Sun Valley History: The origins of the Torchlight Parade

Torches will glide down Dollar Mountain this Christmas Eve during Sun Valley's Torchlight Parade

Monday night members of the Sun Valley Snowsports School will gather with lighted torches to ski in unison down Dollar Mountain in the Torchlight Parade. This spellbinding trail of fire has snaked down the mountainside almost every Christmas Eve for the last 75 years, providing a unique spectacle for the crowds assembled below.

To get the scoop on this centerpiece of Sun Valley’s Christmas celebrations, I spoke with Nelson Bennett, 98, an early director of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol. Bennett arrived at the resort in 1940 and is one of the last people with memories from the resort’s infancy. “Friedl Pfeiffer was instrumental in starting the parade,” Bennett recalls. “I believe it was in his second winter season. It was something he brought from Austria. It occurred each Christmas on Dollar Mountain.”

A famed Austrian ski racer, Pfeiffer joined the Sun Valley Ski School in 1938, taking over from Hans Hauser as director later that winter. Pfeiffer left the resort in 1941 following the outbreak of WWII. While his Austrian origins initially aroused the suspicion of the FBI, he voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. army and fought with the 10th Mountain Division, along with Bennett and others from Sun Valley. After the war, Purple Heart in hand, he headed straight for Colorado to found Aspen ski resort.

Friedl Pfeifer, director of the Sun Valley Ski School from 1939 to 1941, brought the Torchlight Parade to Sun Valley from his home of St. Anton, Austria.

“It was sort of interesting to be watching [the parade] from the valley or the village,” Bennett continued. “Because every so often a torch would get out of line and you’d come to find out that the torch had an intoxicated skier on it,” he said with a chuckle.

After a few years as a spectator, Bennett came to participate in the tradition himself. “Yes, I skied in it eventually,” he said. “Led the damn thing down the hill in later years.”

This year the parade is dedicated to the memory of Andy and Alice Schernthanner, two local residents who passed away this year following a collective century involved in Sun Valley and skiing. It will be the first time the parade has been a dedicated event.

Happy holidays!
Jennifer Tuohy

The torchlight parade and holiday fireworks begin at approximately 5:30 p.m., December 24, following the free performance of Nutcracker on Ice at the Sun Valley outdoor ice rink, which begins at 5 p.m. Free hot chocolate, cookies, carol singing and visits from Santa round out the festivities along with free ice skating after the show.

For more reminiscences from Nelson Bennett read this recent interview in Sun Valley Guide magazine.

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