Alf Engen

Alf Engen – The Old Man Of The Mountain – Powder segment from Howie Arnstad on Vimeo.

“I have always loved skiing and never had a bad day. Some may not have been as good as others, but nonetheless, I have never had a bad day.”

Many of us have probably said something along those lines, but this specific quote came from a particularly authoritative source: Alf Engen.

Alf Engen was born in Norway, the oldest of three brothers. Growing up in Norway, Alf excelled at soccer, hockey, speed skating, cross country skiing, and ski jumping. When Alf’s father passed away, Alf became the de facto head of the family.

In 1929 at the age of 20, Alf came to the United States to actually play professional soccer. Apparently there was some professional soccer in the U.S. back then.  However, Alf drew more attention with his ski jumping than he did with his soccer. He joined a group of mostly Norwegians who toured around the country putting on jumping exhibitions.

Alf Engen Jumping at AltaBy 1931 Alf Engen had settled in Salt Lake City where over the next two years he would be joined by his two brothers Sverre and Kaare(Corey) and his mother Martha. Also in 1931 Alf began competing in ski jumping and cross country competitions. Alf would win the United States National Jumping title eight times between then and 1946. In the process of winning those titles, Alf set world record distances multiple times. He also won the combined jumping and cross country U.S. title twice.

Alf was selected to go to the 1936 Winter Olympics for the United States, but none other than Avery Brundage stepped in to block his participation. No, it wasn’t because he was an immigrant (had to get that dig in.) Alf had appeared on a box of Wheaties so Brundage said that made Alf a professional. The fact was that Alf received no money for his appearance, but did receive lots of Wheaties. He said, “I think I gave everyone in Salt Lake City free Wheaties!”  Alf got some measure of revenge since in competitions following the Olympics he would beat both the Gold and Silver medalists.

Now most skiers associate Alf Engen with two things: Alta and powder skiing. Well, I’m getting to that.

In the early 1930s Alf was the foreman of a CCC crew whose mission was the reforestation of the Wasatch range in Utah. This led him to explore Little Cottonwood Canyon and recognize its advantageous location for snow and downhill skiing. Alf was instrumental in working with the National Forest Service to design and build the Alta ski area.

While undoubtedly Alf had done some downhill skiing at least on his cross country skis, he was not an accomplished downhill skier. But by 1938 Alf had become a good enough downhill skier to be hired as a ski instructor at Sun Valley. He also began competing in downhill and slalom races. In 1947 Alf was the United States National Champion in both downhill and slalom which were the only events contested in those days. While I didn’t confirm this, I believe Alf Engen is the only person who won national titles in all four disciplines: cross country, jumping, downhill, and slalom.

Alf was named coach of the United States women’s ski team for the 1948 Olympics. That was the Olympics where Gretchen Fraser won the first ever Gold medal for the United States in alpine skiing.

1948 was also the year Alf returned to Alta to head up the ski school, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1989. Teaching skiing was his passion. “Medals, who needs medals!….But to give a good lesson, that’s what is important to me.”

Alf Engen Skiing PowderAlf Engen championed a new technique for skiing powder. Conventional wisdom had always been to keep the skis working independently and make wide sweeping turns. Alf believed that keeping the skis close together to act more like one surface provided more stability and allowed for shorter turns. Most RetroSkiers learned to ski powder in this manner.

Alf Engen was a bear of a man, but on skis in powder he was a light, graceful dancer. Seeing him disappear completely enveloped in snow only to reappear for the next turn inspired a generation of skiers to join in that dance. It also is why he is called “the Father of Powder Skiing.”

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Trivia 2017 Week 15

Who is known as “The Father of Powder Skiing”?

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Grant Reynolds

Grant Reynolds How many seasons have you been skiing? Grant Reynolds is celebrating his seventy eighth consecutive ski season making him a true RetroSkier!

