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For the week of December 5 - 11, 2001

  Arts & Entertainment

In the spirit of Dick Durrance: adventures in the ski film trade

By DICK DORWORTH
Express Staff Writer


Reggie Crist takes on the Alaska steeps. Photo by GVD

Thanks to people like Warren Miller, ski films have found their own popular niche in the film industry. The man, however, who started it all and showed the way for guys like Miller was a ski racer named Dick Durrance. The films he made are now considered classics. Inspired by Durrance’s film making and skiing prowess, several Wood River Valley residents recently skied in and produced a ski film titled "Ultimate Descents." The film aired Wednesday, Nov. 21, on the Outdoor Life Network. It weaves together a history about Durrance and his accomplishments with a recent ski adventure to Alaska during which Reggie, Zach and Danielle Crist, Gerry Moffat, Pete Patterson and current Olympic hopeful Daron Rahlves skied the steep terrain near Haines, Alaska. Dick Dorworth participated in the film and ski project and wrote the following article, which will appear in two installments.


 

Sun Valley, Idaho, March 1940: 
"I had to take it straight."

In the downhill race of his life Dick Durrance approaches the Steilhang on Warm Springs—now known as International—with inspired abandon and great speed. It is the second time Warm Springs has been used for the race, and the previous year he had been beaten on it. This year Durrance has trained harder than ever. In his distinctive style, with skis apart and body crouched low and stable, he neither slows nor flinches as he drops onto the steepest face of the hardest downhill in America. Despite his speed—probably in the vicinity of 60 mph—he wears no goggles. His skis are wooden and hand made, his boots are lace up and made of leather, and he is dressed in baggy gabardine pants and a sweater. A bandanna covers his head. Though he shusses the entire face with characteristic courage and assurance, he later said, "At that point I do remember the fear of God sweeping over me, and I started talking to myself: Whoa, this is too fast. I was cussing in German and English, This is bad, I’m in trouble. But there was no choice, I had to take it straight."

He comes off the Steilhang with too much speed to make the sharp turn into the Warm Spring gully. "And here were these two things coming up at me at the bottom," he said, "a log pile where they’d stacked the trees when the trail was cut, which I was sure I didn’t want to hit, and a grove of small trees. So I did the best I could to get around the corner, and then I could see this grove of saplings. It was obvious I wasn’t going to make it. I was headed for the trees, and there was no way I could stop or avoid them, so it was just grunt and groan and ride it out. People say I skied right over one tree, and how big that tree was depends on who’s doing the telling, but I don’t really remember any one specific tree. I do know I was knocked backwards, so I was dragging my hands, but I was able to summon enough strength to rise back up. And nobody was as surprised as I was that I came out again."

Durrance maintains balance and keeps going, only slightly slowed and bruised by the encounter. "Himmel, you’re a lucky son-of-a-gun," he says to himself, quickly regaining speed and continuing down the race course.

A potential disaster for the country’s finest skier became, instead, a defining moment in the spirit (and history) of American skiing, and a cornerstone of the legend of its most respected and influential citizen.

Dick Durrance, America’s first great alpine ski racer, is in the fourth annual Harriman Cup which he won the first two years and then lost last year. He is hoping to win for the third time and become the first to retire the cup. Durrance skis the rest of the race much faster than his competitors, but just before the finish he goes off the course a second time, falling into a crowd of spectators. He has to get back up and walk across the finish line, but still manages to win the race, beating World Champion Walter Prager, and retire the Harriman Cup.

It is the stuff of heroes and it is the last big ski race of an original champion whose spirit and imagination has formed and inspired American skiing ever since. In fact, it is the last great race of an era of American skiing.

 

"We’ve lived a good life."

