Originally published in January, 2002 issue of SKI Magazine
In 1919, soon after World War I, Hannes Schneider of St. Anton, Austria, said, “If everyone skied, there would be no wars.” Two decades later, Schneider escaped religious persecution from a non-skiing madman and fled to the U.S. He spread his knowledge of ski technique and freedom at Mt. Cranmore, N.H., thus becoming the father of American ski instruction.
I first read Hannes‘ words while I was living in a parking lot in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1947. They were true when he spoke them in 1919, they were true at the outbreak of World War II and they were true in 1947. And they are still true today.
Man’s fundamental drive is his search for freedom and equality. For no reason that I can explain, some people-especially skiers-answer to that instinctive search for freedom and equality more than others.
My skis have taken me to the many corners of the world in the search for freedom. During my first winter of skiing in Sun Valley, I learned that I could dine on free oyster crackers and ketchup for lunch, then ride on the same chairlift with Gary Cooper and his wife-or even Averell Harriman, the president of Union Pacific Railroad and founder of the resort. When we got to the top, we were all equals. When we weren’t skiing, Gary and his wife were paying the then unheard of price of $30 a night for a room in the lodge with a fireplace. My fireplace was the Coleman stove out behind my eight-foot-longtrailer that I cooked dinner on. We were still equals, though I was a little colder. Last winter, the Warren Miller film company sent a camera crew and skiers to Iran. They discovered a ski resort there that had some lifts for men only and some lifts for women only. But the lifts went to the top of the same hill, so that men and women, though segregated by law, found equal footing on the slopes.
Even though Iranian religion and culture are radically different from ours, the Warren Miller crew bonded with the locals. Was that because the cameramen got to ride on the women’s lift-and the sky still didn’t fall down? Or because they shared a passion for skiing, and the freedom and equality that goes with the sport? The camera crew got great footage of both the men and the women skiing, even though the women of Iran were treated as second-class citizens-regardless of the financial status of their husbands or fathers.
The same thing that occurred in Iran happened to me in Sun Valley, when my pair of skis broke down the barriers between myself and Gary Cooper…and even the man who created Sun Valley. At the top of any ski hill, gravity makes a mockery of what the various governments stand for-and further emphasizes what Hannes Schneider said more than 80 years ago.I can remember my first day on a pair of skis, and so can you-no matter how long ago it was. For me it was in 1937, at the end of a dirt road that led to Mt. Waterman. Two years later, a chairlift was installed that would later provide freedom for a lot of soldiers and sailors on leave during World War II, myself included.
In 1945, I had earned some leave from the Navy because our ship was sunk in a hurricane in the South Pacific during the war. I spent every day of my leave on a ropetow in Yosemite. I knew I was going to be sent back overseas again, but during that leave I had total freedom. I was free to ski as much and as fast as my adrenaline would allow.
What is closer to total freedom and equality than two skiers standing on a summit with blue sky overhead and a long steep mountainside of untracked powder snow below? You can go wherever you want, at whatever speed you want, using any style you want. And whoever you are skiing with will be waiting for you when you get there. It doesn’t really matter who gets there first, because both of you have your freedom on the way down. When Hannes Schneider said, “If everyone skied, there would be no wars” in 1919, there were no ski lifts of any kind, not even ropetows. The only way to get up a hill was by putting one foot in front of the other. There were no metal edges, metal skis, safety bindings, plastic boots, condominiums, snowmaking machines, rental cars, video ski lessons, aluminum ski poles, waterproof clothes or crash helmets. But the essence of skiing was still the same then, and each of the above was invented to help us enjoy it even more.
I wonder what would have happened if Osama bin Laden had bought a pair of skis and built a chairlift with all his money-instead of an AK 47 and a passport to Afghanistan.