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  • Jane Golden

How Skiing Started in the Mt Washington Valley

In the Beginning: It was a long time ago when Norman Libby and a companion made an ascent of Mount Washington's western slope in February 1905 and slid down on skis. Skiing had come to this country as early as 1840 from Scandinavia and in the north country of New Hampshire it had been used as a winter mode of transportation before it became a sport in the late 1800s.

Growing erratically, downhill skiing attracted the young and adventurous to its ranks and slowly spread in popularity in the ‘20s to a level where colleges formed outing clubs which traveled to remote areas where wide open spaces and slopes were suitable for the sport.

One such region where skiers could find plentiful terrain and needed accommodations was the Mount Washington Valley where a variety of skiing from above timberline to gentle cow pastures could be found. Members of the Dartmouth Outing Club were skiing the very top of New England’s Mt. Washington, as early as 1913.

By the time the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Camp opened in the winter of 1926-27 the D.O.C. was making regular trips up the Carriage Road, across the AMC Raymond Path and into the floor of Tuckerman Ravine on snowshoes. From there they climbed to the rim and in good weather continued on to the 6,288 foot summit cone from where they would make their descent back to the Ravine. It wasn’t until 1931, though, that anyone was daring enough to ski the treacherous headwall.

The organized sport of skiing in this country was still chiefly involved with jumping and cross-country and there was little direction taken to develop downhill skiing. It was a “learn on your own” experience and it was attractive to the few rugged individuals involved. But, meanwhile in Europe where “winter sports” thrived, downhill skiing had firmly caught hold of the public’s fancy at the alpine resorts.

Growth here was slow by comparison but in the early ‘30s things began to happen. The Depression gave some needed help to the sport. Just two years after the Fire Trail was cleared to the Ravine, which opened that area up substantially, FDR created the Civil Conservation Corps. Joe Dodge who was an avid skier and also the head of the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Camp took advantage of the free labor that was available and put it to work.

With Dodge as a prime mover, the Class A racing trail was laid out on Wildcat Mountain in 1934. The ski terrain in the Gulf of Slides was linked to the Pinkham Notch Camp by a trail, and the John Sherburne was cut in 1935, opening a direct ski route from Tuckerman Ravine to the notch. Since the trails were all on Forest Service land they were all open to the public.

Elsewhere in the valley below there was a continuing build-up of winter guests during these years spending weekends and vacations at the few motels that remained open for the winter and at farm houses that took in boarders. Winter activities such as snowshoeing, tobogganing, ice skating, and bobsledding had always been popular and had attracted some winter clientele even before the increase in skiing’s popularity.

By the mid-thirties most inns and farms with slopes on the premises were especially catering to ski guests. Ski touring was popular at this time and the many wide pastures were well suited for this climbing and sliding activity.

Ski tows were in the developmental stages but were sufficient to pull skiers up the hill. It was behind the Moody Farm (now Whitneys’ Inn at Black Mt.) that one of these early prototypes was introduced. Moody’s had long been one of the most popular lodging establishments because of its excellent skiing. High above Jackson, this farm had acres of open pastures and nearby was a C.C.C. trail on Doublehead Mountain.

In 1935, Edwin Moody, George Morton, an investor of sorts who was a mechanic at a local garage, and Phil Robertson, the head of the local electric company, put their resources together and built the first overhead cable ski lift in the country in the pasture behind Moody’s. The cable had ropes hanging from it that people held onto as it pulled them up the hill.

The year after Bill Whitney bought the farm with the intention to start a full-time ski area, Mr. Whitney improved the lift by devising an h-shaped hanger on the cable and attached wooden poles to them. Next he ordered 72 shovel handles from Sears and Roebuck by mail-order and when they arrived they were put on the poles and thus the shovel handle lift was finished.

The year before while recovering from a skiing mishap a man names Carroll Reed read in a winter-sports magazine that one day there would be ski schools in the United States as there were in Europe. Up to that time there were only individual ski instructors who gave private lessons. The concept of a full staff teaching public classes of varying abilities with a director overseeing the entire program had not been explored here.

The following year the Eastern Slope Ski Club (ESSC) was formed by a large group of area businessmen who realized the value in promoting the region as a ski resort. Approaching this group, Carroll Reed conveyed his thoughts of establishing a ski school that would serve all the Eastern Slope Region and introduce non-skiers to the sport. The club agreed with his idea and Reed set up his school in Jackson.

Next, with the help of his good friend and skiing companion, Mary Bird, who was an Olympic sker, he was able to entice her friend, Benno Rybizka, one of the ski instructors at the world’s famous school of Hannes Schneider in Austria, to come and direct the Eastern Slope Ski School.

The arrival of Rybizka in this country was highlighted by a visit of Hannes Schneider, who came here to promote skiing at a ski show in Boston. The publicity was tremendous and significant because Rybizka had obtained permission to use Schneider’s name. So in December 1935 the Eastern Slope Ski School-the American Branch of Hannes Schneider Ski School opened.

Rybizka, along with his personally trained American instructors, taught more than 11,000 ski lessons that first winter. The reputation of the school was so widespread that in the second season ‘36-’37 over 20,000 lessons were given.

The most important development to take place during this period was when the late Harvey D. Gibson, the president of the Manufacturers’ Trust Company of New York and a native son of North Conway, took interest in the growth of skiing in his hometown. In 1936, Sun Valley and Stowe opened as ski resorts and on a lower slope of North Conway’s Lookout Mt, a rope tow was put into operation. Carroll Reed had brought over another Austrian, Franz Koessler from St. Anton, who took over the Jackson branch of the E.S.S.S. while Benno Rybizka moved to the new North Conway slope where the ski school would also conduct classes.

Lookout Mt. had been recently bought by Mr. Gibson and he named the new ski area Mt. Cranmore. Buying the Randall House on Main St., he reopened it as the Eastern Slope Inn and envisioned North Conway becoming a complete ski resort. The town immediately was welcoming ski trains arriving in the center of town with anxious passengers ready to hit the slopes.

Gibson hired George Morton to create a ski lift for the mountain which turned out to be the ski area’s greatest drawing card. The Skimobile, opened in 1938, was en easy lift to ride, and it still is popular with novice skiers [the lift was removed in 1989 just after Mt. Cranmore's 50th anniversary].

An additional piece of Mr. Gibson’s dream was realized when he offered Carroll Reed that year a price for the Eastern Slope Ski School. Carroll had been equally involved in running a ski shop as he managed the ski school and decided to sell. The ski school was then moved entirely to North Conway for the ‘38-’39 season by its new owner.

CAPTION (photo right): Skiers hail the arrival of Hannes Schneider (left) and start of American skiing. Benno Rybizka (right) meets him at the North Conway station, along with Harvey Gibson, barely visible between the two.

The final scene of the story occurred unexpectedly when the Nazis took over Austria the fall of 1938. Hannes Schneider was arrested soon after the takeover and taken to Germany. The famous Austrian was known worldwide and friends tried to help obtain his release but to no avail. As the situation developed it turned out that Harvey Gibson would be the person with enough influence to acquire the Schneiders’ passage out of Germany.

The Manufacturers Trust Company of New York happened to be the German government’s financial agent in this country. Through his relations with German high officials, Gibson extended an invitation to the skimeister and his family to come to the United States. Schneider accepted but problems interfered with their passports and it finally required a phone call to Heinrich Himmler by Gibson to get the passports issued. Gibson threatened not to resume financial talks with Germany otherwise. The passports were issued overnight.

The rest is history. Hannes and his family arrived in January 1939 to a warm welcome and with the first ski lesson he taught that afternoon, a new era of skiing began in American skiing.

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