Skiing great Durrance dies
‘The greatest skier this country ever
By JEFF CORDES
Express Staff Writer
Olympian Dick Durrance, who universally
was considered the first world-class alpine racer from the U.S., died Sunday
from natural causes at Carbondale, Colo., north of Aspen. He was 89.
U.S. skiing legend Dick Durrance claims
possession of the Harriman Cup after winning the race for the third time in
1940. Sun Valley Resort founder Averell Harriman applauds Durrance’s success.
Sun Valley Resort photo
Durrance, the finest ski racer of his time
and a 17-time national champion, had deep links with Sun Valley dating back to
the resort’s origin.
He has been forever linked with Sun Valley
as a three-time winner of the Harriman Cup in 1937, 1938 and 1940. Durrance was
also instrumental in the early development of the Warm Springs ski run on Baldy.
While an undergraduate art major at
Dartmouth, the 22-year-old Durrance came to Sun Valley the first winter the ski
resort was open in 1936-37. Here, he won both the Open and Amateur classes in
downhill, slalom and combined in the first-ever Harriman Cup.
"It was the first international
competition in this country," said Durrance about the Harriman Cup, in a 1985
Idaho Mountain Express interview. Sun Valley founder Averell Harriman spared no
expense in attracting the world’s best ski racers.
The Harriman Cup at that time was held in
the Boulder Mountains, north of Ketchum near the existing Sawtooth National
Recreation Area headquarters. The site of the first Harriman Cup was later named
Durrance Mountain, after Dick.
What made Durrance’s 1937 Harriman Cup
victory so special was the fact that the best racers were all Europeans, and it
appeared to be a foregone conclusion that one of them, certainly heavy favorite
Hans Hauser, would prevail in the race.
"No one expected an American to beat any
of the Europeans. But we surprised them by being lucky enough to beat them in
all events," said Durrance. "Harriman was so surprised that an American had done
it that he said, ‘I think we ought to name the mountain for you.’ That’s how it
Harriman pledged that any skier who won
the Harriman Cup race three times would get possession of the original trophy.
By 1940, the race was being held on the Warm Springs side of Baldy—and 1939
Dartmouth graduate Durrance was in position to win it again.
"As usual we were walking up on Warm
Springs," said Durrance. "That was the run I laid out because when I first came
here the only thing that was developed was on Dollar, Proctor and Ruud. Mr.
Harriman got me to help lay out the trails and lifts on Baldy."
Harriman also gave Durrance his start in
professional photography, buying him the best press camera of its time and
giving him a summer job in Sun Valley as a publicity photographer.
Not only did Durrance win the 1940
Harriman Cup and add national championships in DH, SL and combined, he met his
future wife Miggs that year in Sun Valley. She was a racer, too. Both were named
to the 1940 Olympic team, but events were canceled because of World War II.
Undeterred, the Durrances bought the Alta
(Utah) ski lodge and lifts, and did everything to get the ski resort off the
ground. "I was through (ski racing) after the war broke out. I was 28 by the
time it ended. So, in 1941, I got a friend of mine to help in taking over Alta,
which hadn’t been developed at the time," he said.
In 1947, after selling the infant area a
T-bar, he was named the first general manager of the young ski area in Aspen,
Colo. He established the one-time mining town as a ski destination when he
attracted the 1950 alpine FIS World Championships to Aspen.
Durrance became vice president and
marketing director for Aspen Skiing Corporation. He was also responsible for the
expansion of Aspen Mountain, including Ruthie’s Run and Silver Queen.
After 1952, when Durrance resigned his
Aspen job, he and Miggs devoted their professional lives to the art, craft and
business of photography.
His ski film, "Sun Valley Ski Chase," was
the first prize winner at the Cortina Film Festival in 1941. "It was my first
film and I must have done a hundred since," Durrance said.
"We suggested that he (Harriman) let us do
a film, a ski chase. We recruited all the ski instructors to be in the film.
After they closed the lifts down, we did the film. Mostly we had to be very
convincing to get all the ski teachers to hike up every foot we skied down. We
baited them with beer."
Durrance also was the chief of race for
the alpine events at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif. He was selected
for membership in the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in 1958.
In 1995 Durrance co-authored his
autobiography, "The Man on the Medal," referring to the medal struck by USSA's
predecessor, the National Ski Association of America, and awarded during U.S.
championships in the 1930s and 1940s. In the book, co-author John Jerome wrote:
"After Averell Harriman, who built the
place (Sun Valley)—and perhaps Ernest Hemingway and Gretchen Fraser—no other
name is so inextricably associated with Sun Valley" as Dick Durrance.
As ski filmmaker Warren Miller wrote of
Durrance, "No other person has ever dominated skiing in America as much, or as
long, as this short man with long skis who made molehills out of mountains."
Durrance was born in Altamonte Springs,
Fla. where his father was in the real estate business. He learned to ski when
his mother impulsively took the five Durrance children to Germany in 1927.
They lived there for five years, at
Garmisch-Partenkirchen near the Zugspitze, tallest mountain in Germany. Dick
Durrance, the second eldest, developed into an outstanding ski racer. In 1932 he
became the first German junior champion. He won other races on the continent.
However, as Hitler began his ascent to
power, the family moved back to the United States. Durrance eventually enrolled
in Dartmouth College and won four college titles.
Dave Bradley, a ski jumper with the 1940
Olympic Team which never competed because of the war and a Dartmouth teammate of
Durrance, said, "Dick Durrance was the greatest skier this country ever
Most skiers in those days, Bradley said,
were four-event skiers "so you went out and practiced for whatever it was. We
learned a great deal about alpine from Dick, who seemed to enjoy coaching us. He
was irrepressible. He had the damnedest, fastest reactions you ever saw."
All his life, Sun Valley had a special
place in Dick’s heart.
In "The Man on the Medal," John Jerome
quoted Durrance as saying, "I’ll never forget the first time I saw Sun Valley in
the summertime, coming up by bus from Shoshone.
"It had just rained, and that was the
first time I smelled sage after a rainfall. It was exhilarating, the nicest,
freshest smell I could imagine. Just the atmosphere itself was fabulous. I loved
Sun Valley. The summers in the Ketchum area were totally unlike anything I’d
Miggs Durrance, Dick’s wife of 62 years,
died in 2002. They are survived by their two sons Dave and Dick Jr. Funeral
arrangements were pending.
(Portions of this report came from the
U.S. Ski Team Web site and other data from Idaho Mountain Express files and
previous published articles).