Blame Turtlenecks on Klaus Obermeyer, Not your Mother
An afternoon of stories, wisdom, and one large palm tree. Jake Davis spends some time with Klaus Obermeyer, who turns 90 in December.
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In Warren Miller’s 1999 film Fifty, Klaus Obermeyer kayaked down a powder-choked mountain with a huge grin on his face. He was 80 at the time. I always wondered if that was a good idea or not. “It’s really not to be recommended, it’s so damn fast you need an uphill slope on the other side just to stop yourself,” Klaus says, his Bavarian accent thick and conspiratorial. “But I’d really like to paddle all the way down a mountain and into a river, and then keep paddling.” This is the German-born guy who started Sport Obermeyer in 1947 and has brought us the down parka, turtlenecks, mirrored sunglasses, high-altitude sun block, nylon wind shirts, double ski breaks, and, on the long end of 89, still skis more days than you.
Klaus turns 90 in December. During a tour of the Obermeyer building in Aspen, Colorado, he showed me his lap pool, his weight routine to prepare for windsurfing season, and flirted with every girl in the office. When I first walk into Klaus’s office, he’s looking intently through a magnifying glass at several small objects that he quickly shuffles to the side when he sees me. He’s behind a large oak desk wearing a zipped-up softshell jacket. His full head of silvery-grey hair is slicked back in a way that makes it easy to picture him schussing down a mountain. The office is cluttered with clothing samples, photos, an impressive ski rack and a large palm tree.
I ask what he’s looking at and he chuckles, motioning to a small medallion in a case, and says, “Oh, these. I just cleaned up a little, they are from the Ski Hall of Fame and the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame.” He shows me the pins, small but glitzy looking. “Yeah, that was nice that they put me in there, you know,” he continues. “But the nice thing about the Colorado Hall of Fame is I get a ski pass for all the areas in Colorado. That’s a perk. Actually it’s God-dammed nice.” With this, his smile breaks into a hearty laugh and he starts telling stories.
“My first two summers in Aspen I spent in Sun Valley, because there was no work in Aspen, nothing. That was ’47 and ’48. I drove to Sun Valley to the only sports store in town and asked if he wanted to sell my pom-poms, which were popular with European skiers as a replacement for neckties, just these two woolen balls attached by braided yarn, you wrap it around your neck and it keeps you warmer. I used my last dollar at the JC Penny in Hailey, Idaho, to buy yarn. The shop owner came back two days later and said, ‘Klaus, I need more! I only have two left.’ Turns out he had luck selling my pom-poms to New York life insurance salesman in town for a convention. Then I got back to Aspen, and Gary Cooper [of High Noon]said ‘I hear you started your own business?’ ‘Yeah,’ I told him, ‘I’m making these kugie ties.’ He insisted on paying for one, $1.75, which was a lot of money at that time. So he put it on and his picture got into the paper and two years later, we sold 32,000 of them. All my friends who were hard up economically helped me out. And that’s how I got the money to start with other things like parkas and turtlenecks.”
“Wide rockered skis are wonderful, you can jump and land in really deep, soft snow. I don’t think I need skis like that because I don’t jump over cliffs, I’ll let someone else do that these days.”
“Shane McConkey was here three years ago and said, ‘Klaus, you gotta come see my new powder ski.’ I tried them and they’re like barrel steaks but great for backcountry cliff jumping and powder skiing.”
“I was in Aspen’s Hotel Gerome lobby and I had six girls around me. Of course these days I only have three, but that day, Gary Cooper walked in and said, ‘Klaus, I don’t know what you got that I ain’t got?’ The next morning we were eating at the breakfast bar, and Gary and I were sitting together and next to Gary was a girl. And the girl looked, and when she saw it was Gary Cooper she fainted and fell on the floor. So I said, ‘Gary I don’t know what you got that I ain’t got.'”
“Warren [Miller] and I were driving to Los Angeles, we had this idea to sell our goods on credit. We slept in his car and washed in gas stations and when we got to L.A. we’d run out of cash, we had a quarter left between us. So we bought a hamburger and split it down the middle. That lasted until we could descend on his parents in Pasadena and absolutely cleaned their refrigerator. I ate every last egg they had.”
“I was hitchhiking from Alta to Aspen and I got a ride with a guy who was in the US Air Force in the war. We started talking and he remembered an incident over Munich that I saw from down below. A Bomber got hit, and the wings came off like a piece of paper and the body dove and the guys jumped, and lived. I saw that, and this guy was in an airplane above me watching it the whole time, and here we are driving to Aspen together.”
“Teaching Ingrid Bergman how to ski was funny because she had a very jealous husband, and he hid behind trees on the mountain watching that nothing happened. But we all knew he was there the whole time. She later divorced the guy.”
“What has never changed about skiing is being in nature and playing on snow. The freedom to be outside and enjoy the mountains. And what’s always most enjoyable are the zero-g feelings you get from jumps and powder, you’re half drunk when you get off the mountain. This is why terrain parks and half-pipes are wonderful, there’s more zero-g. But, skiing has always, always been fun.”
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