Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Going Nordic with Hans Muehlegger

Valley People

Express Staff Writer

Longtime Sun Valley ski instructor, trail builder and cross-country ski racer Hans Muehlegger retired two years ago as the head of the Sun Valley Snowsports School. Soon afterward he was inducted into the Sun Valley Ski Hall of Fame.

But that doesn't mean Muehlegger will be slowing down. Cross-country skiing, both classic and skating, remains his favorite hobby. He also enjoys road and mountain biking, downhill skiing, snowboarding, fly-fishing and hiking.

"There is no other place that could give me more enjoyment than the Wood River Valley," he said.

Muehlegger was born in Auffach, Austria, in 1940, at the start of World War II. His father was the principal of the local school and organized ski races. Muehlegger began skiing when he was very young, using homemade equipment. He and his older brother found some broken-down, leftover skis from the Army, cut them in half and moved the bindings until they were good enough to go straight downhill.

"Because they were old, they didn't have much bend in the front," Muehlegger said, so the boys steamed them over the kitchen stove and then bent them into shape. "We always had to do this when our Mom was not home. She wouldn't have appreciated it."

At the age of 12, Muehlegger and a friend decided to enter the district ski championships, which were held in a town on the other side of the mountain. In order to get there, they had to hike up the mountain, which usually took about two hours.

Because it snowed about 12 inches the night before the race, they got up about 5:30 a.m., put skins on their skis and trudged three hours to get to the top, then skied down the other side, signed up for the race, waxed their skis and hiked back up to the start of the race.

"By the time it was over, I had won the race," Muehlegger said. "From that point on, I was all fired-up for ski racing.

"In those days they had no electric timing or radios. In one race they positioned a man with a big black umbrella on top of a hay barn to mark the start. In those days we didn't have any safety protection, like helmets and release bindings. The only way your binding released is if you ripped it off or broke the ski in half."

After suffering a concussion in a race, Meuhlegger decided to start teaching skiing, and in 1963 took his full Austrian instructor's certification test. In 1966, he was hired by Sun Valley Co. After teaching group lessons for a few years, he was hired by a couple from Los Angeles to be their private instructor for the whole winter season.

"We skied from about 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Afterwards, I sat in my room and didn't know what to do with my spare time. That's when I decided to start cross-country skiing."

Skiing legend Leif Odmark got his first Cushman groomer about that time, using it to set classic tracks around the Sun Valley Golf Course.

"I went to Snug [ski shop] and bought myself a pair of Fischer Europe cross-country skis with three-pin bindings, leather boots and bamboo poles with baskets half the size of a dinner plate. I got hooked on cross-country skiing."

At that time, Bill and Annie Vanderbilt opened up Bigwood Nordic Center, known for its excellent groomed trails, professional Nordic ski school and Annie's brownies. Muehlegger started to enter races organized by Bill Vanderbilt, skier Bob Rosso and Odmark.

"We had quite a competitive masters race group in the valley. That was also the time [local resident] Kevin Swigert won the national championship, and Billy Koch was winning World Cup races with his new technique, called skate skiing."

To stay in condition in the summer, Meuhlegger started road biking and later added a mountain bike to his collection of sports gear. In 1987, he won three gold medals in the National Mountain Bike Championships, in the Masters' Division, then went on to Mammoth Mountain, Calif., and ended up winning three more gold medals in the hill climb, cross-country and overall in the Masters' Division in the World Mountain Bike Championships.

In 1987, Sun Valley Co. took over the Nordic operation from Odmark upon his retirement. It gave Meuhlegger the opportunity to run the Sun Valley Nordic Center.

"My vision always was that every alpine skier in the valley should also be a Nordic skier. And every young child should start out on cross-country skis."

In order to achieve that goal, Sun Valley needed more groomed Nordic trails. Meuhlegger added Diamondback, Proctor and Boundary loops to the existing Nordic Center trail system, bringing the total trails from 10 kilometers to 40 kilometers.

In 1999, he was called back to be director of the Snowsports School, overseeing both the alpine ski and snowboard school and the Nordic operations. He also continued cross-country ski racing, winning 10 National Masters Cross-Country Championships.

Meuhlegger still extols the virtues of skiing.

"You will have something you can enjoy for the rest of your life," he said.

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