Top photo: Skiclub Arlberg
The Story of Austrian Pioneers Who Brought Skiing to the U.S.
By Julian Steiner
The relationship between Austria and the United States has a long and multi-faceted history: From 175 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations, celebrated in 2013, to the Marshall Plan that helped to rebuild Austria and Western Europe after World War II, to today’s strong economic ties, that have recently propelled the U.S. to Austria’s second largest trading partner: In the United States, one can nowadays drink Austrian wine, buy Austrian jewelry and travel on Austrian trains.
One Austrian export, however, shaped certain parts of the United States like no other: skiing. Visiting Vail, CO earlier this year, my Austrian expat-self burst with joy: Gasthof Gramshammer, founded by Austrian Olympic skier Pepi Gramshammer, Restaurant Alpenrose and Doppelmayr ski lifts all reminded me of Austrian ski resorts back home.
The entire village oddly felt like I had just landed in Austria in spite of flying westward from Washington, D.C. While sipping a Jägertee at Pepi’s Bar and looking at Gramshammer’s many trophies, I became intrigued by the history of Austrian skiing in the U.S. Ten years ago, producer and professional skier Ian Scully produced the three-part documentary Legacy: Austria’s Influence on American Skiing, presenting a historical account of the remarkable contributions made by three generations of Austrian skiers to the ski industry in the United States – a fascinating story of skiing pioneers that – eventually – led to the huge success of the U.S. Ski Team we witness today. Austrian Information published an interview with Scully back in 2007 (reprinted in this article.)
The Hannes Schneider Legacy
It all began in the early 1900s with Hannes Schneider, also known as the “father of modern Alpine skiing.” In his famous ski school, founded in 1907 in St. Anton in the western Austrian state of Tirol, he developed the first uniform method of instruction known as the "Arlberg technique", which later dominated the world of skiing.
His three step-system still informs how we all learn to ski: First he taught his students how to slow-turn using the snow-plow, then the stem-turn on one ski, and finally, for the first time, skiers turned with both skies in parallel, using two poles, a method that allowed much faster and more elegant downhill skiing. Schneider himself not only taught skiing, he also used his new technique in competitive races, winning downhill races in 1910 and 1911.
During World War I, Schneider served in the Austrian Alpine troops, teaching recruits his three-step Arlberg technique. After the war, he returned to St. Anton and his ski school continued to grow to employ 40 instructors for an average of 400 students. In the 1930s, Schneider also acted in the famous skiing movies by German director Arnold Fanck, which contributed to Schneider’s popularity ranging from the German-speaking world all the way to Japan.
After the Anschluss in 1938, however, Schneider, an outspoken opponent of the Nazis, was forced to sell his ski school after refusing to teach and employ only Aryans. He decided to emigrate to the United States with his family in 1939 with the help of American friends. Once in the United States, he began to teach at the well-known ski area at Mt. Cranmore in North Conway, New Hampshire and his success drew more Austrian skiers to American ski schools from Nazi-occupied Austria.
Under his influence, many of his students became some of the world’s most legendary skiers and his instructors taught Americans how to ski, using first and foremost the Arlberg technique. Other Austrian skiing pioneers quickly followed: Toni Matt, who was the first skier to perfect the Schuss technique on Mt. Washington in 1939; Paula Kann, who was a member of the U.S. female downhill racing team and founded a ski school in Franconia; Sigi Engl, a racer from Kitzbühel; and Luggi Föger, who became the director of the Yosemite ski school, were among many Austrian skiers who moved to the United States just before WWII.
Hannes Schneider, his technique and his followers not only brought modern skiing to America, they also helped transform many U.S. towns to world-class ski resorts and further innovated the sport of skiing. In the late 1930s, Professor Stefan Kruckenhauser, a 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 to become the instructors of this new Austrian alpine skiing technique at some of America’s largest and best-known resorts such as Aspen, CO.
Friedl Pfeiffer, who served in the 10th U.S. Mountain Division alongside many Austrian immigrants and was trained by Hannes Schneider in Camp Hale, moved to Aspen, CO from Sun Valley, ID. Before the war he had vowed to his friends in Aspen that if he survived WWII, he would help the town to become a first-class ski resort.
In an interview, Pfeiffer said that Aspen Mountain reminded him of his home in St. Anton, which gave him the idea of starting the ski area. Backed by U.S. investors, Pfeiffer revitalized the mining town of Aspen and created a modern ski area and a meeting point for the rich and famous in the Colorado mountains.
Sun Valley, Idaho
Pfeiffer had spent one winter in Sun Valley before moving to Aspen. After his departure, his countrymen Sigi Engl and Sepp Fröhlich continued the tradition of hiring Austrian ski instructors for the Sun Valley ski school. Many of them came from Kitzbühel, were Engl was famous for winning the 1935 Hahnenkamm Rennen, until today considered the toughest downhill race in the world.
