Sun Valley, the History of our Best Kept Secret

Capt. W. Patrick Gordon, M.Sc.
Gulf Weekly March 1995 (UAE)

When I asked Emily to marry me, those many years ago, she said yes, but with conditions (Why is it that the women always get to set the conditions?) Condition one was that I learned to dance and condition two was that I learned to ski.

I have always been too embarrassed on the dance floor to feel comfortable but I took dancing lessons, gave it my best shot and at least made it through the wedding reception. Fortunately, there has not been much further demand for me to dance with Emily, probably because her feet can’t take my punishment.

On the other hand, the skiing requirement has been a resounding success. My first introduction to skiing occurred pre-Emily, when I was very young and impressionable, in the US Army and based in Hokkaido, Japan, where the winter snows are awesome in both depth and duration.

I saw a movie newsreel about skiing and decided, “Hey, I can do that.” So I trundled off to the Special Services Organization, where they make available the toys that make remote assignments bearable, and checked out a pair of skis, poles and boots. To give you an idea of how long ago that was the skis were wooden, the boots leather, and the poles were bamboo.

There was a huge slope at the back of our barracks building so I marched over to the edge put on the skis and shoved off. What had looked so easy and graceful on the newsreel was an instant nightmare of tangled skis, poles and body parts, all of them my own; fortunately, none of them broken. But hey! If nothing else, I ‘m a quick learner. I threw and kicked the skis and poles all the way back to Special Services and told the caretaker where to store them and never touched the sport again. Until Emily.

This time around I was ready for skiing. I was a lot older and a little bit smarter. Emily’s family had been skiing at Sun Valley, Idaho for years but this was to be my first exposure to America’s historic first destination ski resort. This time, I would properly learn the graceful art of shushing downhill across glistening snow while sparkling diamonds spewed in arcs from the backs of my skis. What I wasn’t ready for was the beginning of a love affair with Sun Valley that I now renew annually.

It was the combination of the money, interests and talents of three men that created Sun Valley.

In 1932 Averell Harriman, who would later serve the United States as ambassador to Russia, was 40 years old and the chairman of the Board of his family’s Union Pacific Railroad. He was an avid skier who had skied Europe and wanted to develop a destination ski resort in the western regions of America that would rival anything Europe had to offer.

Count Felix Schaffgotsch, an Austrian “ski rider,” as skiers were then called in Europe, had been sent to America by his family to learn American banking methods at the firm Brown Brothers, Harriman & Company. Steve Hannagan was a “flamboyant publicity genius” who, through the media, created the then emerging city of Miami from a sand bar in Florida.

Not many modern skiers would recognize, or perhaps even care to participate in “ski riding” back then. Ski slopes were located near major cities and one-day ski trips were typical. If you were lucky enough to own a cabin nearby or had a friend who owned one, you might stretch your ski trip to cover the weekend.

Since the Harriman family was a named partner in the bank where Count Schaffgotsch was in training, it was only logical that Averell and the Count met and discussed the relative merits of skiing in America and Europe. Harriman decided that Count Schaffgotsch was just the person to explore location possibilities for a destination ski resort.

The Count began his exploration in November of 1932 with a six-week tour covering parts of California, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. It was a futile search at first. Some areas were too high an altitude for skiing comfort; others were too inaccessible while other areas suffered from inadequate or inappropriate snow.

Finally, at the end of his tour, the Count was persuaded to look at Ketchum, a small mining town in Idaho located at the end of a spur track of the Union Pacific Railroad. After a few days of climbing up, then skiing down the area slopes he wired back to Averell Harriman that the area had “more delightful features for a winter sports center than any other place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland, or Austria.”

Ketchum, Idaho began as a silver mining town soon after the Bannock Indian Wars of 1879. By 1893, the price of silver tanked and the boom was over. Sheep farming gained a foothold as the industry and Idaho became one of the biggest sheep producing states in the nation.

Today, Idaho is known as the Potato State and Idaho potatoes are what have made McDonald’s French fries famous. In 1884, the population of Ketchum was 2,000 and although the population around Ketchum has grown, it’s interesting to note that the city’s population in 1995 is still only 3,280.

