Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Count of Sun Valley

75 years ago today, Sun Valley Lodge debuted to the world

Express Staff Writer

Photo courtesy The Community Library, Regional History Department, Ketchum, ID. The founders of Sun Valley, Felix Schaffgotsch and Averell Harriman, stand in front of the lodge in 1936.

This extract from the Winter 2012 issue of Sun Valley Guide magazine explains how Count Felix Schaffgostch found Averell Harriman his "valley in the sun." To read the full profile of the count, visit or pick up a copy of the Sun Valley Guide, available throughout the valley.

One winter morning in 1936, Marvin Obenchain strapped on a pair of large wooden skis and made his way from his home on the corner of Sixth and Main in Ketchum, Idaho, to the town's post office. There the 21-year-old helped the mail carrier load his heavy parcels and drive them to the depot to wait for the train. Winter was a quiet time in Ketchum, employment was scarce and Obenchain hoped the train, arriving after an eight-day hiatus, would bring with it some opportunity. As the engine pulled into town, disrupting the silent white landscape, Obenchain watched a tall young man step down into the deep snow. While he didn't know it then, opportunity had indeed arrived—both for him and the small mining town he called home.

"He asked the depot agent if he could call a taxi," recalled Obenchain in a three-page memoir he wrote before his death in 2005. "The agent said there's no such thing but the mail carrier would probably give him a ride to town." Obenchain loaded the man's luggage, which he noted included some very unusual-looking skis. "As we drove toward town he was really looking at the surroundings," he said.

Leaving the stranger and his bags at the town's only hotel, the Bald Mountain Inn & Hot Springs, Obenchain went home wondering why he had come here. The next day the man asked if anyone could go with him on skis to tour the area. Obenchain obliged. "The first morning we climbed the back side of what became Dollar Mountain," he wrote. "He looked the area over, and we skied down across Elk Horn and up the mountain toward East Fork. ... The next morning we hiked on the hot water line to Guyer Hot Springs and skied the area below Dollar Lake.

"Then it was back to the top of Dollar Mountain before sun up [to] watch where the first rays hit the valley or field below. After a few mornings of doing that we skied down and as we crossed Trail Creek he asked me to find a good sized piece of tree, which I carried out into the field. It was placed where he thought was where the first rays of sun hit each morning."

The man never told Obenchain what he had in mind, but he found out later that the tree marked the location of the foundations of Sun Valley Lodge. The man was Count Felix Schaffgotsch.


A little over a year earlier, the 31-year-old count had left his home in Altmünster, Austria, at the request of Averell Harriman, chairman of Union Pacific Railroad. He arrived in New York on November 23, 1935. From there he journeyed to Union Pacific Headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, where he began a six-week, 7,000-mile odyssey, zigzagging across the mountains of the western United States. He carried with him a mandate from Harriman to find "A place close to Union Pacific tracks but far enough from a city to prevent it being overrun by weekend skiers arriving in their automobiles. ... A valley with sun pouring in, a dry climate with not too much snow, and yet enough for skiing. ..." Of course it had to be powder snow and "not too wet or too much of it."

The first stop was Tacoma, Washington. Arriving at Mount Rainier's Paradise Lodge on December 2, Schaffgotsch spent two days skiing before traveling south to Portland to inspect Mount Hood. In typical Portland style, it rained. A lot. So much so that the Count never even left his car. "It was beautiful," he said of Portland. "But nowhere was there any snow except slush."

Next he traveled inland to Yosemite National Park in California, where his friend Hannes Schroll was in charge of the ski school. But the weekend crowds pouring in from the nearby cities, which had blighted Mount Rainier for the count, were equally prevalent in Yosemite. "You can't take the mountain from the people," he said to Schroll. And off he went to explore the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California, spending Christmas in Los Angeles. Next it was north to Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border, where he determined the nonstop blizzards would keep skiers indoors. Then over to Reno, Nevada, across the desert to Utah's Zion National Park and up to Cedar City (not enough snow). From southern Utah, he journeyed to central Colorado where he explored Rocky Mountain National Park near Denver, Berthoud Pass (too cold and windy), Steamboat Springs (too high) and Aspen (too many trees).

So, Schaffgotsch returned to Utah empty-handed, and set out hopefully to investigate the mountain towns around Salt Lake City, including Brighton and Alta (too close to Salt Lake City), Ogden Canyon, the Caho Region and the Uinta Mountains on the Utah-Wyoming border.

But by January the perfect spot still eluded him, and he headed dispiritedly to the last state on his list, Idaho. William Hynes, a Union Pacific freight agent (who said later he hadn't known "a damn thing about what the hell a ski resort was"), met the count in Pocatello. They traveled to Victor and took a sleigh through Teton Pass to see Jackson Hole in Wyoming. The count was thrilled with what he saw. "Up there are the best snow conditions I have seen in all my life," he said to Harriman. Sadly for Wyoming, the state refused to keep the pass open in winter, and any other approach was too far from a Union Pacific railroad.

After a brief trip to Spence, Idaho, the count parted ways with Hynes and prepared to return East, failed in his quest. But his parting words to Hynes—"If you find anything, let me know"—stayed with the weary railroad man. Retreating to the Locker Club in Boise for a drink with his friend Joe Stemmer, director of Idaho's Highways Department, Hynes told the tale of his adventures with the Austrian. Stemmer considered for a moment and then said, "Did you look in the Hailey and Ketchum area?" Hynes, who, according to Maury Klein's Union Pacific: Volume II, 1894-1969, had only been to the area once, in the summertime, exclaimed, "By God no, I forgot."

Eleven months later, on December 21, 1936, Sun Valley Lodge opened its doors.

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