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They Found a Snow-Covered Paradise, Founded an Industry

March 17, 1986|BOB LOCHNER | Times Assistant Sports Editor

SUN VALLEY, Ida. — They gave a party for skiing here recently, and everybody came.

Well, just about everybody. The guy who started it all 50 years ago, W. Averell Harriman, couldn't make it. He lives in New York, and he isn't quite as mobile as he used to be. He's 94.

But Jackrabbit was here. That's the nickname Herman Smith Johannsen was given in his school days around Montreal, when he was usually the hare in the game of hare and hounds, played on skis. Jackrabbit is 110.

He doesn't hear quite as well as he used to, but somehow he communicated OK with Stein Eriksen, another native of Norway. Yes, Stein was here, too, having come over from Deer Valley, Utah, where he is an innkeeper and the resident ski celebrity. Stein is only in his 50s.

Veterans of the 10th Mountain Division, 150 of them, were here, and they held a reunion one night, which Jackrabbit also attended. Speculation about whether he had been a member of the division ended when someone pointed out that the longtime skier was too old to have fought in World War II, and, in fact, was probably too old to have taken part in World War I, having been 43 when it ended in 1918.

Forty-four members of the National Ski Hall of Fame were here to honor the hall's newest inductee, Christin Cooper, 1984 Olympic giant slalom silver medalist. Cooper is a Sun Valley resident and the stepdaughter of Bill Janss, who owned this resort from 1964 until he sold it to Earl Holding in 1977. Janss, a member of the 1940 U.S. Olympic ski team, which because of Hitler never had a chance to compete, was also here for the festivities.

Other former Olympic racers, too numerous to list, were also here, but perhaps the most notable of this group were Dick Durrance, Gretchen Fraser and Andrea Mead Lawrence.

Durrance is a three-time winner of the Harriman Cup, for many years Sun Valley's annual international ski race.

Fraser, who became the first American to win an Olympic skiing gold medal when she placed first in the slalom at St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1948, lives in Sun Valley and has been immortalized in the name of one of the lodge's restaurants--Gretchen's.

Lawrence, who won two Olympic gold medals in 1952 at Oslo, in the slalom and giant slalom, came up from Mammoth Lakes, where she is a city councilwoman.

Co-host for the party was Ski magazine, which, like Sun Valley, also turned 50 this winter.

It may be a bit presumptuous to say that American skiing is only 50 years old just because one resort and a magazine happen to be that age. A fellow named John A. (Snowshoe) Thompson carried the mail over the Sierra on skis as long ago as 1856. And other Norwegian immigrants introduced skiing to the Midwest in the late 19th Century, both as a means of transportation and as recreation.

In the East, Alpine skiers first had to climb up any slope they wanted to ski down, until America's first rope tow appeared at Woodstock, Vt., in 1934. Then, spurred by fallout from the successful 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y., and an active ski team at Dartmouth College, Eastern skiing took off.

Harriman, who was then board chairman of the Union Pacific railroad, decided the sport might be here to stay and moved right in on the ground floor. He hired an Austrian, Count Felix Schaffgotsch, to find the ideal location for America's first major ski resort.

The Count traveled throughout the West--the territory served by Harriman's railroad--rejecting sites from Mt. Rainier to Big Bear to Jackson Hole. The idea, besides finding the proper terrain and snow conditions, was to place it far enough from any major city that skiers would have to take the Union Pacific to get there.

Schaffgotsch finally found his way to the old mining town of Ketchum, Ida., on the twice-a-week-train that chugged up the spur from Shoshone, and he told Harriman to jump in his private railway car and come take a look.

"I remember very vividly getting off the car in Ketchum. I put on my skis and skied into Sun Valley on this powder snow," Harriman said. "I fell in love with the place then and there."

Construction began almost immediately on the first resort in the United States designed primarily for skiing. Sun Valley Lodge was built at a cost of $1.5 million--that's 1936 Depression dollars--and Harriman put his engineers to work devising a way to get skiers uphill in comfort, rather than having to cling to a rope for dear life.

The winning idea was submitted by Jim Curran, who adapted a conveyor belt used for loading banana boats into the world's first chairlift.

Next, Harriman hired Steve Hannagan, a Miami Beach press agent, to attract people to his new resort. Hannagan, who hated snow and cold weather, came up with the name of Sun Valley, turning the drabness of winter into a bright and cheery image.

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