Grant Reynolds in 1938 (3 years old!)Grant’s skiing started as a child on Christmas day 1938 in Saint Albans. By the time he was in high school, he was one of two students that ran Sabin’s Pasture rope tow in Montpelier. The other student operated the rope tow and Grant says “I did everything else: organized packing crews, kept the stove in the warming hut going, sold tickets, policed the lift line, and threw snow in the inevitable ruts.”

At Bates College, Grant supported his skiing by working on others’ skis and selling second hand skis, many of which he obtained in Stowe. More importantly, it was at Bates where Grant met fellow skier Jo Trogler who would later become his wife.

After completing law school at Columbia, Grant and Jo would become Pennsylvania skiers. They raised their family skiing at Ski Roundtop where Jo was an instructor and Grant a race coach.

Grant Reynolds with his 1955 Kastle's (215 cm!)In 1970 Grant became a ski collector almost by accident. He was trying to sell his last pair of wooden racing skis, Erbacher “Pepi Schweigers,” which he had purchased in Pforzheim, Germany in 1964. There were no takers so he kept them! After that he began obtaining older skis dating back to the early 1900s. He concentrated primarily on collecting racing skis and kept adding to his collection as ski racing evolved.

Grant stopped collecting in 2015 at the age of eighty. His wife told him it was time to start offloading rather than collecting. Grant who now lives in Tinmouth, Vermont, donated the majority of his collection (over 150 pairs of skis) to the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum.

The Museum is featuring fifty pairs of skis from the Grant Reynolds collection in its current exhibit. In addition to those Erbachers some of the other notable skis include 1955 Stein Eriksen “Streamlines” purchased at Maurius Eriksen’s shop in Oslo, and a rare pair of 1975 Sohler “Phantoms” made in Richford, Vermont. That’s correct, Sohler had a factory in Vermont at one time.

Craft Skis and Craft Brews March 15thYou have an opportunity to meet Grant Reynolds, see some of his ski collection, and hear from several current Vermont craft ski makers. The Museum is sponsoring “Craft Skis & Craft Brews Launch Party” on Wednesday March 15th . The party begins at 6PM and admission is free.

The highlight of the evening will be a panel discussion moderated by Dave Schmidt, a longtime ski and snowboard industry consultant. The panel will include Jason Levinthal (J Skis in Burlington); Vin Faraci (White Room skis in Hyde Park); Cyrus Schenk (Renoun skis); Lars Whitman (Silo skis in Richmond); and Oliver Blackman who makes skis for his own use.

Oh, and there will be Alchemist Focal Banger on tap!

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Trivia 2017 Week 14

Who is the greatest American male alpine ski racer of all time? And who is the greatest American female?

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Hermann Goellner

Stein Eriksen was the first to popularize doing a flip on skis. Wherever Stein was the Director of Skiing, part of his contract was a weekly event for people to see him perform his flip.

However Stein never advanced his aerial maneuvers beyond his incredibly stylish, full layout front flip. He left it to others to explore new, gravity-defying aerials.

Hermann Goellner at KillingtonOne of the people to pick up where Stein left off was Hermann Goellner. Goellner was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1943. He was a young ski racing prodigy winning an Austrian Junior National Championship in 1960. Injuries would curtail his own racing career, but he came to Killington as a coach in 1964.

Fooling around in Austria, Goellner learned to do a back flip on skis. So at Killington he worked on perfecting both back and front flips. He attracted the attention of another ski instructor at Killington, Tom LeRoy. The two began working together and also probably pushing each other to try new jumps. Killington featured regular exhibitions by the two to entertain skiing visitors. This included side-by-side flips with Goellner doing a back flip and LeRoy a front flip.

Killington was big on learn-to-ski weeks in the 1960s. The groups first met on Monday to be sorted into ability levels and assigned instructors. The line-up would culminate with “by the end of the week you’ll be able to ski like this!” Then Goellner and LeRoy would come flipping into view.

