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Nelson Bennett had Some Wild Runs with His Ski Patrol Toboggan
Wednesday, January 24, 2024

It’s well known that Sun Valley Resort commissioned and debuted the world’s first ski chairlift. But the ski world also has two Sun Valley ski patrollers to thank for a ski toboggan that is still used today to haul the fallen.

Nelson Bennett, who invented the toboggan with his brother Edward, loved to hob nob with the Ancient Skiers—a group of 55-and-over skiers from the Seattle area who are in Sun Valley enjoying their 40th annual Sun Valley Reunion.

In that vein, Eye on Sun Valley is running this story by John W. Lundin, a Sun Valley-Seattle historian and author who has documented much of Sun Valley’s history in his award-winning book “Skiing Sun Valley: From Union Pacific to the Holdings.”



Beginning in 1946, Nelson Bennett and his brother Edward, working with the Sun Valley Patrol and Engineering Department, designed a ski patrol rescue toboggan that is used all over the country today.

Previously, the ski patrol used a regular toboggan with pads and a rope in the front and back. In his oral history, Nelson described problems they had with the old-style toboggans and mistakes they faced developing the new one.

Nelson realized they needed a new toboggan when he rescued a girl with a sprained ankle in one of Sun Valley’s bowls. He loaded her in the toboggan and began to take her down the hill, but they began to speed up.

He was at the front end of the toboggan, it caught up with him, pushed him into a snow drift, the toboggan flipped upside down and he was knocked over. When he got the girl upright, she was a good sport about the event. She said her ankle was okay but that she’d wet her pants.

Initially, the Bennett brothers used wooden shafts or handles for their toboggan. However, in a test run, with a ski patrolman strapped in simulating a victim, one of the shafts broke going down Christmas Ridge. The toboggan got loose and disappeared into the fog.

Nelson chased it into the bowl where it hit a mogul, went up in the air, flipped over and stopped. The “victim” was yelling “get me out of here.” If the toboggan had not stopped it could have gone all the way down the bowl and killed the person aboard.

So, he and Edward redesigned the shafts using thin wall conduit welded on. They added fins for directional stability, like a center board on a sail boat, so the toboggan would follow the patrolman. And they added a rope on the back to use as an anchor.

The test of the new model down Roundhouse Slope resulted in a well-known Sun Valley story. Nelson was in front and it was performing nicely so he decided to go faster. He turned around and yelled, “Let’s go.” The patrolman in back thought he said, “Let go,” which he did.

The toboggan pushed Nelson and the victim, who was strapped into the toboggan, and they started going faster and faster. Nelson decided, “When in doubt, schuss.”

They did not stop until reaching the bridge at River Run. Thereafter, the ski patrollers used hand signals to avoid confusion and added a chain under the toboggan as a brake. When the front patrolman wanted to increase speed, he pushed down on the handles to raise the rear of the toboggan which released the pressure on the chain and they would coast.

They developed a flexible wood toboggan but most patrols now use a stiff fiberglass version which Nelson did not believe works as well.

The rescue toboggan was put into use at Sun Valley in winter 1949, which Nelson described in an article for the Sun Valley Ski Club titled “The Sun Valley Toboggan.” It was safe, light and easily maneuverable. The toboggan had three removable components--the rescue litter basket, a tail rope and chain and the transport handle and rails--that allowed them to be transported on a single chair lift by one ski patroller.

When the toboggan reached a lift or the bottom of the mountain, its detachable shafts could be removed and the unit used as a stretcher, eliminating the need to move the injured skier from when he was picked up until he reached the hospital.

Two patrolmen covered all accidents, one in front and one in back. The second one skied behind the toboggan using a rope to maneuver and a brake, which could be looped under the unit and used as a rough-lock. Two fins on the bottom give control to the toboggan.

Each toboggan has a two-inch foam pad that insulates and cushions the patient, a tarpaulin and two wool blankets, and a first-aid kit, which all together only weighed 70 pounds. The Bennetts decided not to patent the device so it could be cheaply replicated for use by other ski patrols. They gave the design to the National Ski Patrol in 1950. The features of their toboggan are still used in virtually every rescue toboggan around the world

Nelson Bennett became a Sun Valley ski patrolman during the 1940-1941 season, becoming the resort’s second Ski Patrol Director in January 1941, replacing Eusebio (Sebby) Arriaga who joined the Ski School. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire, was on its ski team, and worked at Peckett’s Inn on Sugar Hill. 

His first year at Sun Valley, the Ski Patrol improved College Run, where fallen trees were left when the run was cut creating ruts and grooves that had to be skied around with shovel crews filling in the areas between them.  They removed the trees the following summer.

The Ski Patrol’s priority was shoveling and packing snow to prepare courses, maintaining first aid supplies and evacuating injured skiers.  Ski patrollers were stationed on the top of the mountain waiting for reports of ski injuries relayed by lift operators.  There were five or six members of the ski patrol when he took over and that number doubled in 1942.

During World War II, Nelson served in predecessor of the 10th Mountain Division, the 87th Infantry Battalion, training at Fort Lewis, Wash. He transferred to Camp Hale where he trained troops in skiing and rock climbing.  He and his brother Eddie saw significant combat in Italy with the 10th, before he was sent home because of a medical condition. 

Bennett, who had expanded and created a number of ski runs on Baldy, returned to Sun Valley after the war as Superintendent of Recreational Facilities, later Mountain Manager, and stayed until 1960, when he left to become General Manager of White Pass, Wash. 

Bennett was an official in a number of international ski races, head of the U.S. Alpine Ski program in the 1956 Olympics, Assistant Director of ski events at the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley and Chief of Course for the men’s downhill at the Lake Placid Olympics.  He was inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1986.

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