Nelson Bennett died Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016 at the well-ripened age of 102. The man was a legacy in American ski racing from the earliest days forward. He was named to the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame 30 years ago, was a veteran of the venerable 10th Mountain Division serving in Italy during World War II, designed the first ski patrol toboggans and held a variety of positions within the skiing community over his lengthy lifespan.
Growing up a farm boy in rural New Hampshire, he said he turned to skiing because it was the only thing to do in winter besides work. He and his brother, Edmund, utilized barrel staves for skis and their grandfather created some leather bindings. At 13 he got his first “real” skis and, using a book from the Lancaster Public Library, mastered the telemark turn.
Among his first jobs after high school was as a dishwasher at the historic Peckett’s Inn on Sugar Hill, where the first ski school in America was formed.
He attended the University of New Hampshire studying forestry and skiing for the UNH Ski Team. Wanderlust captured him after college and he hired on with a California lumber company as a surveyor. Looking for something to do in the winter months, he headed to Sun Valley, Idaho, driving all day and night in his new Ford convertible which he slept in after arriving. The first day at Sun Valley he walked into an inn and ran into his old friend and rival competitor from Dartmouth, Dick Durrance. Durrance introduced Bennett to many at Sun Valley, including general manager Pat Rogers who offered him a position with the ski patrol, which he accepted, beginning in 1941. Bald Mountain at Sun Valley had recently opened and Bennett and his five patrolmen performed “highway maintenance,” largely with machetes and scythes, keeping the trails ready for the high-end cliental. Sun Valley was a celebrity magnet and he skied with many including Lucille Ball, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Cooper, Clark Gable and the Shah of Iran.
He was drafted in 1942 and asked to be assigned to the mountain troops, which thanks to his background, he was. By 1943 he was teaching skiing and winter survival at the 10th Mountain Division’s Training facility, Camp Hale, at one point giving drill training to recruits Herbert Schneider, Toni Matt and Scott Osborn.
Stomach ulcers prematurely ended his military career.
Back at Sun Valley he designed ski patrol toboggans more easily controlled by a patrolman, and gave away the design to the National Ski Patrol. He also helped design a prototype of today’s trail groomers.
He served as a race official from the 1950s through the 1980s and was chief of course for the 1980 Olympic Downhill at Lake Placid. He also was the starter for the race at Alta, Utah, in 1955 in which national champion Jill Kinmont crashed into a tree and was paralyzed.
He served both USSA and FIS as course committee chairman for many years.
Following the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley, Bennett took a position as general manager of White Pass Ski Area in Yakima, Washington. He hired David Mahre as the mountain manager, and had a home built for the large Mahre family near the base of the lifts. David’s twin boys, Phil and Steve, would win gold and silver at the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984.
No memorial service is scheduled as per his request.
Photos courtesy of the Bennett family and Sun Valley Guide