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Sun Valley’s Early Ski Seasons Got a Late Start Thanks to Tardy Snow
Saturday, January 20, 2024

Climate change is the No. 1 threat to the snowsports industry, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Between 1972 and 2020 the average portion of North America covered by snow decreased at the rate of an area roughly the size of Delaware, according to Rutgers University Global Snow Lab.

The snowpack season decreased at an average of 18 days at 86 percent of the sites where snowpack was measured, between 1982 and 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

John W. Lundin, author of “Skiing Sun Valley,” reminds us that Sun Valley Resort has had winters when the snow was MIA even before words like “global warming” and “climate change” began filling our lexicon. Here’s his piece:



Skiers are frustrated this year about the low snow levels at Sun Valley that has made skiing marginal at best. Rest assured that this condition has been an issue since Sun Valley first opened in December 1936.

On Dec. 19, 1936, the Boise Capital News said Sun Valley was “THE winter sports paradise, the skiing resort which will surpass the famed skiing centers of Europe, and a Mecca for winter sports enthusiasts from all parts of the world...From the combined standpoints of modern transportation, ski lifts and runs and luxury hotel accommodations, Sun Valley is designed to be America’s outstanding skiing and winter sports center.”

Sun Valley publicist Steve Hannagan worked to ensure the resort’s opening was filled with beautiful people, saying “The key was not merely to get people there but to get the right people there for the opening....Society is like a band of sheep...Get a few bellwethers...headed in the right direction and the rest will surely clamber after.”

To make sure Hollywood sent the right people, Count Felix Schaffgotsch who helped Averell Harriman identify the perfect site for Sun Valley Resort worked with producer David O. Selznick to bring members of the movie set to Sun Valley for its opening.

Averell Harriman reserved “excellent” suites for a party of 20, and sent a special train from Hollywood direct to Sun Valley, taking 30 hours. Selznick said the trip would offer a time to take “casual photographs of stars enroute and at American St. Moritz.” And he turned his publicity department loose to give free space for Sun Valley.

Averell Harriman was not at the lodge’s opening--he was in New York at his daughter’s Mary’s debutante party and joined the festivities later. William Jeffers, executive vice president of the railroad, presided at the ceremonies.

The Sun Valley Lodge dedication was broadcast live over a radio station in Salt Lake City, which could be heard by Omaha listeners where Union Pacific’s headquarters were located.

Harriman was still involved in the smallest details for the opening, communicating by telegram. He suggested using dog teams to carry mail “for atmosphere,” was concerned about blankets for the Proctor Mountain chairlift, suggested changes in the bachelor’s lounge to make it a game room and numerous other ideas.

The guest list for the opening of Sun Valley Lodge shows the success of Hannagan’s efforts. It included David O. Selznick, Claudette Colbert, Gloria Baker, Wesley Ruggles, Joan Bennett, Madeline Carroll and others from Hollywood. Other well-known guests included Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller, Sterling Rockefeller, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lehman, Fred Pabst of Pabsts of Milwaukee fame, the “DuPonts from Wilmington,” Mr. and Mrs. Corland Hill of Los Angeles and others.

The story of Sun Valley’s challenging opening is well known. The resort’s ski slopes were bare and there was no evidence of snow anywhere. Disgruntled guests renamed Sun Valley the “Ketchum Con,” according to Harriman’s biographer Rudy Abramson.

Life magazine sent photographers to the opening “but all they did was sit by the fireplaces and drink highballs and take pictures of the skiers with wheelchairs and crutches. Too many rocks and not enough snow,” according to Sun Valley employee Val McAtee.

Harriman allowed guests to stay for free, their charges paid by Union Pacific until snow came. He had Sun Valley publish ads telling people to come and stay for free, saying it would be worth their gamble. Snow finally arrived after Christmas, the resort began charging guests for their stay, and Sun Valley’s reputation as a ski mecca was rescued.

The New Year’s Eve party of Dec. 31, 1936, gave rise to another iconic story. A Chicago socialite tried to join David Selznick’s table where Joan Bennett and Claudette Colbert were sitting and ask the women to dance.

“Selznick took exception and inflicted a black eye on the Chicagoan with one punch,” wrote Sun Valley’s Dorice Taylor. Those in charge thought the event was ruined and Sun Valley’s image undermined. Steve Hannagan disagreed, saying, “This is wonderful. It will make headlines in every paper in the country.” In fact, Hannagan’s headline for the story was “Sun Valley opens with a bang.”

Two years later Averell Harriman spent the Christmas holidays of 1938 in Sun Valley. After Christmas, a Chinook wind melted the little snow Sun Valley had accumulated. The resort had to do something for its guests.

Friedl Pfeifer suggested moving skiing north to Baker Creek. Harriman brought buses from Union Pacific’s operations at the Grand Canyon to Sun Valley. The buses were equipped with sandwiches and drinks “and everything else,” and took the guests to an area where there was good skiing.

“We got up there and built a fire and had steaks for lunch,” wrote Dorice Taylor. A circus tent was set up to serve hot food on the lodge’s fine China, and an accordion player added the entertainment.” “And, of course, that was a big party with everything on the house,” added Taylor. Snow finally came on Jan. 16, 1939.

John W. Lundin is a lawyer, historian and author and a founding member of the Washington State Ski and Snowboard Museum. He is the author of numerous magazine articles and four award-winning books: Early Skiing on Snoqualmie Pass (2017); Sun Valley, Ketchum and the Wood River Valley (2020); Skiing Sun Valley: a History from Union Pacific to the Holdings (2020) and Ski Jumping in Washington State: a Nordic Tradition (2021). He also helped organize two exhibits on ski jumping: “Sublime Sights: Ski Jumping in Nordic America” at Seattle’s National Nordic Museum in 2021; and “Skiers in Flight: Sun Valley’s Ski Jumping Roots” at the Regional History Museum in Ketchum, Idaho, in 2022.

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