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Originally published February 2002 issue of SKI Magazine
In 1939, a narrow, dusty, dirt road led west from the small, almost abandoned mining town of Ketchum, Idaho, to the base of Mt. Baldy. There, an even narrower ski trail had been cut the summer before from the top of 9,000-foot Mt. Baldy. Just upstream from this point, where the trail met the valley floor, the Big Wood River is joined by a hot sulfur springs, creating natural pools to soak your tired body in-even during the below-zero-days of January.
On the eastern side of Mt. Baldy, the world’s first chairlift carried skiers across the Big Wood’s steaming waters. The River Run chairlift could carry skiers up 3,000 vertical feet to the top of Baldy in less than half an hour. Skiing was coming of age in America, even as the ravages of war were beginning to race across Europe.
Dick Durrance, a young man from Florida by way of Germany and an eighth-place finish in the 1936 Olympics, was the pre-race favorite to win the first downhill ever held from the top of Baldy. It was named after the visionary who founded Sun Valley, Idaho: Averill Harriman. This downhill race would prove to be the toughest that America had to offer.
Halfway down the winding, narrow trail, there was an awesome Steilhang that faced due east. It had a wicked transition and a left turn at the bottom that could give any skier more speed than his gear and body could handle. The skis were 7-feet, 6-inches tall, stiff and made of hickory-without plastic bottoms or offset edges. Bindings didn’t release in any direction, no matter how you fell.
Because the trail was so steep, course designer Friedl Pfeifer had cut seven turns halfway down the Warm Springs course. Each one required a rather abrupt turn to miss the trees on either side, turns that the better racers tried to straighten out as much as possible for more speed. As they did, they came dangerously close to the trees bordering the trail.
Dick, with all of the skill born of a half-dozen years of ski-racing experience, kept looking and looking for a faster line through these seven harrowing turns. The race course committee believed that since the trees were so close together, they would become control gates, so no artificial gates were necessary. There simply was no straight line through the trees for a shortcut.
Dick spent a lot of time inspecting this part of the course. Peering through the trees, he looked at them every which way-until he finally figured it out. If one tree in particular was cut down, he could straighten out all seven turns and save an enormous amount of time. Why not?
Late in the afternoon the day before the race, he climbed up Warm Springs with a saw, a shovel and a friend. Together they chopped down that one tree that stood in the way of the secret shortcut. Once they dragged the tree out of the way, they returned to cover the pine needles with snow. Now that Dick had his racing line figured out, the two found another smaller tree, sawed it down and then carried it gently over to where the first tree had been cut down. They propped it upright in the same position as the original. After half a dozen rehearsals of quick tree removal by Dick’s partner, the plan was set.
As soon as it was determined which racing number Dick would have, his partner would simply count the racers as they went by and then yank the substitute tree out of the way so Dick could take his short cut. He wouldn’t have to make the seven turns. Once Dick raced by, his partner would reinsert the tree so no one else could go as straight.
Everything worked perfectly as the first three racers roared by, making their much slower wide turns around all seven turns. “Yank out the tree, now!” Dick roared as he flew through on his one-of-a-kind straight line. The substitute tree was immediately reinserted as he sped on down the course without missing a single control gate.
Dick forgot one thing, however. He sailed out of the straight line at such a high rate of speed that he missed the final turn at the bottom of the course. A right turn, to the finish line.
Instead, he skidded on and on until he wound up splashing around, knee deep in the Big Wood River. While taking up precious time, he somehow managed to clamber out of the ice cold water, climb back up to the finish line and dive across it to win the race by two full seconds.
Dick was the first winner of the Harriman Cup. But for all of his cunning and skill, he still had to ride back to the Lodge in his wet ski boots and clothing.
Three days later, Dick was fined $2 by the Forest Service for chopping down a tree on government property without a permit.