NORTH CONWAY, N.H. -- Like most sports, skiing nurtures a healthy interest in the past. After all, without the heroic legends of 8-foot-long hickory boards and gold dust races among miners in the Sierra Nevadas, the sport would be rather two-dimensional, all the fun and beauty without the depth of its heritage.
This weekend, when the 65th anniversary of the arrival of Hannes Schneider in North Conway is celebrated at the Meister Cup, the theme of the event is a question: Where would American skiing be without Schneider, the late Austrian legend who escaped from a Nazi lockup and arrived Feb. 11, 1939, at North Conway station?
"The summer of 1939 was a rough summer," recalls Hannes's son Herbert Schneider, who was 19 when he accompanied his father to North Conway. "We got beat up a couple of times because we didn't scream `Heil Hitler!' loud enough. Getting out of there and coming to the United States was a wonderful thing for our family. On the 31st of January we got our passports, and two days later we were in Paris, then on the ninth we were in New York, and on the 11th I took my first turns on the South Slope of North Conway."
It was as fateful a two weeks for skiing in America as it was in the lives of the Schneider family. Though some mountain adventurers, mostly of college age, had been skiing before World War II, the sport went mainstream after the war. "When we got here in '39, I was kind of surprised how little skiing was known," said Schneider. "When we told people we teach skiing, they'd ask how high do you jump? That was the picture of skiing then.
"But then, after the war, when all the GIs got a little bonus and were discharged, a lot of them in Europe were exposed to skiing and that's where it started. Skiing got a real push. Then us guys got out of the 10th Mountain [Division] and started opening ski areas and running ski schools, so big growth in skiing came in the '50s and '60s."
The weekend races at Mt. Cranmore are designed to blend the best of modern skiing with some nostalgia focused on the area's rich past, with proceeds from the event going to the New England Ski Museum in Franconia. Race categories are designed to let all skiers who can handle intermediate terrain join in and win, from juniors to teams, men and women, in age categories designed along the lines of NASTAR.
There also will be 10th Mountain Division awards for the fastest veteran of the 10th, and everyone is encouraged to don vintage ski wear, which come to think of it is a whole lot sexier than today's snowboarder-inspired baggy stuff. Judges will award prizes to the best period costumes.
For Schneider, the march back into history is not physically a very long one. He lives just a couple of miles from Cranmore, where he began skiing 65 years ago this winter. And on good days, he manages to still get out and ski the area, which, despite the generations of change, is still the same mountain.
"I have the priviledge now of choosing my days to go skiing," he said. "I wait till the sun is out and we have good skiing under foot."
Schneider, who used to teach the same students for many years as they progressed slowly, may be nostalgic for the old ways, but is convinced the sport is easier today by far. "There's just no question that the skiing is not as hard as it used to be. And I think that's why, at my age, I still can ski fine," he said. "When they created that Club 70+, anyone over 70 could ski anywhere in the United States for free. But not anymore. That's because there are too many people that age skiing now."
Schneider has vivid memories of that day his family steamed into North Conway on the ski train from New York City. Former Ski Magazine editor John Fry summed up the highly publicized scene: "Hannes Schneider's arrival in North Conway befitted the coming of the Messiah. Church bells rang, a band played, and 150 young skiers made an archway of raised ski poles for Schneider's triumphal appearance."
In those pre-grooming days, a condition called breakable crust made it almost impossible to turn a ski, so Schneider introduced the jump turn off planted ski poles, a move so spectacular that a photographer captured it for the cover of Life magazine.
Schneider also went to work and cut the trees to create the first groomed run down the south slope of Cranmore, and said often that he was amazed how eager Americans were to get into the new sport, which came as something of a winter blessing to a generation weary of the Depression and war years.
"He was a very great man," says Herbert Schneider of his father, who died in 1955, leaving his son to direct the ski school until the early '90s. "Skiing was everything to him, and he devoted his life to teaching others how to enjoy it, too."
For information about the Hannes Schneider Cup, call 800-639-4181 or go to www.nesm.org.