June 14, 2004
Dick Durrance, America's Champion
By Morten Lund
America's first skiing superstar, Dick Durrance, died in Carbondale, Colorado of natural causes on June 13 at the age of 89. Right to the last day he had constant visits from longtime friends from Aspen, where he was once the resort's general manager.
Durrance broke into national prominence by placing 8th in the slalom and 10th in alpine combined at the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany-the first U.S. skier to place in the top ten during a major international race. Alpine racing had until then been the exclusive domain of European racers, and in truth Durrance gained immensely by having spent seven years growing up and skiing in Bavaria. A New York Times sports reporter, commenting on Durrance's surprise showing in the 1936 Olympics, wrote "Evidently the price of ski excellence is exile."
Durrance thereafter became a leader in the sport, first as the country's perennial alpine national champion, then as a partner, general manager and ski school director at the country's earliest deep snow resort of Alta, Utah, then as the general manager of the early Aspen ski resort, and finally as the sport's most accomplished documentary cinematographer. He left his signature on so many facets of the sport, it is hard to pick the most important among them but certainly one that ranks high was his successful campaign to give the U.S. its first chance to host the alpine world championship meet-at Aspen in 1950.
Durrance was born in 1914 in Tarpon Springs, Florida. His first sight of snow did not come until in 1925 when he entered New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-the Hudson at 12. The next year, the Durrance family moved to Munich, Germany. There, Durrance, a short wiry kid with powerful legs, took up skiing in earnest. As if born to the sport, he was soon outrunning his European playmates. At 17, he was the fastest skier his age in the 1932 Bavarian championships.
The next season, the winter of 1933, he became the first American to compete in the Arlberg-Kandahar, at Mürren, Switzerland, then considered the open world championship of alpine skiing. He placed 16th in the downhill in a field of 80, the highest placing of an American racer in Europe to date.
Racing that the international level in Switzerland in 1933 gave Durrance an excellent chance to watch closely the new sensation, Toni Seelos, the phenomenal Austrian who originated the pure parallel turn- executing his turns without a preliminary stem-angling one ski to the side-a move until then thought absolutely necessary to start a turn, therefore de rigueur for racers and beginners alike. By eliminating the stem, Seelos was eliminating his rivals-winning to the tune of several seconds per race.
In his 1995 autobiography, The Man on the Medal, Durrance says of Seelos, "He had a knack for getting through slalom gates like an eel." He added, in analysis, that this meant "With nothing but a weight shift, you could cut a carved turn, letting the camber of the ski do the turning for you."
Before Dick had much chance to practice Seelos' approach, the Durrance family moved back to the U.S. in 1933. During the winter of 1933-34, Durrance refashioned the "Seelos parallel" for his own use, calling it "The Tempo Turn," in effect bringing the first pure parallel turn to the American shore, an event only slightly less important to American ski history than the arrival of Columbus to American history in general.
On his return to the U.S. in 1933, Durrance entered as a senior in the high school at Newport, New Hampshire to get the hang of formal American grammar before applying for college. In the meantime he skied for Newport High. An electric shock ran through the American ski world when this particular high school senior began running wild through the ranks of the country's top skiers.
At the slalom in Woodstock, Vermont, Durrance "beat his teammate Flynt," reported the 1934 Ski Bulletin, "who took second place, by twenty-nine seconds." (Today the margin would more likely be twenty-nine one-hundreds of a second.) The little senior, now known as "the Pocket Rocket," actually managed to lead Newport High to victory over a field of college teams that included Dartmouth. In the 1934 Eastern Championship where Durrance won the downhill on the Taft Trail at Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire-by 30 seconds.
It goes without saying that Dartmouth, the nation's premier alpine racing organization, warmly welcomed Durrance aboard in the fall of 1934. Dartmouth was at the time the nation's premier racing organization and naturally recruited Durrance as soon as he graduated high school. As the then Dartmouth Ski Team Captain Sel Hannah later noted, "Dick was a better skier than anyone in the United States when he came to Dartmouth." Adopting the Tempo Turn gave the Dartmouth alpine team near-invulnerability until rival college racers had a chance to study and copy what had hit them.
During the spring of 1935, Durrance won the U.S. Olympic team men's tryouts on Mt. Rainier in spite of a fall on one leg of the slalom. He took the 1935-36 winter off to train in Europe, culminating in his fine showing at Garmisch-where he would actually have come in third in slalom rather than eighth had he not been penalized by a German official full of zeal to ensure that the alpine medals went to representatives of Hitler's Third Reich.
