Alpine Touring /Ski Mountaineering Ski History of Sun Valley

By Basil Service

In the early 1930s, after becoming Union Pacific Railroad’s Chairman of the Board, Averell Harriman’s initial strategies for the ailing railroad were to go on the offensive rather than wait out the Depression.  This Harriman did, in grand style, by rejuvenating Union Pacific's passenger revenues, which had declined more than half in the past 10 years, with an extremely determined modernization program of their trains.  By 1934, Union Pacific passenger service saw a 21.4 percent revenue increase followed by another 34.7 percent jump the year following.  This delighted Union Pacific stockholders who received a generous 6 cent per share dividend in 1935.  To compliment his modern trains, Harriman promoted summer and winter tourist traffic by running a spur line to Yellowstone National Park, by joining in the development of the Grand Canyon and by developing America’s First Destination Ski Resort in the mountains of Central Idaho. Having no expertise in finding America’s version of a Swiss St. Moritz or an Austrian St. Anton, Harriman turned to a European acquaintance who suggested Count Fredrich Schaffgotsch, an experienced Hannes Schneider Instructor in St. Anton. However, for reasons unknown, Fredrich’s Brother, Count Felix answered the call instead.  It was in this environment of Hannes Schneider “Alpine Touring” (walking up the slopes to ski down) Arlberg Ski Schools, spectacular European destination ski resorts and virtually no ski lifts that America’s first destination ski resort was born.

Count Felix Schaffgotsch discovering Sun Valley

Felix Schaffgotsch (from Austria) Alf Engen (from Norway) and Charles Proctor from (Hanover, New Hampshire), were probably the first to truly look at Sun Valley’s Surroundings as a potential Alpine Skiing center.  The relationship between Engen and Schaffgotsch occurred in 1935 when Engen was hired by the Union Pacific Railroad to guide Schaffgotsch through the Wasatch of Utah looking for a potential Sun Valley location.  Even the regions outside of Pocatello, Idaho were explored for a possible Sun Valley on the slopes of Mount Bonneville, Haystack Mountain, Scout Mountain and Mount Putnum.   I was fortunate to have interviewed Engen on many occasions when I was a Ski Instructor in the Intermountain Division of Utah in the Mid-70s and early 80s.  According to Sun Valley’s 2nd Ski School Director Friedl Pfeifer, who I interviewed in 1995, Union Pacific Officials really hired Frederic Schaffgotsch, who was a ski instructor with the Hannes Schneider Ski School in the Arlberg of Austria and not his brother Felix.  According to Pfeifer, Frederic could not make the sojourn to the states and sent his brother instead.

Alf Engen

Averell Harriman Pictured behind FDR / 1934

Charles Proctor

Anyway, once the Sun Valley site was chosen in February of 1936, Schaffgotsch would return in March with Dartmouth and Harvard Ski Team Coach Charles Proctor, John Morgan, an early-day ski expert and Alf Enge, from Salt Lake City, Utah to choose the potential skiing terrain for the infant resort.  Proctor was a Nordic member of the US 1928 Winter Olympic Team in St. Moritz Switzerland (No Alpine Skiing Events occurred at this Olympics), and while in Europe met Sir Arnold Lunn, in Murren, Switzerland and became the first American honorary member of the Kandahar ski Club in St. Anton Austria.  Exploring the lower treeless reaches of Sun Valley’s Lower Slopes, the four eventually settled on the locations of what are known today as Proctor, Dollar and Penny (The Sleding Hill) Mountains.  Bald Mountain, as well as Sun Mountain and Morgan Ridge, were also explored but considered too advanced to ski.

