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Nelson Bennett - Personal Communication

Taped interview, 20 September 2007
by Jeff Leich of New England Ski Museum
Notes by Lowell Skoog (from a transcript)

Jeff Leich of New England Ski Museum interviewed Nelson Bennett at Bennett's home in Yakima, Washington. Bennett was born on December 6, 1914. He grew up on a farm near Lancaster, New Hampshire. He got interested in skiing because "it was about all we had to do in the wintertime besides work." After high school, Bennett had an opportunity to work during Christmas vacation at Peckett's Inn on Sugar Hill, one of the earliest ski resorts in New England. He worked as a dishwasher for a few winters and eventually moved up to being a waiter.

Sun Valley Ski Patrol

Bennett was on the ski team at the University of New Hampshire, where he majored in forestry. During the summer of 1940, after graduating from college, he worked for a lumber company in northern California. That autumn he visited Sun Valley, where he ran into an old friend and skiing competitor from Dartmouth College, Dick Durrance. Durrance introduced Bennett to Pat Rogers, the general manager, who offerred Bennett a job on the Sun Valley ski patrol. Bennett accepted the job and returned for work in December of that year. The patrol leader at that time was Eusebio ("Sebby") Arriaga, a Hailey resident of Basque heritage. Sebby wanted to be a ski instructor, so in January 1941, Friedl Pfeiffer (the ski school director) hired Arriaga as an instructor and made Bennett the new head of the ski patrol.

In 1941 at Sun Valley, a ski patrolman's job consisted mostly of trail maintenance with only a little bit of first aid. Patrolmen also served as starters, timers, and course police for the standard ski races that were held at that time. There were six patrolman when Bennett came on board. In those days, most skiers were in ski classes. So assistance of injured skiers was traditionally the role of the ski instructor. This had been true at Peckett's and was also true at Sun Valley before Friedl Pfeiffer established the professional ski patrol. The National Ski Patrol (which was largely a volunteer organization) was not active in Sun Valley at that time. Bennett recalled that the Sun Valley patrol spent most of their time doing trail work and they ran their operation like a highway maintenance crew.

Bennett recalled that the skiing public at Peckett's Inn and Sun Valley was well heeled. Skiing was an expensive sport that required travel and lodging. The people coming to Sun Valley were often wealthy and influential. "It appeared that [...] the Hollywood celebrity could get a lot of mileage from being seen at Sun Valley," he recalled, "so a lot of 'em did come [...] and from time to time the industry did use Sun Valley as a site of a number of movies that actually involved skiing and life at a ski resort." Bennett recalled that Lucille Ball was one of the easiest actresses to work with that he encountered. Bennett would often release ski patrollers to work as laborers for movie crews because most of the people who normally did that work could not ski.

Bennett describes early trail grooming at Sun Valley, both on ski and by machine. Later in the interview he recalls skiing with celebrities such as Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and the Shah of Iran.

10th Mountain Division

In college at the University of New Hampshire, Bennett completed two years of ROTC training. He was drafted into the army in December 1942. He put in a request to join the mountain troops and, thanks to his outdoor background in New England and Sun Valley, was accepted. At Camp Hale he was among the first men assigned to the new 86th Mountain Infantry Regiment. He advanced in rank and became a squad leader in C Company of the 86th. During the winter of 1943 he transferred into the newly created Mountain Training Group (MTG), where he taught skiing and winter survival for the rest of the time he was at Camp Hale, until the summer of 1944. Bennett recalled that he was assigned to give close-order drill training to four new recruits who included Herbert Schneider (son of ski pioneer Hannes Schneider), Toni Matt (a famous ski racer), Scott Osborn (a partner in Seattle's Osborn and Ulland ski store), and a ski instructor from Yosemite whose name he could not recall. When the mountain troops moved to Camp Swift for flat-land training, the MTG was broken up and Bennett was transferred to I Company, 87th Regiment. His brother Edmond ended up in K Company of the same regiment.

During an expedition to Homestake Peak, Bennett's unit was assigned to test how much fat a soldier could absorb by eating a diet of pemmican, consisting of bits of dried beef in tallow or fat. Three platoons were issued pemmican rations of three different grades--80 percent fat to 20 percent lean meat, 70/30 and 60/40. The men ate only pemmican, tea, and D-ration biscuit while patrolling with "light pack" and skis for two weeks. Bennett described the 60/40 pemmican as like "cheap hamburger," two lean pieces of meat and white tallow all around it. He recalled that he went from about 150 pounds down to about 145 pounds while carrying a pack weighing up to 50 pounds. The 80/20 group had to be evacuated. Their bodies could not absorb the high fat content. One of the instructor/observers on that expedition was Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an Arctic explorer who had lived with the Eskimos and could tolerate 80/20 pemmican.

