It is not often that you have the opportunity to break bread with the pioneers, the forerunners, the legends of skiing. Last week, I had the pleasure and the privilege of doing just that as I spent a few sunny afternoons in the company Mary Jane Conger and Nelson Bennett. My takeaway from our conversations was that their stories belong in a book, not a blog, but I will try to do justice to at least the basics.
Nelson, a spry 98-year-old who bears a striking resemblance to Kirk Douglas, and his dear friend Mary Jane, who is in her late 80s but looks 20 years younger, painted a picture of their early years in Sun Valley that made me wish for a time machine. Mary Jane is a Sun Valley native, the granddaughter of the Ketchum pioneer Al Griffith and sister of Jimmy Griffith, Sun valley’s first native born skier named to the U.S. Olympic team. She was a formidable ski racer in her own right, winning the 1952 Harriman Cup slalom, and skiing on a team with Gretchen Fraser and the other best athletes of the day. Her passion for the sport took her all over the country, but she loved skiing here. “The skiing was great, it couldn’t have been more exciting,” she said. “The best skiers in the country were in Sun Valley in 1940 to train for the 1944 Olympics that ended up being canceled because of World War II. But having the top skiers on Baldy upped the ante. I chased those boys around that hill!”
Nelson pulled into Sun Valley during the summer of 1940, secured a job for the winter, circled home to New Hampshire to collect his things and hurried back. He made the entire trip from Lancaster, New Hampshire, to Shoshone, Idaho, by Union Pacific Railroad. He stayed for 20 years straight, excluding a stint in the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division that took him to Italy. As we celebrate Ski Safety Week, it should be mentioned that Nelson was one of the original members and leaders of Sun Valley Ski Patrol. “Back then it was a lot of maintenance, a lot of shoveling,” he laughed, “a lot of keeping skiers safe in the trees.” During his tenure as a patroler, Nelson invented the prototype of the toboggan used to carry injured skiers off the hill. His original design, constructed entirely from found materials, broke down into three pieces, allowing it to be carried on the narrow single chairlifts. Today’s sleds look a lot like Nelson’s original.
Over tea, Nelson and Mary Jane reminisced about life before high-speed quads and Beast-caliber groomers. Back in the day, they explained, they groomed ski runs with their boot and their skis. The two laughed about the tree over Warm Springs that served as a bridge, the deep powder years, the unbridled joy of skiing every bit of snow on Baldy. Oh, and then there was the time the beer truck hit a power line pole south of town, knocking out electricity and grinding the lifts to a halt. Nelson and his fellow patrolers had to evacuate everyone by rope, chair-by-chair.
This week, Nelson, a member of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, is back in town to see his friends, members of the Ancient Skiers. This club was founded in 1962 and boasts approximately 1000 members. For the remainder of January, hundreds of members of the Ancient Skiers and the Mount Hood Gang will make their annual pilgrimage to Sun Valley to reunite with friends, participate in race clinics, free-ski, enjoy parties, dinners and movies, and give a big toast to the mountain culture that shaped their lives. An honorary lifetime member of the Ancient Skiers, Nelson and his companion, Madi Springer-Miller Kraus, a 1958 FIS World Championship skier, plan to make the rounds, as does Mary Jane. Nelson declared that at 98, he might finally be ready to hang up his skis, but his passion for the sport and the lifestyle will never be retired.
Many thanks to Nelson and Mary Jane (& Madi) for sharing their stories, their memories, their infectious love for skiing and for Sun Valley. I hope we can continue the conversation.