Dick re-entered Dartmouth in the fall of 1936 as a sophomore to lead the alpine team to victory after victory. He became the first man to win twice in a row the country's premier race, the combined slalom and downhill Harriman Cup at Sun Valley in 1937 (that year, it was also the national championship) and in 1938. In his senior year at Dartmouth in 1939, Durrance was hired by the Sun Valley Press Bureau and spent most of his time the first summer at Sun Valley designing and cutting the first trail on nearby Mt. Baldy, which he recommended as having sufficient drop to be a top international race course. Mt. Baldy thereafter quickly became Sun Valley's main mountain.
During his first postgraduate winter in 1940, Durrance, now racing for the Sun Valley Ski Club, became the first man to win the 1940 Harriman Cup three times, retiring it. At this point, World War II had already cancelled the 1940 Olympics, so the 1940 Harriman must serve as the cap on Durrance's remarkable career as America's first world-class alpine competitor. That year, as well, Durrance made off with another prize, marrying Margaret (Miggs) Jennings, a fine Sun Valley Ski Club racer and ski photographer in her own right.
During the winter of 1941, Durrance made his first two films, "Sun Valley Ski Chase" and "Sun Valley Holiday," in preparation for the post-racing career of his choice. But first Durrance took on the managing fledgling resorts at a time when ski resorts were largely hand-to-mouth affairs and needed young courageous fellows to make them happen. Durrance, after learning of a place called Alta-a faltering ski area set in Little Cottonwood Canyon within Utah's Wasatch Mountains-talked the Salt Lake Winter Sport Association into letting him take it over.
Alta had a half-finished lodge, a creaky makeshift chairlift and no ski school at all. Durrance called on a friend, New York City's James Laughlin, founder of New Directions publishing house and an avid skier. Laughlin agreed to back Durrance in finishing the lodge for half interest in the corporation.. Durrance got the lodge finished but customers did not come running. There were few enough to give Durrance plenty of time to ski the walls of the canyon and invent a short series of turns that kept him in control down the steepest hill, presaging modern ski technique. Durrance named the technique the Dipsy Doodle, widely copied at the time.
Durrance's first real profit at Alta came from the Army, which hired him to train the 503rd Battalion paratroopers from Fort Benning Georgia, to ski once they had landed, presumably in preparation for an invasion of Norway. After the paratroopers departed, so did the Durrances. Miggs was pregnant with their first child and Alta too remote for an emergency exit. Durrance took up an invitation from an acquaintance at Boeing Aircraft in the civilized city of Seattle to work on in-flight camera recording equipment as a Flight Test Engineer, a job that lasted until 1945.
The Durrances moved in 1945 to Denver thanks to still another invitation, this one by Thor Groswold, then the nation's premier ski maker, to design and test Groswold skis. At the same time, Durrance contracted with Denver's Ernest Constam-inventor of the J-bar and the T-bar ski lifts-to sell his conveyances in the West. Durrance sold his first T-bar to Aspen, a resort just then emerging as the first postwar ski area of note in the Rockies.
In the summer of 1947, Aspen hired Durrance as it third General Manager. Durrance immediately cut a number of new trails, including a beauty named Ruthies Run, still one of the best known of American ski trails. At the same time, he had the inspirational idea of inviting the Federation Internationale de Ski to hold their official 1950 World Championship at Aspen, and raised a $72,000 fund to campaign for FIS approval and upgrade the trails at Aspen in case the bid was accepted. It was. And in 1950, the United States, quite unbelievably, hosted a world championship-at Aspen: it took the U.S. another generation to get another world championships.
Durrance was always quick to see opportunity, on the course or off. He saw that he had the chance of a lifetime here: to make the first-ever feature-length American ski racing documentary, a feat he accomplished and packaged as "Ski Champs" complete with interviews of the winners. He gave up his job at Aspen to crisscross Europe with Miggs, interviewing gold medalists. The result is still, as a reviewer wrote on seeing the film 45 years after it was shot, "a compelling feature-length documentary that stands today as a priceless record of personalities and racing world of the 1950s."
Having a successful film as his resume, Durrance rocketed off on his final career, this time as a commercial film maker, a vocation he pursued for another fifty years with great success. To sum up, Durrance was the man that his time demanded, a virtual and spirited ambassador for a sport that was growing into an American institution that today is a vital feature of American leisure life, the four-season mountain resort.