Ski Genius Marks 100th Birthday

Kitzbühel’s Karl Koller formalized short-ski instruction for beginners, reshaped children’s learning, fostered terrain-based teaching, and was a dominant force in Interski.

By John Fry with Barbara Thaler

The man who systematized the use of short skis to accelerate learning is alive and well, and about to celebrate his 100th birthday. Karl Koller shook up the world of ski instruction in 1953 when he demonstrated to the International Congress of Ski Instructors how in his Kitzbühel ski school, the year before, he had successfully employed 150- to 170-centimeter skis to teach novices to make simple turns with skis parallel, bypassing the traditional snowplow and stem progression. And that’s not all he did.

Austrian junior champion in downhill and jumping in the 1930s, Koller was the first man after the war to win the Hahnenkamm Combined title, in 1946. For 25 years, from 1950 to 1975, he headed Kitzbühel’s renowned Red Devils ski school. He built what was, at one time, the world’s most successful children’s ski school, Kollerland. He invented Kollerhelp, a device that children could hold onto when first learning to ski. He inaugurated terrain-based teaching. He introduced the early season wedel week in Kitzbühel. He invented the “Golden Ski Book,” honoring any skier on holiday who completed runs on 50 slopes around Kitzbühel. Indeed, Koller was the heart and brains of Kitzbühel’s ascendency as a ski resort—home of the world’s most famous downhill race, and of more famous natives like triple Olympic gold medalist Toni Sailer, Anderl Molterer, Christian Pravda, Hias Leitner, Ernst and Hansi Hinterseer, as well as nordic and snowboarding medalists.

Short Ski Teaching
As wedeln—the quick ski turn with reverse shoulder action—grew in popularity in the 1950s, the conventional method of teaching beginners with the old Arlberg system—snowplow to stem to stem christie turn, with rotation—looked increasingly obsolete. Students had to unlearn V-shaped ski turns in order to turn with skis parallel.

Koller sensed that the solution was to have students make parallel turns from the beginning, eliminating the old, slow, stage-by-stage Arlberg progression to parallel. But it couldn’t happen if beginners started on conventional skis of 200 centimeters and longer—skis that they would later own, but were too cumbersome for novices.
Koller first experimented with the use of short skis in 1952. He got a factory to make the skis—the Kitzbüheler Schul-Ski. The next year, he spoke about the radical new development in teaching at the 3rd Interski Congress of instructors at Davos. Eventually 93 ski schools in the Tyrol alone took up short-ski teaching.
Independently, and probably unaware of Koller’s teaching in the early 1960s, Clif Taylor with Morten Lund in the United States popularized GLM, the graduated length method of ski teaching (see sidebar). GLM involved a progression through three or four lengths of skis, more complicated and arguably less efficient than Koller’s kurz-ski method. GLM did not make lasting inroads in Europe. 

To meet the demand from ski schools around the world, Head Ski began full-scale manufacture of short skis. Others followed. But with the advent in the early 1990s of Elan’s SCX and Kneissl’s Ergo, and the introduction of high-performance carving skis under 190 cm in length, the special use by ski schools of short teaching skis came to an end.
Skiing Polymath
Karl Koller was born in 1919, the youngest of ten children. As a three-year-old he suffered from skin problems. A doctor recommended fresh air, and from that time on he spent every possible minute outdoors. He competed in both nordic and alpine skiing, and played soccer in summer. In 1936, he became Tyrolean Youth Champion in downhill and jumping.

Nothing stood in the way of his skiing career except World War II. Drafted, he became a member of the Greater German Reich National Ski Team. From 1943 to 1945 he was a mountain guide for the German Army at the Mountain Medical School in the neighbouring village St. Johann in Tyrol.
“I also had to teach the Nazi bigwigs how to ski,” he says, his face darkening.

During World War II, Koller met his wife Hilde in Zurs. Their son was born in 1944. At the end of the war he wanted to become an instructor, although his family didn’t like the idea. “At the time two instructors had fallen ill with syphilis and died,” Koller recalls.
In January 1946 he won the Hahnenkamm Combined, finishing second in the downhill. As stipulated in the regulations, he competed with the same pair of skis in the slalom and the downhill.

“The 1946 downhill on the Streif was unforgettable,” recalls Koller. “It had rained all through the night. The slope was like an ice skating rink. Worse, thick fog reduced visibility down to no more than fifty metres. There were no directional gates. ‘Another one’s coming,’ called out the fans, who could only ascertain whether a racer was approaching in the thick fog by the sound of their skis rattling on the hard snow.”
The Red Devils Ski School
In 1947 after gaining certification, Koller founded the new Association of Kitzbühel Ski Instructors and Mountain Guides in 1950, uniting two Kitzbühel ski schools. Under his leadership, the reconstituted school expanded rapidly.

It was important to Koller that his instructors have a clean, neat appearance. With his best friend, painter Alfons Walde (see Skiing History, July-August 2012), he developed a uniform—black trousers, red sweater and a red pointed cap. The Rote Teufel (Red Devils) ski school was born. The instructors were often required to attend five o’clock tea, the hottest society gathering of the day. They had to appear in uniform, always with a tidy haircut. 

“One day,” recalls Koller, “Anderl Molterer came to ski school finely dressed, crisply pressed trousers, nice shoes, a smart sweater. When asked if he didn’t have work clothes with him, Anderl said: ‘No, I always work in these clothes.’”

The famous Ski Instructors Ball and New Year’s firework display with ski show were Koller ideas. He also introduced Wedel Weeks: To promote lessons, he created tests for pupils at four levels of turning skill. You needed an instructor to succeed. On Friday, at the end of ski week, an award ceremony was held at 5 o’clock tea in the hotel Zur Tenne.

Along the way Koller was elected president of the Austrian Ski Instructors Association, and chairman of the Kitzbühel Tourism Association. He and his wife Hilde came to run a boarding house, Das Kollerstüberl, in the center of town. 

Teaching children in a new and different way
In 1960 Koller introduced specialized teaching for children in his Red Devils Ski School. He was convinced that children should be introduced to skiing in a playful way. He built a special terrain playground of steep curves, hillocks, jumps and gates. Koller’s approach was so innovative that in 1968 he brought children with him to make a demonstration at the 1968 Interski congress of instructors at Aspen.

His ski school was among the first to enable its instructors to share in profits, a seemingly benevolent idea. But Koller came to see it as a mistake. The instructors, or employees, now had a voice in how the ski school was run. He was no longer totally “the boss,” free to invent new ideas as he wished. Innovations like short ski teaching were questioned. The costly construction of a building to house the instructors caused the ski school’s profits to decline. Arguments ensued. Finally in 1975, angry, he left the ski school to concentrate on teaching children, founding his own school, Koller Kinderland.

Koller is the author of two books, Freud und Leid zu meiner Zeit (Joy and Sorrow in My Time) and Kitzbühel zu meiner Zeit (Kitzbühel in My Time). He has documented and archived every development in Kitzbühel, neatly filed in folders and bound books, which he keeps in his garden house.

His wife, to whom he was married for 54 years, died in 1997. One of his grandchildren, Alexander, won the overall World Cup of snowboarding and the World Cup of boardercross in 1998. Koller enjoyed cross-country skiing regularly until he was 95 years old. He suffered a health setback in 2017 when he broke his femur. But he battled back, diligently completing his rehab—typical for a man who has lived a century of “never giving up.” 

ISHA chairman John Fry prepared this article based on the writing and research of Barbara Thaler of the Kitzbühler Ski Club.

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