                  Skiing Sun Valley’s Sun Mountain

That summer, Schaffgotsch traveled back to Austria to choose an Austrian Ski School.  Returning the following 1936-37 winter for Sun Valley’s grand opening, Schaffgotsh arrived with Hans Hauser, Joseph Benedikter, Franz Epp, Roland Crossan, Alfred Dingl, and Joseph Schwenighofer, all coming from Salzburg, Austria, and its surroundings.  Hans Hauser’s brother Max would arrive at a later date.  According to Sun Valley’s 3rd Ski School Director, Otto Lang, who I interviewed in 1996, none of Sun Valley initial instructors were members of Schneider’s Arlberg Ski School, although Hans and Max Hauser ran an unofficial Arlberg school of their own on the slopes of Gaisberg near Salzburg.  Otto Lang would open the First Official Hannes Schneider Arlberg Ski School in the United States, the winter of 1935 on the slopes of Mount Rainier, in the State of Washington.   Being an Austrian instructor during the era of Hannes Schneider meant you taught the Arlberg method of Down Hill Skiing and this was exactly what Sun Valley’s initial ski school did, even though it had no official Arlberg status.  The star of Sun Valley’s first Ski School also became its first director, Hans Hauser.  Hans was one of Europe’s best skiers winning the Austrian combined championships three times in 1933, 1934, 1936 and the downhill race of the FIS tournament at Innsbruck in 1933. Hans' style reflected an elegance, which according to Dorice Taylor, Sun Valley's publicity writer for over 30 years, could be matched by no other skier; past, present or future.

Hauser and Schaffgotsch

Max Hauser

Hans Hauser

To compliment Sun Valley’s Ski School, Built in 1936, Sun Valley’s Proctor Mountain Chair Lift and Dollar Mountain Chair Lift were the world’s first.  Aside from an occasional rope tow in the United States, an aerial tram and J-bar in Switzerland and a surface lift built in Chamonix France, prior to 1936 the primary means of down-hill skiing was accomplished with Alpine Touring Techniques (Walking or skiing up a slope to ski down).  The Chairlift, more than any other mode of uphill transportation, changed the world of Alpine Skiing.  With skiers able to make 10 to 20 downhill runs per day rather than the 1 to 2 runs allotted by more strenuous “alpine touring” techniques, skiers were able to advance their downhill skills much quicker and the sport of pure “alpine skiing” rapidly gained popularity.  It took a while for the chair to catch on; however, by the mid-1960s, chairs were being installed at a clip of fifty to seventy a season replacing Alpine Touring (Walking or skiing up a slope to ski down) as the primary means to ski downhill.  Even the slopes of Austria’s Arlberg would not see a lift till 1938.

To further complement Sun Valley’s Ski School, Alpine Touring sites were explored in the spring of 1937 mostly by Hans and Max Hauser, Franz Epp, Florian Haemmerle, Walter Prager, Alf Engen and Charles Proctor.  Alpine Touring sites on Sun Valley’s Morgan Ridge, Sun Mountain, Bald Mountain, Johnston Peak, Durrance Peak, Amber Lakes Basin, Rock Roll Peak, Galena Summit, Galena Peak, Baker Creek and the towering spires of Sun Valley’s Pioneer Mountains behind what would soon become the location of Pioneer Cabin were all explored for Alpine Touring (Ski Mountaineering) Locations.  (Pioneer Cabin, Sun Valley’s first Alpine Touring Mountain Retreat, was built that summer.  The Summer of 1938, an additional room was added).  Alf Engen and Charles Proctor selected the site for Pioneer Cabin.

Pioneer Cabin 1995                       

Pioneer Cabin 1996                                 Pioneer Cabin 1948


That spring Sun Valley would also host the U.S. collegiate championships and the first International Ski Race ever held on North American soil, the Harriman cup.  Dick Durrance, America’s best men’s ski racer at the time won his second Collegiate title and was invited back to compete with the big boys in the Harriman Cup.  The Harriman Cup, which in March of 1937, instantly drew the world’s best skiers to the slopes of Sun Valley, was first run on an unnamed peak located in the Boulder Mountains just north of the present day Sawtooth National Recreation Building.  This non-lift serviced site was chosen over the lift-served mountains of Proctor and Dollar due to the necessary vertical needed to run a Europe style downhill alpine race.  (Baldy was yet to be developed) Heavily favored to win were Walter Prager, Durrance’s coach, and Sun Valley’s Hans Hauser, however when the final times were calculated, former Dartmouth ski team member, Dick Durrance emerged victorious.  (Durrance won the Harriman cup two more times in 1938 and 1940 and was the first racer to retire the cup. In the winter of 1938, the mountain whose slopes hosted the first Harriman cup was named for Durrance). 

