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Austrian Immigrants III: Ski Pioneers and the making of American Winter Resorts

Nary an American ski resort exists that did not have Austrian involvement.

American railroad tycoon and banker Averell Harriman pioneered the first American winter resort in Sun Valley, Idaho. As chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad he got his company to invest $1.5 million into a new ski resort (lodge, chair lifts, ski runs) to transport more passengers on the railroad.

The Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch had consulted Harriman in finding the site for a new ski resort. Austrian ski instructors such as Friedl Pfeiffer from Hannes Schneider’s famous ski school in St. Anton, Tyrol, helped turn it into a new skiing Mecca in the American West, instructing many Hollywood celebrities in this attractive new sport.

Good looking “Naturburschen” from the Austrian Alps, most of them with only basic elementary school educations. With their heavy foreign accents they also brought yodeling and Gemütlichkeit to the Rockies and created the “alpine” flair that came to define skiing in the U.S. Ski champions like Pfeiffer also trained American Olympic skiing teams.

Winter sports in the U.S., in fact, had been pioneered already before World War I by Lake Placid in upstate New York and Dartmouth College with collegiate ski competitions. In 1923, Anton Diettrich began coaching the Dartmouth ski team. In the early 1930s, snow trains began to bring skiers from Boston and New York to fledgling resort towns such as Franconia and North Conway, New Hampshire, and Stowe, Vermont, and from San Francisco up to the high Sierras. In the mid-1930s, winter sports shows in the Boston Garden and New York’s Madison Square Garden featured Austrian skiing champions such a Hannes Schneider and Otto Lang to promote skiing in the United States.

In 1939, Hannes Schneider, now a refugee from Nazi Germany, began directing the ski school on Mount Cranmore in North Conway, New Hampshire. He brought the “Arlberg ski technique” that he helped pioneer in the 1930s in St. Anton to the U.S. Schneider was also a pioneer in promoting skiing through films. He brought numerous instructors from his St. Anton ski school such as Lang and Pfeifer and Luggi Főger (Badger Pass, California) to American resorts. Ski resorts began to spring up on the West Coast from Washington to California. Austrian yodeling ski fanatic Hans Schroll—with an investment from Walt Disney, whom he taught how to ski—launched the first California ski resort “Sugar Bowl” late in 1939. Another Austrian, Bill Klein, was the first ski school director. Located near Donner Pass not far from Lake Tahoe, around which many resorts such as Squaw Valley (site of the 1960 Winter Olympics) were to follow after World War II.

Ski area marketers defined Colorado after World War II as “home to the Alps, Victorian high society, and the Wild West” (Coleman). Friedl Pfeiffer pioneered Aspen as a ski resort, having seen the spectacular valley during his training in the 10th Mountain Division during the war. He returned after the war to open up the first skiing area in Aspen. Pepi Gramshammer added Alpine authenticity to Vail with his Tyrolean-style lodge in the early 1960s. Billy Kidd, Olympic slalom silver medalist in the Innsbruck Olympics in 1964, promoted Steamboat Springs. They all fueled resort town images—Vail’s alpine village, Aspen’s Victorian cosmopolitanism, or Steamboat’s American West. Josef “Pepi” Stiegler won the slalom gold medal in the Innsbruck Olympics. He moved to the US in 1965 to become the director of a ski school in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he also opened a Tyrolean restaurant. He stayed on as director for almost 30 years—two of his children became champion skiers as well.


Sources: Günter Bischof. “American Bucks and Austrian Buccaneers: Sun Valley – The Making of America’s First Winter Resort,” in: Philipp Strobl/Aneta Podkalicka, eds., Leisure Culture and the Making of Modern Ski Resorts; A Transcultural Account (Global Culture and Sports Series). London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018 [forthcoming].

Anneliese Gidl/Ian Scully. “Let’s ski, follow me!”: Austrian Ski Pioneers in America. [unpublished manuscript in possession of author].

Annie Gilbert Coleman. Ski Style: Sport and Culture in the Rockies. (CultureAmerica) Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014.

Friedl Pfeiffer and friends

Friedl Pfeiffer

Friedl Pfeiffer