Friday, April 2, 2010

The final turn

Hans Muehlegger retires after 43 years at Sun Valley Resort

Express Staff Writer

A young Hans Muehlegger races down Bald Mountain. Photo by

Decades before Austrian native Arnold Schwarzenegger discovered Sun Valley's slopes and had a Bald Mountain trail dubbed "Arnold's Run" in his honor, numerous other Austrians flocked to the same slopes.

In the 1960s, the central European country produced the world's elite ski instructors through a three-year certification process. And many of these skiers had a distant sunspot in their eyes that they'd cross the Atlantic Ocean and much of America to reach. It was the Sun Valley they'd only heard about. The Sun Valley Ski School accumulated about 30 Austrian instructors in the 1960s, making up half of the school.

Blond-haired, blue-eyed Hans Muehlegger was one of these Austrian athletes, having traveled here from his small hometown of Auffach in 1966 at the age of 26 to work on the mountain. He eventually rose to the position of ski school director.

The passing decades have chipped away at the original Austrian entourage one man at a time until few are left. This season, Muehlegger decided his forty-third consecutive winter working at numerous jobs with the resort would be his last. But his retirement isn't an act of succumbing to the weight of 69 years stacked on his shoulders.

He's actually retiring to be more active and do everything he didn't have time for while he was working: mountain and road biking, hiking, fishing and, of course, skiing.

On Wednesday, he agreed to take an hour-long break between downhill skiing on Baldy in the morning and Nordic skiing on the Harriman Trail in the afternoon for an interview in the River Run Lodge. Even sitting down, he doesn't slow down, whether he knows it or not.

For the near hour spent in his chair, he never stopped twirling his thumbs while the fingers of both hands lay woven together on his lap. He's in perpetual motion, like a planet. And like a planet, it's natural, not forced like running on a treadmill. When he bicycles 40 miles north over Galena Summit to Alturas Lake, he enjoys it.

His straw-colored hair has been drained of its color. Wrinkles cascade down his cheeks from the far corners of his eyes when he smiles—which is often—but his movements are still smooth and energetic, painless, like someone half his age.

The valley has kept him young, lively.

"I do everything the valley offers," he said with a still-thick Austrian accent.

He even started snowboarding five years ago but said he keeps to skis about 70 percent of the time.

And retirement won't mean a departure from the valley.

"Life without the mountain, I cannot see that," he said.

He originally came here in 1966 solely because of the ski mountain shadowing Ketchum, wanting to experience the "prestige" of the resort.

"I fell in love with Sun Valley," he said.

It was much different than Auffach, where there was skiing but no lifts.

"For every turn I made, I had to hike first," he said.

He still visits Austria and his family every few years, but said Sun Valley is and always has been "home."

However, his first 10 years in America were split between Sun Valley winters and Long Beach, Calif., summers, where he worked as a sports car mechanic. When he met a woman in California whom he eventually married, he was forced to pick a place.

"I decided I could never live without the mountain in the winter," he said.

They moved here full-time in 1975 and eventually had a son and daughter. Muehlegger then worked summers at a Porsche dealership in present-day Ketchum City Hall, fixing cars. When that business moved to Hailey, he became a partner of Mountain Motors in Ketchum. But that dissolved in 1985, and he started working for Sun Valley Resort through the summers as a mechanic. He started as a ski instructor but had many jobs with the resort over the years: ski school supervisor, Nordic center director and finally ski school director.

During that time, he's traveled the world as a ski racer—which he started doing at age 10—and also won numerous mountain bike and Nordic skiing races.

But he doesn't have many pictures to commemorate his accomplishments or the simple, special moments. He wouldn't have it any other way.

"Those moments are for me. I keep them in here," he said and points to his temple.

A photo may capture the scene, whether it's Muehlegger slicing through a powder-covered slope three decades ago in a bright yellow jacket, or holding a fish he caught in the Big Wood River. But, he said, a photo couldn't capture or express what he felt at that moment after spending hours in the flowing waters waiting for a bite.

"That's for me and no one else," he said and draws his up-faced hands toward his gut as if he were holding something against his stomach.

A photo would fall short, cheapen the moments.

Trevon Milliard:

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