LeRoy would be the first to perform a forward double, quickly matched by Goellner. Goellner would be the first to perform a triple. Goellner was also the first to perform what was labeled a “Moebius Flip” – a full-twisting front flip. Actually Goellner could do either a front or backward Moebius.

Goellner and LeRoy became part of the Hart Skis Demonstration Team joining Art Furrer, Roger Staub, and Corky Fowler. Their collective efforts were documented by Roger Brown and Barry Corbett in a series of ski movies.

In the 1968 “Ski the Outer Limits” LeRoy and Goellner perform flips into Corbett’s Couloir at Jackson Hole. In those early days at Jackson Hole, very few ever dropped into Corbett’s much less launched themselves into it. The 1970 movie was called “The Moebius Flip” and featured Goellner performing the Moebius.

Goellner and LeRoy became pioneers in the Freestyle movement of the 1970s. They particularly were influential in aerials becoming a separate event. I wonder what they think of the event they inspired now? It’s become extremely specialized and in my opinion, closer to gymnastics or diving than skiing. A Moebius Flip today probably wouldn’t even qualify as a competitive jump. Goellner, LeRoy, and others were skiers first and gymnasts second. They generally used full-length, all-around skis for their aerial adventures. The five-foot-six Goellner skied on 205s!

Hermann Goellner Rock ClimbingHermann Goellner is now in his 70s, but still extremely fit. He is a world class climber who still tackles advanced climbs(5.10-5.12). He also can take credit for inventing and patenting the break-away slalom gate. Anyone watching the alpine World Championships and Mikaela Shiffrin over the past week saw a lot of these in action.

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Trivia 2017 Week 13

What is a Moebius Flip and who was the first to perform it?

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Gelandesprung

What is a gelandesprung? Both Nancy Twitty and Willie White had the correct answer. It is a jump initiated by using your ski poles, usually off some natural terrain feature. In fact I’ve always heard that gelandesprung was German for “terrain jump.”

Retro-Ski Book CoverNancy described one variation on the jump as “the show-off’s upgrade of a kickturn!” This variation where you flip the skis 180 degrees and end up facing the other direction we always called a “Window Jump.” Check out Roman Wickart doing one of these on the cover of my book.

Nancy went on to mention seeing Rick Moulton’s documentary on Mad River which was shown on VPT. She ski-bummed there in 1953 and the movie featured many people she knew in those days. That was also when she started racing. Allen Clark got her a start in the Eastern Championships and she finished third in the downhill and sixth in the combined.

As skiing popularity grew in the 1950s and 60s, gelandesprungs got bigger and longer. In 1964 Alta’s Alf Engen organized the first gelandesprung contest. The results were decided strictly on distance, longest jump wins. In effect it was ski jumping on alpine equipment including poles. There was another difference in that the jumps usually included a kicker which Nordic ski jumps lack.

Gelandesprung CompetitorGelandesprung competitions are still held at various ski areas. One of the largest is held at the Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival where the world record distance of 374 was set by Rolf Wilson. Locally Sugarbush has a contest every spring at Mount Ellen. The location is appropriate since before it became part of Sugarbush, Glen Ellen sponsored the gelandesprung contest. They held it on the last pitch right above the base lodge which offered a great viewing opportunity. This year’s event will be on April 1st and mark the closing weekend at Mount Ellen.

I was never much of a gelandespung-er, but peer pressure sometimes succeeded in getting me into the air. Of course in those days you had to rely on natural terrain kickers. One of my favorites was always the last mound on Whirlaway before it joins Sterling over on Spruce. Granted you had to take a running start at it from about halfway down Whirlaway, but you went through the dip and the upslope on that mound just naturally launched you. By the way, if you try that today make sure you post somebody on the Sterling side to let you know the coast is clear.

Soon people added creativity to their gelandesprungs. There were spread eagles, side-kicks, tip drops, daffies, and even helicopters. In the 1970s freestyle would take over with new terminology and much more elaborate jumps.

