In the four years since the outdoors-happy inhabitants of Anchorage, Alaska awoke one morning to find themselves blessed with the first major ski development of the 49th state, a number of singular events have transpired in the vicinity of Mt. Alyeska. One night a moose ate the tow rope. Again, a bear chased a skier up a tree. Max Marolt, a visiting Coloradan, achieved geographic immortality by bumming his way to the top of a neighboring mountain via helicopter and skiing down its side; they promptly named the mountain after Max. But last weekend Secretary Seward's bustling baby proved that it had grown up to its stretch pants. The first National Alpine Ski Championships ever held in Alaska—in fact, the first national championships of any kind—turned out to be a rewarding success. The moose and the bears may never be the same again, but more than half a hundred racers, including the ingredients for the finest Olympic Alpine team America has seen, were enthusiastic.
So, too, was the competition committee of the U.S. Ski Association, which has been striving for years with remarkably little success to develop an Olympic team built around—as opposed to being built entirely upon—the sturdy presence of Wallace (Buddy) Werner. Buddy Werner, now 27, emerged once again as the most versatile American ever to slide down a mountain. He won the combined national championship for the second time and, in the process, twice in three races finished ahead of the sensational European discovery, Switzerland's Jos Minsch (SI, Feb. 25), who served as a more than adequate international test. Yet Buddy couldn't win a race. He finished second to Minsch in the giant slalom, a development that left U.S. officials less than overjoyed, but he also finished second to Chuck Ferries in the slalom and second to a 19-year-old University of Colorado teammate, Billy Marolt (Max's brother), in the downhill. And, because Werner is America's most popular skier as well as its once again best, this made people bubble with delight.
"Buddy is skiing better than he ever skied in his life," said Bob Beattie, coach of both Colorado and the U.S. Olympic team. "He's not falling back. The other lads are catching up. We still need a lot of work, but maybe we're about ready to win some of those medals at last."
Medals are no novelty to American women, and in 1964 the likes of Gretchen Fraser, Andrea Mead Lawrence, Penny Pitou and Betsy Snite can prepare to move over for Jean Saubert, a bouncy, brown-haired girl from Oregon with a marvelous grin. Sixth in the giant slalom and ninth in the downhill and the combined in her first world championships in Chamonix last year as a 19-year-old, Jean has been almost unbeatable in 1963. She won the Roch Cup slalom, giant slalom and combined; she won the Vail Cup downhill, slalom and combined; two weeks ago, at Sun Valley, she beat one of the world's best women racers, a pretty, dark-haired mouse from Munich named Barbi Henneberger, two out of three times to win the Harriman Cup downhill, slalom and combined. Last weekend, with the other Americans trailing far behind, Miss Saubert and the German invader hooked up again in a duel that rivaled the Werner-Minsch affair. Miss Henneberger won the downhill, with Jean second. Miss Saubert won the giant slalom with Barbi second. And Miss Henneberger won the slalom only when Jean, leading after the first run, fell on her second trip just three gates from the finish line.
Despite the fireworks, the natives seemed reluctant at first to take part. But then the sparkling spring weather—the temperature never fell below 15° at night and soared as high as 52° during the day—brought them pouring out of Anchorage, by jeep and car and pickup, onto Seward Highway and the winding 38-mile trip to Alyeska along the shore of Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm. The latter, boasting the second-highest tide in the world, is a Norwegianlike fjord that earned its name when early navigators, hoping to find a shortcut to Disneyland, came smack up against a glacier instead. The spectacular beauty of the mountains rising almost vertically alongside is best appreciated at high tide, when there is two of everything to fascinate the viewer, one upside down. At low tide—Turnagain Arm also has the second-lowest tide in the world, although Alaskans seldom mention this—mud and glacial silt combine to produce a scene that looks like hell froze over. At low tide, the traveler is happy to turn off the main road for the jolting two-mile ride to Mt. Alyeska.
Alyeska, an Aleut word meaning "Great Land of White to the East," is one of the few sea-level ski resorts. From the lodge at its base, the mountain rises 3,994 feet to a peak from which one can see dozens of other mountains, eight glaciers and several broken arms and legs any day of the week. The tree line, consisting almost entirely of spruce, ends at 1,800 feet; above there are open slopes, a miniature of the Swiss and Austrian Alps. Upon one of these slopes was set a downhill racing course that brought sounds of pleasure from every competitor present. "It's not as fast or as steep as some of the European courses," Buddy Werner said, "but it sure is interesting. It's long, and there are going to be some problems."
Not the least of these problems was a transition one-third of the way down that brought the racers out of a relatively flat stretch into a sharp drop and then up a dizzy hump. At this point, press photographers gathered hungrily like hopeful relatives at the reading of a will. Rewarded by a constant stream of flying bodies, some of them inverted, the cameramen departed happy. Not all the skiers were so happy, but most of the good ones survived. Werner did, despite his slightly undesirable No. 1 starting position, and for several hours afterward Buddy thought that he had won. But an electronic timing device had somehow malfunctioned with human assistance, and for a while Minsch thought that he had won, too. Finally the officials decided that Billy Marolt had won, in the shadow of brother Max's mountain, with Werner one-tenth of a second behind, Minsch third and Ferries tied with Jim Gaddis of Utah for fourth. Marolt didn't hear the news until 5 p.m. when he came down from giant slalom practice.
Germans are not eligible.
"Boy, that's great," said Billy. "I never won anything this big before."
"All along we were more worried about Marolt than Werner," said the Swiss coach. "Last week at Sun Valley that boy showed us something. He's going to be a great skier."