Prior to joining the army, Bennett had experienced bouts of stomach pain. These episodes would last a few days then clear up, not to return for months or even years. After shipping out to Italy at the end of 1944, he was struck by another episode. During a march through Italy he was unable to keep food down for a week and was "down to about 120 pounds," hardly able to lift his rucksack. His brother Edmond reported the problem and Bennett was evacuated. He was diagnosed with serious stomach ulcers. At that time the only treatment for this condition was rest and diet. So he was shipped back to the United States and given a medical discharge. That was the end of his military career. He returned to work at Sun Valley after his discharge.

The Sun Valley Toboggan

Prior to WWII, the Sun Valley ski patrol evacuated injured skiers using a recreational toboggan made by Northland. The toboggan had a cushion, a couple of Union Pacific blankets, a tarp, splints, and a first aid kit. The toboggan had a pull rope and a tail rope for braking, but it was difficult to control and slow to maneuver. Bennett was largely responsible for designing a better ski patrol toboggan after the war. "Over a course of time and trial and error," he recalled, "it was possible to develop a handier device that was easier to use and very, very easy to control."

After becoming familiar with Stokes litters in the army, Bennett acquired a dozen from an army surplus store in Salt Lake City. He came up with the idea of attaching two rigid shafts to the front of the toboggan. He experimented with shaft length and attachment angle. Eventually he found a shaft configuration that provided excellent control, except on a traverse, where the tail of the toboggan would slip out. To solve this, he fashioned a tail fin made from an old bed frame. This was partially effective. So he decided to try two shorter fins on each side of the tail end of the toboggan. With that arrangement they could descend a reasonably steep slope and still control the toboggan. The final improvement was to add a loop of chain which could be hooked out of the way or dropped over the front of the toboggan where it would run underneath and drag against the snow. The ski patrolman could apply downward pressure with the control shafts to increase drag. With this refinement, Bennett recalled, "More often than not a single patrolman could take care of an injury."

An important part of the Sun Valley system was a removable basket that could be taken out of the toboggan to transport the patient to the hospital. The ski patrol stocked extra baskets and blankets and had a system to return them (and the empty toboggans) to the top of the mountain so there was always a toboggan available for the next injury.

Bennett recalled that the Sun Valley toboggan was developed over two or three years in the late 1940s. He created a set of specifications and photographs and gave them to the National Ski Patrol System. He decided to give away the design rather than applying for a patent (which was suggested by some of the guys who helped develop it).

Later in the interview Bennett talked about his role as an official at international ski races from the 1950s through 1980. In 1980 he was chief of course on the men's downhill at the Lake Placid Olympics. He also talked about consulting work that he did on ski area development at Bogus Basin, Whistler Mountain, and Park City.

White Pass Ski Area

While working at Sun Valley, Bennett had several offers to manage a ski resort. The main attraction of the White Pass offer was that it included an ownership share. Following the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960, Bennett left Sun Valley to work for the White Pass Company in Yakima, Washington as general manager. He worked at the ski area in that capacity until retiring 25 years later.

Bennett had a couple of mountain managers who didn't work out. Someone suggested that Dave Mahre might be interested in being the mountain manager. Bennett didn't know Mahre, but he was told that Mahre had been a volunteer ski patrolman at the area. Mahre, who was living on an apple orchard in Ellensburg, was an avid outdoorsman and, thanks to his experience in the Navy during WWII, an expert with diesel engines. Mahre's wife Mary agreed to move their large family to White Pass and Bennett had a home built for them near the base of the ski lifts. This was the first housing development at the pass. When one of the White Pass directors asked Bennett why he hired somebody with such a big family he replied, "You know, I've gone through three single guys right now. I believe that a man with a big family ain't going to move." Bennett added, "Thirty-five years later Dave is still working for us."

Bennett described some of the advantages that Phil and Steve Mahre, twin sons of Dave and Mary Mahre, had in their ski racing careers, which culminated in gold and silver medals in slalom at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.

At the time of this interview, Bennett was still skiing at age 92. "I'm a CC Skier," he said, "careful and cautious. I don't want to fall down so I don't go very fast. I do lots of turns, try to stay upright because in falling down eventually you've got to get up and it's a little more difficult than it used to be. So I ski with that thought in mind that I'm going to stand up and do lots of turns and get down to the foot of the hill. I don't do a lot of skiing. I might make a couple of trips during the day, wherever I am and that's it."

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