Manhattan Project Skiers: Los Alamos Ski Club Celebrates 75 Years

In 1943, Manhattan Project scientists took to the snow. They’ve never quit. By Seth Masia

In July 2018, newspapers around the American Southwest noted the 75th anniversary of the founding of Los Alamos National Laboratory, in 1943 code-named the Manhattan District. Less widely reported, in November: the 75th anniversary celebration of the Los Alamos Ski Club, owner and operator of the nonprofit Pajarito Mountain ski area in New Mexico.

The Los Alamos club, uniquely, was founded by nuclear physicists. Many of the young scientists recruited to develop a British-American atomic bomb were Central European refugees from Nazi-occupied lands—men and women who, in their university days, spent holidays climbing and skiing in the Alps. The rest were recruited from physics and chemistry departments across the United States, Canada and Great Britain. According to Deanna Morgan Kirby, in her excellent history Just Crazy to Ski, average age of the new population was 26. If ever there was a demographic destined to ski, it was this population of fit and intellectual adventurers.

The new laboratory inhabited the campus of the Los Alamos Ranch School, a college-prep academy for boys that emphasized rugged outdoor living. At 7,320 feet elevation, the school got snow in winter. The kids played ice hockey on Ashley Pond (named for the school’s founder, Detroit businessman Ashley Pond), and skied up 10,440-foot Pajarito Mountain, seven miles to the west. The U.S. Army’s Manhattan Project chose the site for its splendid isolation from population centers of any description. The Army then bulldozed much of the site to build new labs, workshops and housing. Scientists arriving at this secret destination in the summer of 1943 found a dusty construction site surrounded by the scenic splendor of high desert. Everyone worked long days, but had Sundays free to hike, climb, ride horses and otherwise recreate in the mountains. Winter brought skating parties and, of course, skiing.

The new arrivals included a number of keen cross-country skiers and mountaineers, including Enrico Fermi (Nobel laureate, 1938) and his longtime associate Emilio Segrè (Nobel 1959); Cornell professor Hans Bethe (Nobel 1967); Niels Bohr (Nobel 1922); Harvard professor George Kistiakowsky and his explosives-lab partner Walter Kauzman; Berkeley grads Ben and Beckie Diven; and several grad students drafted into the Army’s Special Engineering Detachment. By November 1943, inspired by the first snows of a heavy winter, they toured into the surrounding highlands.... 

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