Within two years America was engulfed in World War II. Durrance and his contemporaries fought that war and returned to establish the foundation of modern skiing in the United States. One man does not determine the entire path of a sport and way of life as varied and encompassing as skiing. But from time to time in every enterprise there are individuals who epitomize and inspire the spirit and accomplishment of the best of their particular facet of human endeavor. Dick Durrance is such a man. An art major graduate of Dartmouth College, he was America’s original ski filmmaker, as well as its first great ski racer. And just before the war he was instrumental in developing Alta, America’s second principal ski resort (after Sun Valley). His films from that time and Alta itself are classics. Post WWII ski filmmaker Warren Miller said it best: "Dick was the one that everyone copied. Dick was, and always will be the influential trend setter wherever he travels."

By the end of the war Dick and Miggs Durrance had two sons, Dick Jr. and Dave. For two years after the war Dick made films, manufactured and sold (wooden) skis and sold ski lifts to support his family. In October 1947 the president of the Aspen skiing Corporation asked him to direct the Aspen ski area. He was given free rein to oversee the area so long as it was profitable. Durrance did just that, changing the course of American skiing in the process. He put in new lifts, cut new runs on Ajax Mountain to make it accessible to intermediate skiers, and, most importantly, cut new runs for and brought the 1950 FIS World Championships to Aspen. He also made the best ski racing film of its time about those races, titled "Ski Champs." Like so many things associated with Durrance, the film is a classic of its genre. He says, "If I’ve made a contribution to American skiing in general, I think that the 1950 FIS in Aspen would be it…..After that Aspen began to prosper and grow—in part because we now had good, wide, recreational runs." The rest of American skiing followed suit. It is not too much to assert that all of American skiing has followed and been molded by Aspen, and Aspen was largely shaped and given its direction by Dick Durrance. Shortly after the FIS races, Durrance, being true to his own spirit and following his passion, gave up the security of running America’s leading ski resort for the precarious adventure of making films. And he continued to do so for the next 40 years.

Late in life he summed up his guiding philosophy, one that takes a certain spirit to follow, the spirit of Dick Durrance: "Making a ton of money never was our goal in life, and as a result we never did. We always had enough, and we’ve lived a good life. We almost always lived in resorts where there was a lot going on….Our goal in life has been to enjoy doing the things we do, and try to do them well."

 

Sun Valley, Idaho, March 2001: 
"Who knows where it will go from here?"

Dick Durrance is 86 years old and walks with a cane and a considerable stoop, a consequence of two car wrecks and three back surgeries. He sits on a bench a mile outside Sun Valley by the Trail Creek Road with Miggs, his wife of more than 60 years, and Reggie and Zach Crist, both past racers for the U.S. Ski Team. It is a sunny, clear day. Bald Mountain and the Warm Springs run are visible a few miles away. Durrance is a small, balding man with tiny, hawkish features and a mind as sharp and clear as his startling blue eyes. He has a keen wit, an innate humility and a no-nonsense, relaxed demeanor that comes with 86 well-lived years and lots of laughter. Dick and Miggs and the Crists talk about skiing and Sun Valley from the 1930s to the present, and of the enormous changes 60 years has brought to the world. And they speak of the differences and similarities between generations and of the basics which never change—the spirit of adventure, the courage to follow your passion, the commitment of living your dreams, the imagination to create higher standards and new adventures.

In Durrance’s day there were few ski lifts. Many ski races consisted of competitors climbing up a mountain and skiing down an unprepared slope by any route they chose. Snow conditions, needless to say, were variable. The skier who figured out and was able to ski the fastest line won. Reggie, an Olympic downhiller who raced for 10 years on the World Cup tour where courses are precisely proscribed and prepared with $200,000 machines and battalions of workers, is amazed to hear of Durrance’s skiing and racing experiences. In Reggie’s day, powder mornings on Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain see every possible line skied out two hours after the lifts open.

"You must have had a lot of first tracks," Reggie says to Dick.

"That’s all there was," Durrance replies without hesitation, his blue eyes flashing with amusement. "Everything we did was all new ground, and we kept coming up with ways to improve our skiing and the equipment and the conditions. Mostly we found ways to go faster and to ski more difficult terrain. That’s what we had to do. And look where it has come to. Who knows where it will go from here?"


Part two will be published next week.

 


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.