Suicide Six Celebrates 80 Years!

A couple years ago the company that ran the Park City ski area was a little late with a payment on the leased land that made up the majority of their skiing terrain. When they went to make the payment, they found that Vail Resorts had negotiated a new lease with the landowners. A legal feud ensued (no pun intended), but Vail prevailed (pun intended) and now owns what was the Park City ski area.

It turns out that a similar plot line 80 years ago eventually led to the founding of Suicide Six!

White Cupboard InnIn late 1933 Wallace “Bunny” Bertram was living in Woodstock, Vermont at the White Cupboard Inn owned by Robert and Elizabeth Royce. Winter business at the Inn was primarily members of the Amateur Ski Club of New York who came to ski the nearby hills. There were no lifts so all the skiing had to be “earned” by hiking or skinning up those hills. Bunny Bertram was a ski instructor who helped coach the lesser experienced skiers.

As winter started, the Royces, some of their New York guests, and Bunny Bertram began discussing the possibility of some kind of lift that could pull skiers up the hill allowing more runs per day. They had heard about a rope tow powered by a car engine that had been built in Quebec the previous winter. The Royces obtained plans for the rope tow from the Quebec group. The Royces also had a topological expert map out the hills around Woodstock that would be appropriate for such a lift. The expert identified six hills and numbered them on the map from one to six. The Royces chose hill number two for their first ski lift which was a pasture owned by dairy farmer Clint Gilbert.

Rope TowThe Royces paid Gilbert $5 to lease the pasture for the season and retained local mechanic Dave Dodd to put together the first ski lift in the United States. Bunny Bertram was heavily involved in building that first lift, a 900 foot long rope tow powered by a Model T engine. The White Cupboard Skiway opened on January 18, 1934, charging $1 a day for use of the tow or fifty cents for a half day.

After a successful first season the Royces were prepared to offer Clint Gilbert $100 for the 1934-35 lease on his pasture. The story goes that they had wanted to present Gilbert with a crisp, new $100 bill, but by the time they obtained one, Bunny Bertram had already closed a lease-deal with Gilbert for $10 plus a percentage of the ski tow’s income. Bunny Bertram was in the ski business.

Bertram changed the name of the area to the Woodstock Ski Hill. He also made some changes to the original rope tow. The Model T was replaced with a more reliable electric motor provided by the Woodstock Electric Company – all Bertram had to do was pay for the electricity it used. To make the rope easier to ride, he also improved the pulley mechanism based on a Ferris wheel he had observed.

By the end of the 1934-35 season, the relationship between Bertram and Clint Gilbert had become strained. Worried that he wasn’t getting an accurate percentage of the ski business, Gilbert had attached Bertram’s bank account. Bertram decided to sever his relation with Gilbert and went looking for a new hill.

This led him to hill #6 on the topological map, only a short distance from Gilbert’s hill. Bertram would build a ski tow on the south facing side known as the Gully with the help of the Fisk family who bought the land and let Bertram use it rent-free. Bunny’s Ski Tows opened for the 1935-36 season.

Suicide Six

Image Courtesy Friends of Woodstock Winters

Even though the Gully is now part of Suicide Six, it wouldn’t be until 1937 that Bertram could procure the rest of hill #6. He was able to purchase the top of the hill and the land on the northeast side – the steep side. Legend has it that Bertram when looking at the steep northeast face of hill #6 had said “it would be suicide to ski straight down that face.” Later in thinking up a name for his new expanded area he recalled his comment and remembered the power of alliteration from his high school English class: hence Suicide Six!

Bob Stewart delivered the only correct answer to last week’s trivia question and he delivered it in person! Thanks, Bob.

Suicide Six begins celebrating its 80th birthday this year. The weather has delayed their opening until this past Tuesday, but they still plan a retro-themed birthday party on Saturday, January 30th. There will be prizes for the best period (any period) outfits, oldest skis, wildest ski hats, etc…

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Trivia 2016 Week 5

Suicide Six LogoHow did Suicide Six get its name?

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Rear-Entry Ski Boots: The Impossible Dream!

If you look up “love-hate relationship” in a thesaurus, one of the resulting synonyms will be “ski boots!” Ski boots are the most important piece of ski equipment whether you’re a beginner or an expert. But since the beginning of recreational skiing, ski boots have also been the source of the most frustration.

