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Hans Thum Provided Sun Valley with a Half-Century of Austrian Charm
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Sunday, April 21, 2024
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

For years Hans Thum has endowed Sun Valley Resort with an Old World charm, readily apparent in his soft Austrian accent and the twinkle in his eye.

The resort will be a little less Old Worldly in the years to come. Thum, one of the last of the Austrian ski instructors at Sun Valley, has retired after 55 years at Sun Valley.

“Time goes by fast,” he said. “I managed to stay healthy and keep out of injuries. There was some luck involved and I tried to ski cautiously, always thinking about my guests so I never get them in a bad situation.”

Thum cut an elegant presence on the snow, his skis matched closely together as he taught a wide range of people from first-time visitors to celebrities to members of the Mountain Masters ski group.

“Stay exactly in my track,” he told them. “You be my shadow and then in no time you will feel comfortable about this.”

“Hans is the best of the best,” former Sun Valley SnowSports School Director Tony Parkhill said of the man. “He’s an elegant skier and a wonderful gentleman who understands the sport better than most.”

Born in 1938 in Sun Valley’s sister city of Kitzbuhel, Austria, Thum started skiing when he was 3. None of the T-bars or gondolas were running during his youth because of World War II, said his son Hannes Thum, a teacher at Sun Valley Community School. And there were no lifts at that time so Thum had to hike up the mountain in his heavy leather boots and heavy wooden skis to make his turns.

At 16 he learned how to paint traditional Austrian fresco murals called “lueftelmalerei” under the tutelage of a master craftsman. It was a blessing, he said, since it was hard to get any kind of work in  Austria following World War II.

Thum traveled throughout Austria with his mentor, painting and restoring elaborate scenes of mountains and people on the walls of pensions, inns and churches.

“In Austria and Bavaria all the houses and pensions are decorated. It’s tradition, and the lueftelmalerei are very rich, very beautiful,” he said.

Thum began working as a ski instructor for the Austrian Ski School in 1957 during the winter when he couldn’t paint. He crossed the pond in 1966 to teach skiing at Vermont’s Sugarbush Resort and in 1968  found his way west, one of dozens of Austrian ski instructors recruited by fellow Kitzbuhler Sigi Engl to work for the Sun Valley Ski School.

In those days, he recalled, the roads in Elkhorn were dirt covered.

“All the early ski resorts went after Austrian ski instructors—not German, not French—because the skiing community there was well known. It had a good reputation,” he recounted. “Sigi always hired people from there because he was a native of Kitzbuhel—he raced in the famous Hahnenkamm downhill race.”

Thum planned on spending one season at Sun Valley, just to put it on his resume. But it was a bountiful snow year, he liked the clients he worked with and he found a large community of Austrians from Kitzbuhel in Sun Valley to sup with over dumplings and goulash. And, so, after two seasons he made the tough decision to create a new home in Idaho.

“Sigi Engl was a good guy who took care of his instructors, but he was demanding because the reputation of the ski school was so important to him,” Thum recounted. “He knew almost all the private guests personally and he would take you aside and say, ‘I expect you to take care of so and so.’ ”

In those days, Thum said, everything happened in Sun Valley, rather than Ketchum, because Sun Valley is where the guests, including the Hollywood celebrities, stayed.

“In those days we skied with the same group Monday through Saturday and everybody met at the Ram or Boiler Room for beer and parties. There was no karaoke but we did the hokey pokey, which is said to have been invented here,” he said.

In the summers, when he wasn’t teaching skiing, Thum worked with fellow ski instructor Florian Haemmerle from Bavaria to paint knights and other murals on the exterior walls of the Sun Valley Inn and the Sun Valley Opera House.

Painting took him to other towns and countries, and it took him just a few miles from his home in Elkhorn as he painted murals on private homes near Knob Hill and on Saddle and Fairway roads and on the Edelweiss condominiums in Warm Springs where a painting commemorating the 1809 Tyrolean Rebellion against Napoleon and King Maximillian I of Bavaria overlooked skiers lined up for hot dogs at Irving’s Red Hots.

Thum spent one summer manning Baldy’s Mayday fire lookout.

“I stayed overnight. I got to see some pretty sunsets and a few thunderstorms and it was fun. But I never had to report a fire.”

He also spent one summer with a colleague cutting trees on the steep Upper Greyhawk slope on the Warm Springs side of Bald Mountain.

“Every time I skied down Greyhawk, I would tell my class that I cut that run,” he said.

Thum skied with many notable students over the years, including Ethel Kennedy, actor Tim Allen and Sam Goldwyn of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios. But he prided himself on gravitating towards the “never-evers,” those who had never been on skis before.

Skiing looked different in the early days, Thum said. He and other ski instructors took their groups down Turkey Bowl, skiing to the highway where they boarded a bus that took them back to River Run. Sun Valley Resort added that area to its inbound terrain during the 2018-19 season, expanding the Broadway run so Turkey Bowl skiers could access the new Broadway lift.

One of his early clients always flew him to the top of the mountain to start the day because he didn’t want to take three slow lifts up in the mountain in the days before high-speed chairlifts like the new Challenger six-pack, which can ferry skiers and boarders to the top of Baldy in eight minutes.

Skiing Sun Valley is different from skiing Austria, Thum said.

“Back in Austria, we would ski a bit, stop and eat, ski a bit and stop again. Here we ski without a break. We go back up and back down. Go, go, go. The skiing is so different here and Baldy so unique because the mountain goes so continuously down.”

Thum says he has no intention of hanging up his skis, even if he will no longer be spending up to seven hours a day on the slopes teaching.

“After 55 seasons, it feels pretty good to ski, ski and not ski a little!”

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