In December 1936, a 220-room hotel costing $1.5 million was opened near Ketchum and named the Sun Valley Lodge. Designed, built and staffed in only seven months, the lodge was constructed of poured cement designed and colored to look like logs. Somewhat skeptical, I had to walk up to the walls and pick at them with my fingernail to see if they were made of wood or cement. They could’ve fooled me.

Hannagan, the publicist, hated cold weather and snow and believed that skiers were nuts. Just the kind of guy you’d want for your publicist, right? One of his first thoughts was that there had to be a better way to get to the top of a mountain than through sheer physical labor. In his mind, the mathematics of a half-hour climb for a five minute shush down the slope didn’t equate.  Therefore, the “chair type lift” was developed under his direction.

An exotic location with good snow and warm temperatures, imported ski instructors from Austria, and brilliant publicity from Hannagan made Sun Valley an instant success with the “in crowd” of the era. A parade of movie stars descended upon Sun Valley including Ray Milland, Tyrone Power, Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Claudette Colbert and many others. Ernest Hemmingway was a regular visitors until he finally decided to stay there permanently until the untimely end of his life. Lowell Thomas, the famous radio commentator, regularly did his daily programme, Love from Sun Valley, Idaho, while continuing to ski until the age of 89.

Sun Valley has changed owners twice since the Harriman days but the star attraction remains. Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Scott Glenn as well as numerous business leaders are either full-time residents or frequent visitors. A major ingredient of the area’s popularity with the rich and the famous is the low key they are allowed to maintain. This is a place where you go to ski, not be seen and to be bothered by autograph seekers, fans or even the news media. It’s an island of peace and quiet surrounded by snow covered mountains.

Mt. Baldy, the jewel in the Sun Valley crown, is arguably the best intermediate skiing mountain in the world. The summit is 9,150 ft, offering a vertical drop of 3,500 ft. covering 2,054 skiable acres. The mountain has 78 ski trails challenging all levels of ability. High speed, quad-lifts now rush four skiers at a time from numerous locations to the top of the mountain in minutes resulting in the elimination of waiting in ski lift lines. Additionally, millions of dollars have been spent on snow making machinery to insure the best possible skiing conditions throughout the winter.

Beginners have their very own mountain upon which to learn. Dollar Mountain provides neophyte skiers with wide, clear, gentle ski runs and a chair lift. Sun Valley has long been famous for its ski school and you can take either individual or group lessons from the raw beginner level to the hardened, double black diamond, mogul pounder.

The immediate area abounds with wintertime activities other than downhill skiing, snowboarding and cross country skiing. The Sun Valley Lodge features an ice skating rink, a heated outdoor pool and nighttime horse drawn sleigh rides to the Trail Creek Lodge for dinner.

Nearby Ketchum has a number of fine restaurants. One of my favorites is the Pioneer Saloon where you can get a salad, steak and a baked Idaho, monster potato for the same price you’d pay for a cheeseburger and fresh fries back here in the Middle East. Emily’s mother’s favorite restaurant is the Ore House. The first time she asked me to go there for dinner, I did a double take until I remembered that Ketchum had been a mining town; “Oh, yeah! I get it.”

Ketchum is filled with boutiques featuring the latest in fashions and wonderful art galleries for those not inclined to shush the slopes. It also has one of the finest small libraries you’ll ever find. Privately funded, it has huge wood burning fireplaces and a vast selection of books and periodicals that make it a wonderful place to while away the rare afternoon when you’re too tired to ski or the snow is falling so heavily you can’t see far enough to ski.

Featuring the relatively low American prices for ski lift tickets, hotel rooms, dinner and drinks, the cost of a week of skiing compares very favorably with any other destination ski resort I’ve visited, making it a desirable location for those of us not blessed with either wealth or fame.

Lest one be left with the idea that this is only a ski resort and nothing more, it should be noted that during the summer months a wide variety of activity is offered including golf on any of several world class golf courses, river running on the famous Snake River, camping and horseback trips into the Sawtooth Mountain Range, glider rides, fly fishing, and hunting.

The area has airline service from a number of airlines through the airport at Hailey, Idaho, located 12 miles south of Ketchum. Best connections from Europe and the Middle East would be through Denver, Salt Lake City or Seattle.

Much like I feel that the United Arab Emirates is the best kept secret in the Middle East, if not the world. I also think that Ketchum, Sun Valley is one of the best kept secrets in America.