It’s difficult to imagine many skiers who truly love their ski boots. They can be difficult to get on or off. They can be too tight or too loose. They can even hurt. But we accept the struggle to get the performance.

However there are still some remnants of a radical group who thought ski boots should be easy to put on and comfortable. Those are the rear-entry ski boot fanatics.

Alden Hanson was the chief scientist for Dow Chemical in the late 1960s. He and his two sons Chris and Denny were also skiers. The elder Hanson had developed a flow material and eventually interested Lange boots in using it for their boot liners. Chris and Denny went to work for Lange and Lange-Flo was born. That’s a good-news-bad-news story that will have to wait for another column. The two brothers would be fired by Lange in 1969 –  not about Lange-Flo, but because they were working on their own radical new ski boot design.

Hanson Rear-Entry Ski BootsChris and Denny Hanson would start their own company, Hanson Industries, and produce the first rear-entry ski boot in 1971. Their father, Alden, officially holds the patent on the design.

I received several correct answers concerning who invented the rear-entry ski boot. The first was from a non-skiing friend, Anne Nichols Pierce, who is a court reporter. She knew the answer because she had been the recorder for a deposition from Alden Hanson in a skiing accident liability suit years ago! Other correct answers came from former Hanson ski boot owner Rick Scotti and Stowe Host Bill Kornrumpf.

Rear-entry boots were easy to put on, simple to close, and many people found them comfortable to wear. Hanson split the front of the boot and used a sliding clamp to adjust flex. Slide the clamp to the top for the stiffest flex, slide the clamp to the bottom for the softest flex.

The rear-entry design caught on quickly with recreational skiers. By 1975 Hanson was competing with Lange for market share. By 1980 they were producing 120,000 ski boots a year which was approximately 50% of the United States market. You saw a lot of the bright orange or lime green Hansons on the slopes.

But the Hansons made some bad business decisions including buying the Hexcel ski company. Then the 1982-83 ski season was hurt by a lack of snow which translated into poor sales. In 1984 the Hansons ran out of cash and sold the company to Daiwa of Japan. Hanson ski boots disappeared from the United States and European markets.

Salomon SX92 Rear-Entry Ski BootsMany ski boot companies would try to fill the void left by Hanson’s departure by introducing rear-entry models. Even Lange would have some rear-entry boots. However Salomon would have the most success in the rear-entry ski boot market. They actually went after the high performance racing market with their SX-9x series that had a more complicated design to adjust hold-down and flex. Just like the Hanson they caught on quickly and developed a fanatical following, but again only with recreational skiers.

Bob Walker's Salomon SX93's

Bob Walker's boots in 2004

Bob Walker took up skiing “late in life” during the 1980s. He started with Salomon’s first rear-entry boot the SX-90. After ten plus years he upgraded to the SX-93 which he then skied on until about 2005. “They were warm, comfortable, easy to get on and…I liked the idea that you could adjust the stiffness by just sliding a control on the front of the boot.” Bob now logs more than a million vertical feet of skiing a season in the Lake Tahoe region with conventional front-entry boots.

Somewhere in the late 1990s ski boot companies began to retreat from rear-entry boot models. To my knowledge only Alpina still advertises a rear-entry, medium-priced model now. The accepted explanation is that conventional front-closing ski boots are now easier to put on and more comfortable so there’s no need for rear-entry models. Hmmm? Am I the only one who doesn’t buy that explanation?

Meanwhile I’m betting if we get some snow this season, I’ll still see someone using 25-year-old Salomon SX92’s probably on some skinny Dynastars! Say what you will, at least their boots are comfortable!

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Trivia 2016 Week 4

Who invented rear-entry ski boots?

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60th Anniversary for Buckle Ski Boots!

This year marks the 60th anniversary of buckle ski boots! That’s right, they were introduced in 1955. I didn’t receive any correct answers for that trivia question from last week. Bob Stewart did guess 1952 which was a little too early. I actually expected people to come in with answers in the 1960s because that’s what I would have guessed. However Henke introduced the first buckle ski boot in 1955 and of course, we’re talking leather boots in those days.

U.S. Patent for Buckle Ski BootsIn 1954 Hans Martin, a Swiss bike racer and stunt pilot, obtained a patent on a “Ski Boot Lacing System” that involved “lace loops” and “tensioning means”. You won’t find the word ‘buckle’ anywhere in the patent (you can view the original patent online.)  A Czechoslovakian contributor to my blog points out that the wording was intentional to maintain the uniqueness of the system. Other patents already mentioned boots and buckles so there could have been a chance of prior discovery. Anyway, think of the “lace loops” as the bails and the “tensioning means” as the buckles. Henke, a Swiss company, bought the rights to the patent from Martin.

