor:

You are a ski instructor and are strongly associated with the world of skiing. Can you tell us more about your skiing background and your interest in the history of skiing?  
I grew up with skiing in a place called Mittersill (Franconia), New Hampshire. It was actually founded by an Austrian - Hubert Baron von Panz - who was from Mittersill, Austria. It was like a mini Austria within the United States, where the director of the ski school and some of the instructors who gave me skiing lessons were Austrians.  Therefore, when I got older the Austrian ski environment was something I was familiar with.

Being familiar with  skiing in the U.S. and in Austria,what is in your view the difference between Austria and the United States in terms of attitude toward skiing?
I think in Austria it is more of an all-around experience. I was told by a lot of Austrians whom I interviewed that Americans, when on the slopes, feel they have to get something done because it is kind of like the work experience - they need to learn this, they need to learn that.  It is not so much in Austria. My sense is that it is more of a communal thing. You go skiing with friends and family and, in a sense, it is wrapped up at the end of the day.  Then there is almost always an après-ski activity, which I don’t think was always the case in the United States.  To a greater degree in Austria the routine is after you go skiing, you get together to have some tea, or some people might like schnapps and beer. It happens in the United States, but I think it happens in a more ritualized way in Austria.

And how important is skiing to the average American compared to the average Austrian?
As for Americans it is really only important for those who live in the mountains or close to the mountains; in other words, in the Northeast, a little bit in the Midwest and in the Rocky Mountains. To be an American does not necessarily mean to go skiing, whereas for an Austrian, I came to conclusion that it is not just a sport but a way of life much like the rituals that go along with skiing which we talked about. I think there are only a couple of sports that are like this which are associated with nations. You could say that skiing is to Austria, as soccer is to Brazil or ice hockey is to Canada.

This documentary film represents a unique collection of interviews with well-known Austrian ski pioneers. How did this film come about and what was your motivation for producing it?
I really didn’t have the intention of making a whole film about Austria’s influence on skiing.  It was just one of those things that went from one step to the next. Then I said, “If I don’t do it, nobody is going to do it, and this history will be lost”. What I mean is that I got to know the Schneider family in St. Anton, which is ironic because I grew up in part in Franconia, N.H., only forty-five minutes from Mt. Cranmore, where the Schneiders ran the ski school for years.  I actually met Christoph Schneider here in St. Anton where we skied together. At the time I was just taking my professional ski instructors’ exam, and I had to know more history and was getting more interested in it.  He told me the whole history of his family and what had gone on in St. Anton, and I said, “Well, we really should interview your father.”  We interviewed his father, and thinking that he would talk about himself, he wanted to tell the whole story of his father - Hannes Schneider. In addition to that, he started talking about all the other Austrians associated with his father’s legacy, and then it just went from one thing to the next. When interviewing, I found out that even Heli-Skiing was in a sense invented by the Austrians and interviewed even those pioneers.  So it is a history that stretches all the way from the beginning of alpine skiing - especially the development of ski schools - all the way to the present day.

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Ian Scully is a certified ski instructor who has taught skiing in Vermont, New Hampshire and New Mexico. His interest in the history of skiing stems from his Austrian heritage and from growing up in mountainous New Hampshire. His interest in skiing history was heightened by his close ties to two ski resorts in New England closely associated with Hannes Schneider and Paul Valar. In 2001 Scully began creating a chronicle of Austrian influence in developing a viable and prosperous American ski industry. He expanded his efforts of documentation by touring North American and Europe and videotaping interviews with pioneer Austrian ski instructors and ski school managers who emigrated to the Americas. These interviews became the basis for the documentary film.