Near-perfect Conditions

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I was standing on top of a mountain with skis under my feet for the first time in thirty years. The instructor who had assured me I’d be able to make it back down off the mountain, Tom Neely, paused with me after I glided from the chair lift, and we gazed out at the wide Idaho view.

“This mountain we’re on, Dollar Mountain, had the second chair lift in the world,” Neely said. “The mountain right across the valley in front of us, Proctor, had the first. Off to the left on that hill over there,” he continued, “that nice house above the others is Ernest Hemingway’s house. And behind us, the other way, is the big ski mountain, Baldy. It didn’t open until 1939.”

Baldy towered like Everest on a near horizon, reminding me of the humbling fact that where I stood, though it had been the glamorous alpine top of the resort when Sun Valley began in 1936, was now just the beginners’ hill. My instructor and I had ski history in ourselves too—Tom Neely because he was a member of the U.S. luge team in the 1964 Olympics and has been with Sun Valley since 1965; I because I was a living time capsule, a Rip Van Winkle wakened after having not skied for three decades. But Sun Valley wrapped us all in bigger ski history amid the biting air and dazzling light. It is the original ski resort in America.

I gave up skiing in the 1960s after my leg was broken by, I like to think, inferior technology. My ski tip caught in a ridge of ice laid by primitive snowmaking machinery, and my primitive bindings failed to release when I somersaulted forward. The world has indeed changed greatly since then; with the patient help of Tom Neely I was, after fifteen minutes or so, not only skiing as well as ever but skiing far better, because today’s skis are so much more maneuverable and forgiving and today’s snow-making machinery means, at least at Sun Valley, near-perfect conditions all the time.

If things have come a long way since the 1960s, that’s nothing to how far they had already come by then since Sun Valley’s birth. In the early 1930s skiing was a little-known novelty from Europe. Then W. Averell Harriman came along. As the chairman of the board of Union Pacific Railroad, he realized that his company needed a top-line tourist draw. The Santa Fe had the Grand Canyon along its route; the Southern Pacific had Palm Springs; the Canadian Pacific had Banff. Harriman wanted something completely new in the United States, a Europeanstyle alpine ski resort.

In November 1935 he assigned an Austrian count, Felix Schaffgotsch, to scout out the West for the ideal place. Schaffgotsch spent six weeks going virtually everywhere a branch line could be laid, and everywhere he looked something was wrong. Mount Hood was too wet; Jackson Hole relied on roads that closed in winter; the Rockies were too high. He had actually given up when someone suggested Ketchum, Idaho, a sleepy mining and sheepherding town of 270 at the end, as it happened, of a Union Pacific spur.

When Schaffgotsch got there, he found, to his surprise, everything he had been looking for: a semi-arid climate with plenty of sun but snow in winter; treeless mountains for safety and simplicity; good views; no avalanche danger; no chance of weekend crowds; and not too high an altitude. He wired his boss, and Harriman came right out on his private railroad car.

It was now February 1936. Harriman resolved to open his resort in December. He bought an expanse of valley floor from a local rancher and by April had work under way on a concrete hotel building designed to look like a big wooden lodge. He hired a publicity man named Steve Hannagan who hated snow and winter. “This is one city in which roughing it must be a luxury,” Hannagan announced. When Harriman suggested naming the resort Ketchum, Hannagan came up with Sun Valley. He also came up with the classic poster of a glistening shirtless skier, which he had shot in a New York studio. Thinking of Miami Beach, Hannagan wrote, “Imagine swimming pictures—with snowcapped mountains in the background.”

In fact, even that seemed possible, for the valley was dotted with hot mineral pools. The railroad tried to buy the rights to the most convenient one, but the owner held out for too high a price, and Harriman decided to build his own where you could walk right out to it from the hotel.

I lolled in that pool the evening after my first foray onto the slopes, darting out into the subfreezing evening to ease myself down into water as hot as a bath. Clouds of steam floated above the surface. I looked up through them past the snow-covered pine trees circling the pool to the looming mountains beyond and the stars shining in the cobalt sky above, and I breathed in the bracing air. I felt I was in a perfect dream even before a uniformed waiter appeared and asked if he could get me a drink.

The Sun Valley Lodge opened right on schedule in December 1936, and Harriman filled it with Hollywood stars, among them Mr. and Mrs. David O. Selznick, Joan Bennett, and Claudette Colbert. Everything was in place except the snow, so Harriman promised to put everyone up free of charge until it came, which wasn’t until January 9. At the openingnight banquet a Chicago banker asked one of the movie stars to dance, and Selznick knocked the man to the floor. Hannagan made sure all the newspapers got the story.