 On the recommendations of Dick Durrance and Walter Prager, Florian Haemmerle, a German from Markt Oberdorf, Bavaria joined the ski school in the spring of 1937.  In 1929, due to worsening economic conditions in Germany, Haemmerle moved to New York where he worked as a painter.  On several occasions, while still living in New York, Haemmerle would rent skis and compete in local races held in Lake Placid where his skiing expertise caught the eyes of Dartmouth College’s coaching staff.  Hired as an assistant to Walter Prager, Dartmouth’s head coach and former instructor for Hannes Schneider, Haemmerle coached America’s top racer during the 1930s, Dick Durrance and Sun Valley’s First non-Austrian Ski School director, John Litchfield.


However, the politically darkening skies of the Second World War soon lay siege to Austria’s ski resorts and the majority of its best skiers would either flee to the states or perished in the war.  Hitler instigated a campaign claiming Nazi sovereignty over all German-speaking people and on March 12 of 1938, annexed Austria into Germany (The Anschluss). Caught up in the political euphoria of Austria's reunion with Germany, some of St. Anton's instructors, being freshly indoctrinated Nazi followers, voiced their aversions to Schneider's anti-Hitler rhetoric.  As a result, Schneider was arrested and led away to prison while his ski school continued with a quandary of renegade Nazi instructors and devoted Austrian loyalists.  Upon his release from prison, Schneider, and his family fled to the United States and the Ski Slopes of North Conway, New Hampshire. While Hitler's Germany closed most of Europe's developed ski resorts, during the winters of 1939 through 1941, Sun Valley soon became the world’s alternative to a European ski vacation.

Florian Haemmerle

       Alpine Touring Sun Valley’s Pioneer Mountains

Victor Gottschalk pictured Right

Andreas Hennig

Unfortunately for Haemmerle, being the only German on a ski school dominated by “outspoken Austrians” was a nearly impossible assignment to take on, especially with German aggressions in Europe.  As a result, Haemmerle was ready to quit after his first year with the school.  Not wanting to waste a talent such as Haemmerle, Harriman convinced him to develop the Sun Valley’s lift-less expanses which he did with skill and pleasure.


To compliment Sun Valley’s Alpine Touring School, Austrian Alpine Touring Specialists, Andreas Hennig and Victor Gottschalk were added to the squad in 1938 and 39.  Hennig, Gottschalk and to a much lesser extent Haemmerle, pioneered ski routes down arduous peaks in the Pioneer, Smoky, Boulder, Lost River, Lemhi, Sawtooth, White Cloud, Soldier and Salmon River mountains that few dared to even make summer ascents of.  Their trailblazing efforts not only provided Sun Valley with an additional medium of “high-elevation-skiing,” (aside from skiing the lower lift-serviced slopes) but it also extended the ski season well beyond the traditional closing months of late march/early-April as the snows in the precipitous bowls of the towering encircling peaks lingered, incredibly into the summer months.


Hennig from Salzburg, Austria and friend of Hans Hauser had an extraordinary love of climbing as well as skiing any mountain.  To Andreas Hennig, “a mountain was a gift of nature to mankind something to be admired and to be awed by.”  Before he came to Sun Valley, Hennig had quite a reputation as a ski mountaineer and rock climber in the Alps, with an enviable collection of First Ascents to his credit.  I first had a chat with Andy in 1976 when he recommended as my first Sun Valley Ski Mountaineering descent, Johnston Peak by way of Uncle John’s Gulch, in the Pioneer Mountains.  After that, I was hooked. Thru the 80s and early 90s, I skied hundreds of Andy’s routes which he generously provided to me.  Andy passed away in my hometown of Pocatello, Idaho in 1993.  Today, I am still skiing Andy’s ski routes.

Dick Durrance  winning the Harriman Cup Downhill

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       Alpine Touring Sun Valley’s Sawtooth Mountains