In the women's competition, Miss Henneberger lashed on a pair of borrowed skis—she had come to America to model clothes and only decided to race at the last moment—and sailed down the course 1.3 seconds ahead of Miss Saubert. Since Germans, even pretty ones, are not eligible for U.S. national ski championships, Miss Saubert was the winner—kind of. Nancy Greene, a Canadian who is eligible for U.S. ski championships by some decree that also includes Japanese—while omitting Germans, Swiss and Laplanders—was third. The timer fouled up here, too, and for a while Linda Meyers of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. was believed to be the winner. "Not so," said Barbi Henneberger. "Saubert or Nancy Greene might beat me but not Linda. She isn't skiing that fast. Last year maybe, but not now." Barbi's Teutonic logic proved correct; Linda Meyers eventually found herself eighth. "Next year," said a disgusted official, "we're switching to Timex."
Miss Saubert beat Miss Henneberger by .8 second over a very difficult giant slalom course on Friday, with Miss Greene once again third, and Starr Walton, another Californian, in fourth place, a notch ahead of Miss Meyers. Miss Henneberger was unhappy with her skis and with the course, which she felt was too icy and fast, and with herself, for trying to "win very big," as she said. "I wanted to show them something." Jean Saubert, who did most of the showing, grinned. "It was a very nice course," she said.
It was over this same course, extended, for the men, another 1,200 feet in length up the mountain, that Jos Minsch put on perhaps the week's most sensational individual performance. When the 21-year-old Swiss champion moved into the starting gate, he was a man with a mission. He had twice finished second to Werner at Sun Valley and, as he said later, "I was tired of finishing second." Werner was already down in 2:58.8, clearly in the lead over two Army men who were to ski well all through the meet, Rip McManus, formerly of Stowe, Vt. and Milford, Conn., and Jimmy Barrier, out of Kalispell, Mont. So Minsch set out to catch Werner. Minsch is a very strong, well-conditioned skier, with huge, powerful legs, and the terribly demanding giant slalom course on Mt. Alyeska was perfect for his driving style. He slammed down the upper run and past the tree line like an attacking hawk; when he burst around the last curve and down across the finish, everyone knew that Jos Minsch had gone very fast. The clock, working now, confirmed it. His time was 2:55.8, more than three unbelievable seconds under Werner and days ahead of the rest of the field. When Willy Favre, Minsch's 19-year-old teammate, grabbed third place away from the Americans, Bob Beattie was crushed.
"How can we expect to go over there and beat a mountain full of them," he said, "when we let two of them come over here and beat us all? I guess you have to expect to lose to a fellow like Minsch once in a while. He's good. There's no doubt about that. But the other—he had no business finishing up there. I don't know whether we're catching up or not." The next day, when the slalom was held on Max's Mountain, Beattie found out. Minsch, less impressive as a slalom racer, struggled hard to finish fifth after the first run and was then disqualified following a fall on his second; Favre remained on his feet to finish seventh but was never a real threat. In the meantime, Chuck Ferries took over. He led off with a 57.6 effort that proved to be the best of the day; behind him came Werner at 58.8, Marolt at 58.9, and Jimmy Heuga, another 19-year-old member of the Colorado team, at 59.4. On the second run, with the starting order reversed, Werner made a brilliant run in 59.1 for a total time of 1:57.9. Heuga, always a fine slalom racer, skied well but at 2:02.0 was still far behind. Marolt fell. Then it was up to Ferries.
"I didn't think about taking it easy," Chuck said later. "Not once. This is supposed to be my race, but I hadn't won a slalom since the Broadmoor in January. I knew Buddy's time, and I saw Heuga, skiing real well, yet he didn't catch up. The course seemed to be holding up pretty well, but I couldn't be sure. I had to go all out."
When Chuck Ferries skis slalom well, no one skis it any better. And no one skis better under pressure. He came down like a snake through the bright flags, over 1,480 feet of Max's Mountain, slipping past the crowd lining the course, driving on toward the furiously spinning second hand at the bottom. When he crossed the finish line, the second hand had stopped at 59.2; the total was 1:56.8, and Buddy Werner was runner-up again.
"Great race, Chuck," Werner said.
"About time," Ferries said.
Even on one ski
Miss Henneberger's victory was easier only because Jean Saubert fell. Three gates from the bottom, the Oregon State junior hooked a tip, spun around and hit the packed snow, very hard. Both of her relase bindings popped and she came out of her skis. She could have won the combined championship merely by sliding across the line. "I would have tried it even on one ski," she said later, "but I didn't have any skis left." So she grinned and walked down to congratulate Barbi. Second place—and the American title—went to Sandra Shellworth, one of three female members of Bob Beattie's Colorado ski team, a tall (5 feet 7½) 18-year-old whose father is the mayor of Boise, Idaho. Eleanor Bennett of St. Regis, Mont. finished third.
Werner won the combined championship, with Ferries second and Jim Gaddis third, Favre being ineligible. Heuga was fourth overall. With Miss Henneberger ineligible and Miss Saubert disqualified in one race, the women's national combined champion proved to be Starr Walton. Nancy Greene was second, and Linda Meyers third.
From such names as these—Werner, Ferries, Saubert, Heuga, Marolt—will come the team, eight men and six women to be selected in June, that will represent the U.S. in Innsbruck next year. It will be a good team, the best America has seen, and maybe this time there will be medals in the Alps.
But now the season was over and everyone piled on planes for home. As for the Alaskans, they drove back down the bumpy road away from Mt. Alyeska, remembering to turn right on Seward Highway toward Anchorage instead of left toward the glacier. And as they drove along, it was high tide on Turn-again Arm and the mountains danced before them, twins, one upside down. And on the mountains there were skiers. Some of these were upside down, too. The Alaskans nudged each other and nodded. That, they had discovered, was how ski racing went.