Henke used the memorable, famous slogan “are you still lacing while others are racing”. Despite the technological advancement and catchy slogan, buckle ski boots didn’t catch on that fast. Racers were suspicious and ski shops were hesitant. Skiing historian Seth Masia says that Henke sales reps would get laughed at when they mentioned a buckle ski boot. Buckles and boots drew up the connotation of galoshes and “Who would want to wear galoshes to ski?”

It’s difficult to believe for those of us who used laced ski boots that we skiers were hesitant to adopt the buckle boots. Most good laced boots had at least two sets of laces to contend with: an inner boot with a speed lace and the outer boot. Putting the boots on took time and adjusting them to the desired tightness was often trial-and-error. Tightening or loosening a boot certainly wasn’t something you did outdoors on a cold day! With buckles you can simply loosen them for the ride up and tighten them for the run down. In fact that was one of the advantages mentioned in the original patent.

Henke SpeedfitIn the early 1960s Henke would license other boot manufacturers to use their patented process and buckle boots began to catch on.  The “year of the buckle boot” would be 1963, according to my Czechoslovakian source. By then Henke was the number one ski boot producer in the world.

Interestingly, Bob Lange made his first plastic boot prototypes using laces, but realized that he needed the mechanical advantage of buckles to tighten the stiffer plastic boots.  Lange launched the beginning of the plastic boot era in 1965. Unlike buckles, plastic boots would quickly gain acceptance and proliferate. Soon there were no laces only buckles.

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Trivia 2016 Week 3

What year was the first buckle ski boot introduced?

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Jackson Hole Ski Resort Celebrates 50th Anniversary

Rendezvous Mountain at Jackson Hole“We came all this way and it doesn’t look any bigger than Stowe!” Those were the words of Diantha Peters as we got our first look at Rendezvous Mountain, the mountain that is the Jackson Hole Ski Resort. It was February 1971 and thirteen of us had traveled from Vermont for a week ski vacation in Jackson Hole.

It was Diantha’s first trip west so she could be excused for not understanding the perspective difference between our mountains and those out west. From a distance they don’t seem that different from ours, but up close they are broader with more vertical. Rendezvous Mountain has over 4000 feet of vertical, almost twice what we have at Stowe.

During the two-plus mile tram ride up the mountain, Diantha became quiet. That could have been because she no longer thought Rendezvous Mountain was the same size as Stowe. Or it could have been because the tiers of cliffs beneath us were intimidating her. I know that Jackson Hole was the only ski area that intimidated me riding up the lift.

Jackson Hole Ski Resort is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The ski area was the idea of Paul McCollister who partnered with developer Alex Morley to form the Jackson Hole Ski Corporation in 1963. They wanted to build a European style area with big vertical and they believed Rendezvous Mountain offered that and more. They built a tram to service all 4000 vertical of Rendezvous plus some chairlifts on the smaller adjacent Apres Vous mountain. At the base they started a European-style cluster of lodgings and called it Teton Village. The area officially opened in November of 1965.

Teton Gravity Research (TGR) has made a series of videos honoring Jackson Hole’s 50th with the overall title of “Born to Be Wild”. You can view them at the Jackson Hole website. They are fantastic videos that combine old scenes with new scenes. They do cover the history of the resort, but more importantly they capture the spirit of the resort. Watching them took me back to my first visit in 1971 and triggered this week’s column.

Tetons in WinterThe Jackson Hole valley with the Tetons as the backdrop is one of the most spectacular settings in the world. The Tetons are all over 12,000 feet with the Grand Teton reaching almost 14,000 feet. The views are stunning in both summer and winter. The area gets a lot more visitors in the summer due to the proximity of Yellowstone National Park.

When you’re skiing at Jackson Hole you may be forgiven for not noticing those views. There’s a lot of steep challenging terrain that demands your attention. In 1971, Rendezvous Bowl near the top of the tram was classified as intermediate. It was steep enough that if you fell you would slide all the way down. I know because one of our group did just that!