Today ski areas build jumps orders of magnitude bigger than anything we ever imagined. This allows the new generation to do their Cork 7’s, Rodeo 5’s, or Cab 1440’s! But remember it all started with the gelandesprung.

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Trivia 2017 Week 12

What is a gelandesprung?

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Nansen Ski Club

Have you ever skied off an actual ski jump? No, not the features that are now common in terrain parks at most ski areas, but a real ski jump.

Intervale Ski Jump

Intervale Ski Jump

The closest ski jump to where I grew up was a small jump at the Intervale ski area. The high school ski team trained there in the era when even high school ski meets included jumping. By the time I was skiing at Intervale in 1965-66, the jump had fallen into disrepair and was no longer in use. However it was still there and boys-will-be-boys. I learned a lot about ski jumping in my one trip down that ski jump on alpine skis.

First, even on a small jump, the inrun seems a long time to let your skis run straight! Second, you really have to jump to launch yourself into the air. There is no kicker at the end of the jump. In fact, the launch point on a ski jump actually still angles down, the opposite of a kicker. Third, I learned that many jumps have a relatively flat spot before the usually steep landing slope begins. The design assumes you did jump. Since I didn’t jump, I basically dropped off the end, landing on that flat spot with a teeth-jarring impact.

Stowe Ski Jump

Stowe Ski Jump on Marshall Hill

Ski jumps spread around the Northeast before the advent of alpine skiing. In 1921 Stowe hosted its first Winter Carnival and it included ski jumping on a jump built on Marshall Hill. That first Stowe Winter Carnival jumping event drew an estimated 1000 spectators. Last week I wrote about the Harris Hill jump which was built in 1922.

Another historic New England ski jump has been in the news lately. The Nansen Ski Jump in Berlin, New Hampshire, was built in 1936 by the Nansen Ski Club. The Nansen Ski Club is still active supporting a network of cross country trails near Berlin and can claim to be the oldest ski club in the United States!

Nansen Ski Club LogoIn the late 1800s, Berlin, New Hampshire, was a logging and mill town. Immigrants from the Scandinavian countries were drawn to the area for jobs in the emerging wood product industries. They brought with them their traditions and their love of winter sports. In 1872 the Skiklubben Club was founded to promote Nordic skiing in the region. Initially membership was restricted to Scandinavian males, but by the turn of the century, the club opened its membership and changed its name. It was eventually renamed the Nansen Ski Club, named for Fridtjof Nansen who was the first person to ski across Greenland.

As the club evolved it built ski jumps of ever-increasing size. This culminated in the “Big Nansen” which was an 80-meter jump completed by the 1937 jumping season. Unlike the Brattleboro jump which was built into the hill, the Nansen was a steel structure sitting on top of the hill. It rose straight up 171 feet. It must have been a real workout just to climb up the stairs to the start platform. And that start platform was no place for anyone that had a fear of heights.

Nansen Ski Jump

Nansen Ski Jump in the Good Old Days

Much like Harris Hill, the Nansen jump hosted many important tournaments during jumping’s heyday. This included the 1938 Olympic trials and four U.S. National Championships, with the last in 1972. My parents took me to see a couple of those big competitions when I was a small child. I don’t have much recollection, but I do remember that it was the biggest crowd I’d ever seen.

Nansen Ski Jump

The Ramp Before and After Repair

The Nansen Jump closed in 1988, but is undergoing a temporary reprieve for a special event later this season. The State of New Hampshire and Red Bull – now there’s an interesting partnership – have financed a restoration of the jump. The special event will be an exhibition jump featuring Sarah Hendrickson. Sarah is a U.S. ski jumper who won the World Championship in 2013 at the age of 19. Injuries have limited her results since then, but she hopes to make a comeback in preparation for the 2018 Olympics. The choice of the Nansen to kick-off her comeback is a tribute to ski jumping history and her New Hampshire roots as a native of Plymouth, New Hampshire. The actual date has not been set yet.

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Trivia 2017 Week 11

What ski club is the oldest, continuously operating ski club in the United States?

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