Under their leadership, the Sun Valley ski school became one of Americas premiere and best known ski schools, and Sigi and Sepp’s legacy continues to this day: Not only is there a statue of the two in Sun Valley, but the town still has a distinct Austrian appearance and until 2006 (when the movie Legacy was filmed), the Sun Valley Ski School always had an Austrian born director and many Austrian instructors as well.
The Sugar Bowl, California
Further west, in Sugar Bowl, CA, another Austrian founded a ski school and resort, following Luggi Fögger as a pioneer in California skiing. Hannes Schroll, a native of Salzburg, came to the U.S. representing Austria at the 1935 U.S. National Downhill Championship: He won two gold medals and also learned English during his time at Mt. Ranier. He was then hired on the spot to become the new ski school director in Yosemite.
Together with other Austrians, like Emo Heinrich and Bill Klein, Schroll created an Austrian atmosphere in Sugar Bowl. He became president of the Sugar Bowl Corporation and with the financial assistance from locals raised enough funding to build a ski lodge, a chair lift and chalets.
Meanwhile, on the East coast, locals in Stowe, VT wanted to build their own ski resort. They visited the resorts in Kitzbühel and St. Anton in order to bring over Austrians to help build the reputation of Stowe as a ski area, among them Sepp Ruschp. Ruschp, a certified ski instructor and cross-country racer, who was trained in the Hannes Schneider technique, came to Vermont in 1936 from Linz. He was backed by AIG founder Cornelius Vander Star and was able to combine hotels, lifts and other smaller companies under the Mt Mansfield Company, which helped build the Stowe Mountain Resort we know today.
After Ruschp, St. Anton native Pepi Gabel took over the resort and expanded the Austrian community in Stowe in the 1950s and early 60s. Stowe is also home of the Trapp Family Lodge, founded by the legendary von Trapp family after WWII. Johann von Trapp, in cooperation with his friend Ruschp, was influential in growing the cross-country skiing community in Stowe in the early 60ies with help from Norwegian cross-country instructors. The Trapp cross-country ski center was at that time the only public cross country school in the U.S. and is still in operation today.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
In 1965, Paul McCollister founded the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. He was looking for a prominent face to lead his plans of creating a top-notch ski resort in the remote Teton Mountains in Wyoming. He found his ski school director in Pepi Stiegler who had won an Olympic gold and bronze at the 1964 Games in Innsbruck, Austria and a silver medal at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics.
Stiegler developed the trail maps and served as ski instructor and his celebrity status drew large crowds to Jackson Hole. And he also brought a number of Austrian ski instructors to the area that further helped creating an Austrian feeling in the Tetons.
Vail serves as perfect example of how the Austrian community helped grow skiing in the U.S. We are back with Pepi Gramshammer, where I started this story. Gramshammer was a professional skier in the late 1950ies in Austria and came to the U.S. in 1960 after failing to qualify for the Austrian Olympic team. He joined Sigi Engl’s team of ski instructors in Sun Valley.
His colleagues talked him into joining the U.S. skiing pro-tour, which he won immediately. This caused the founders of Vail to offer him the job of official ambassador of the new ski resort. His story is typical for many Austrian skiers, who started as professional racers and eventually became entrepreneurs in U.S. ski resorts. Gramshammer promoted the new resort in Vail and founded the Gasthof Gramshammer, a restaurant, hotel, and bar that feels like a little bit of Austria in the Rocky Mountains.
All these stories bear witness to what extent skiing in America was developed by numerous Austrians who gave up their homes in the Alps to build on their tradition and turn the U.S. into one of the leading ski nations in the world. Johann von Trapp characterized it perfectly by saying: “The Austrian contribution to skiing in America was huge because it was the seed for all that developed.” And it is this seed that continues to grow and proves to be a generator for jobs and revenue from New Hampshire, all the way to Colorado, Wyoming and California.
The film Legacy: Austria’s Influence on American Skiing tells the story of Hanns Schneider and all the Austrian skiing pioneers that followed him. It 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 tales of Austrians like Emo Henrich, Hans Gmoser and Mike Wiegele, who began leading helicopter trips into isolated areas in the early 1970s. They used their entrepreneurial skills to eventually develop these areas by building ski resorts. As Hans Gmoser claimed: “Helicopter skiing will continue to grow…especially in the last frontier, British Columbia. It has a large area of mountains and more of these areas have become easier to access.” 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 a legacy.
Austrian Information conducted the following interview with Ian Scully in 2007:
You are a ski instructor 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 skiing in a place called Mittersill (Franconia), New Hampshire. It was 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 like the work experience - they need to learn this, they need to learn that. It is not so 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 once you return from 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?
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 the 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 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, NH, 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.” In addition to telling the “Hannes Schneider story,” his father started talking about all the other Austrians associated with this 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.