Development of Skiing in the Western U.S.
By Tom Washing ’63 Founding Partner, Early Stage Technology Businesses Investment Fund With Blair C. Wood ’30, George W. Wood ’67, and Kevin Whitcher ’99
The business visionary who launched the expansion of skiing into the western United States was W. Averell Harriman, his point of departure being a resort he founded in Ketchum, Idaho: Sun Valley. The skier protagonist of the narrative was a Dartmouth graduate whose entire adult life appeared destined to interlace with the critical ideas, places and events that initiated, and ultimately accelerated, the growth of skiing in the western United States: Dick Durrance ’39.
Harriman, who would become a prominent diplomat, cabinet member and Governor of New York, was a successful investment banker and railroad executive when he founded Sun Valley in 1936. An avid skier who had visited many of the elegant ski resorts in Europe (he was particularly fond of St. Moritz, Switzerland), Harriman was the Chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad and was enamored with the prospect of boosting the company’s patronage by creating the first destination ski resort in the United States on one of his western rail lines. When a Union Pacific employee observed that the company spent more money for snow removal on the rail line to Ketchum, Idaho, than anywhere else in the country, the location for Harriman’s new ski resort was no longer in question.
The prominent role Dartmouth would play in the advancement of skiing in the western United States was activated when Harriman hired Charley Proctor ’28 as a consultant to advise him in designing the new resort and to teach Ketchum locals to be ski guides. Proctor had been the captain of the 1927 Dartmouth ski team and had competed for the United States in the 1928 Winter Olympics, which had been held in St. Moritz. He had already served as a technical advisor for several emerging ski resorts, including Yosemite’s Badger Pass. Proctor helped design the first ski runs and assisted in devising and locating the early ski lifts at Sun Valley. The first of these lifts was installed in late 1936 on what became known as Proctor Mountain and is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
During the 1930s, the Dartmouth ski team was coached by Swiss skiing champion Walter Prager and was considered, as one writer observed, “the New York Yankees of collegiate skiing.”The Dartmouth team was generally acknowledged to be the preeminent college ski team in the United States and, possibly, the world. By the winter of 1936-37, although he was only a sophomore at Dartmouth, Dick Durrance was widely recognized as the best Alpine skier in the nation and was the luminary of the Dartmouth ski team. Although the American-born Durrance had been raised in Germany and had skied throughout Europe for years, he had never skied in the western U.S. until 1935 when he, along with several other members of the Dartmouth ski team, attended the US Olympic tryouts on Mt. Rainier in Washington in the spring of that year. Even by European standards, he and his Dartmouth teammates were impressed with the mountain.
Having thus experienced the exhilaration of western skiing for the first time, when Harriman invited him to participate in the first Sun Valley International Open (soon to be dubbed the Harriman Cup) to be held in March 1937, Durrance leapt at the opportunity, not only to participate but also to enjoy his first airplane ride which was paid for by the resort. Durrance won the first of his three Harriman Cup victories that year, the first time an American had prevailed over the best European skiers in international competition. Harriman’s elation over an American winning the first international race at Sun Valley persuaded him to change the name of the mountain on which the race was held to Durrance Mountain. The country’s first major destination ski resort now had two mountains named after Dartmouth skiers. With this historic victory, Dick Durrance’s name and future became inextricably bound to Sun Valley.