Of course the most famous trail at Jackson Hole is Corbet’s Couloir, an example of inbounds extreme skiing. It’s a rite of passage for Jackson Hole skiers – just a ten to twelve foot drop off the cornice, a couple of token turns in the narrow top section, and then it opens up into the wide Tensleep Bowl. Thankfully while we were there in 1971, conditions did not support dropping in! (We started with heavy spring conditions which then froze solid!)

Jakson Hole S & S and Corbet's CouloirsThere are many other inbounds extreme routes at Jackson Hole not to mention those that technically lie outside the area boundaries. One located right next to Corbet’s is the S & S Couloir. You enter this from a slot on the side of the cliff. It requires a twenty foot drop with a 90 degree turn while you’re in the air. The landing zone may be six feet wide, but from twenty feet up it looks about the width of your skis. And your problems aren’t over since you still have to negotiate a left turn before the cliff walls widen out and you join the runout from Corbet’s.

No one correctly identified the S & S couloir this week. By the way, the couloir gets its name from the first people to ski the route. Two ski patrollers, John Simms and Charlie Sands, were the first to drop in and hence the S & S name.

Those TGR videos I mentioned earlier contain some great shots of both Corbet’s and the S & S. These include Tom LeRoy’s famous flip into Corbet’s featured in the 1968 ski film “Ski the Outer Limits”.

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Trivia 2016 Week 2

Jackson Hole 50th AnniversaryAt Jackson Hole Ski Resort, what is the name of the even more extreme couloir on skier’s right of Corbets Couloir?

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One of My Ski Heroes: Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson (photo by Bob Mero)

Photo by Bob Mero

He was a dapper figure on the slopes, skiing in a shirt and tie plus a Scottish tam on his head. His skiing style was pure RetroSki: skis locked together with exaggerated counter-rotation of the upper body. Then there was his infectious smile with sparkling blue eyes highlighted by bushy, white eyebrows.

The first time I remember meeting Jim Thompson was when a friend and I bought a house on Stebbins Road in Jeffersonville. That would have been 1972. We noticed this slightly-built gentleman (anyone older than we were would be a gentleman) riding an American bicycle – those were the bikes with one speed, coaster brakes, and larger tires. He would ride back-and-forth by our house, peddling aggressively up the slight grade. At some point we interrupted his laps and introduced ourselves. Jim lived a short distance from our house on the corner of Iron Gate Road and Stebbins. When we asked what his biking was all about, his answer was a simple “I’m getting in shape for skiing!”

Although there was nearly a 30 year difference in our ages, Jim and I had some things in common. Both of us had moved to Vermont to work for IBM and ski, with the emphasis on “ski”! Both of us loved to talk skiing. Even on the hottest day in July I knew all I had to do was drop by Jim’s office and we could talk skiing.

Jim would retire from IBM and I would move from Jeffersonville, but our paths would continue to cross over the years.

Jim was on the ski patrol at Smugglers. Anytime I happened to ski midweek at Smugglers when he was patrolling, he’d recruit me to help with sweep. That usually meant I’d get Doc Dempsey’s. Jim was more a “cruiser” than a “bump basher”.

Later in the 1980s I ran into Jim skiing Stowe. He had turned seventy and could ski Stowe for free! Jim became my hero and I had a life goal.

So when did Stowe offer free skiing for those seventy and older? Patty Foltz had the correct answer and a first-hand account. It was 1978 when Sepp Ruschp turned seventy. Patty says “I remember him (Sepp) standing in my office (I worked for his successor, Vern Johnson, at the time) and making the announcement.”

Patty wasn’t sure when the benefit was discontinued except that it would have been after Sepp’s death in 1990. So far no one has been able to pin down the exact year that the policy was changed, but it had to be sometime between 1990 and 1995.

Back to Jim Thompson. Jim’s daughters tell me he did not take kindly to the loss of his lifetime free skiing benefit at Stowe. But apparently by 1996 he had recovered. When I started Hosting at Stowe who else was already a Stowe Host? Jim Thompson.

Jim Thompson in his 90sJim would turn 80 while still being a Stowe Host and I had a new life goal: still be actively skiing at 80.

Jim would continue skiing until he was 93. That’s a goal I can’t realistically set for myself. Jim passed away on October 27th at the age of 97!

We all have skiing heroes who inspired us. Some are famous personalities with recognizable names and some are personal with less well-known names. Jim Thompson was one of my skiing heroes!

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Trivia 2016 Week 1

Stowe StickerWhat year did Stowe institute free skiing for those 70 or older? And the harder question, what year did they take away this benefit?

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