As the father of the Sun Valley ski patrol Nelson Bennett spent 20 years rescuing people on Bald Mountain. At 98, the World War II veteran and sometime celebrity babysitter reflects on a life spent on snow.
by Katherine Wutz
photos by F. Alfredo Rego
You may not know his name, but you've probably seen his face in a myriad of images from Sun Valley's early days. He's the one standing alongside the more recognizable visages of celebrities such as Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. He's the guy fiddling with Lucille Ball's snowsuit zipper, the one preparing Clark Gable to ski down Dollar Mountain, the one who stands out mostly because he looks like he was born on a pair of skis.
His name is Nelson Bennett. He is one of the first directors of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol and a member of the 10th Mountain Division, the famous World War II ski troops. "Just remember you are speaking to a 98-year-old character," he said with a laugh during a phone interview from his home in Yakima, Washington. Bennett said that while he might not ski this year—his balance and knees aren't what they used to be—he has spent the better part of nine decades on skis.
Born in 1914, Bennett and his brother, Edmund, started "skiing" on barrel staves in their New Hampshire backyard as children. His grandfather jury-rigged bindings out of leather straps, and a love for snow sports was born. "The snow was there, and kids are going to play in the snow," Bennett said.
Bennett got his first pair of real skis at age 13 and learned his first ski turn—a Telemark—from a book he checked out of the Lancaster Public Library. He practiced it on a small hill in his backyard. His first job after high school was at a ski resort, washing dishes at Peckett's Inn in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, the location of America's first ski school.
In the summer of 1940, after skiing his way through college and earning degrees in forestry and civil engineering, Bennett took a job as a surveyor for a lumber company in Northern California. But once he realized he would be stuck inside for the entire winter, he determined to find something more exhilarating to do during the snowy months. "Obviously, being a skier, I had heard of Sun Valley," he said. He took a leave of absence and headed to the storied resort.
After driving for a full day and night—sleeping in his brand-new 1940 Ford convertible outside the Ketchum city dump—Bennett walked into the Challenger Inn and straight into Dick Durrance, whom he had raced against on his college ski team. "Dick was the top skier in the country at the time," Bennett said. "We had a good visit, some coffee and so forth, and I mentioned, 'I think I would like to work at Sun Valley.'"
Durrance, whose advice lodge owner Averell Harriman relied upon to staff the Sun Valley Ski School, was working at the resort that summer as a publicity photographer. He used his connections to secure Bennett a position on the fledgling Sun Valley Ski Patrol. After a trip back to New Hampshire, Bennett reported for work in the winter of 1940-41. Shortly after his return, the original head of the ski patrol, Eusebio "Sebby" Arriaga, was shifted to a ski instructor position, and Bennett was made director of the six-man ski patrol. "I still don't know why," he said with a laugh. "I was the newest, greenest patrolman."
That season was the ski patrol's second. Before 1939, skiing was only on Dollar and Proctor mountains, both largely treeless slopes where the skiers were in classes and under the supervision of an instructor. But when the first lifts opened on Bald Mountain in 1939, Friedl Pfeiffer, director of the ski school, formed the patrol. "He didn't want to lose anyone in the woods!" Bennett said.
The ski patrol took charge of trail maintenance, cutting new runs and trails by hand with machetes and scythes (Lower College was designed and built by Bennett), but their main directive was guest safety. They provided first aid and transportation of injured skiers off the mountain. In case of an injury, a guest or ski instructor would contact a lift operator, who would call the top of the mountain. A patrolman would ski down and assist the guest. Bennett's original plan, he said, was to stay for one winter and then return to the lumber company. That plan slowly faded with each day that he skied and worked at the resort. "By the end of the season, I thought, 'Well, this is really nice!'" he said. "There was snow and skiing on a level I'd never experienced, and I thought maybe I ought to stay."
Stay he did, working the summer sports desk through the off-season and returning to the ski patrol the next winter. But Bennett's first run as a ski patroller was cut short by World War II, and in December 1942 he was drafted into the Army. He was accepted into the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division, which was deployed to Naples, Italy. Bennett didn't spend too much time in Italy before he was evacuated due to a burst ulcer. His brother Edmund was also fighting in the 10th Mountain Division, and a visit at a key time led to Bennett's evacuation and medical discharge. "My brother visited me one night in my foxhole, and I could barely lift my rucksack," he remembered. "My brother was responsible for saving my life."
Edmund continued on to fight with the 10th as it broke through German defenses near the Po Valley, securing Gargnano and Porto di Tremosine in late April 1945, and acting as security after the Germans surrendered in May. The division was set to take part in a mainland invasion of Japan, but when Japan surrendered in August 1945, it was sent back home.
After the war the brothers returned to Sun Valley. Edmund worked as a waiter in the Duchin Room and eventually became manager of food services for all facilities outside of the main dining rooms of the Sun Valley Lodge, while Bennett returned to the slopes.
Even before the resort reopened to the public, Bennett was enlisted to babysit the ever-present celebrities. In the winter of 1945-46, while the Sun Valley Lodge was still being used as a naval hospital, Rocky Cooper—wife of movie star Gary Cooper—was desperate to get to Sun Valley and ski with friends Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lindstrom and Clark Gable. Though they could not stay at the lodge, Sun Valley Manager Pat Rogers arranged for them to stay in town and go skiing with certain members of the ski patrol, including Bennett. "The lifts were not open," Bennett said. "It was very good skiing on Dollar, but you had to climb—and we did."
A picture taken by a Sun Valley staff photographer shows a beaming Bennett, Cooper and Bergman, but Gable is scowling at the lens. "Everyone is lined up for the picture, everyone looking happy as the devil—except Clark Gable," Bennett said. "He was frowning, and we didn't find out why until after. He was worried about getting down!"
Bennett acted as a stunt double for several notable male actors, and fondly remembers working with Lucille Ball while she was filming Lucy Goes to Sun Valley in 1958. Ball's stunt double was meant to film a scene involving the start of a ski race, but fell and broke her leg during the course of the filming. So Bennett helped Ball prepare to do the shot herself, with several ski patrol members waiting to catch her 100 or so feet down slope. Before the scene could be shot, Ball had a zipper stick on her jumpsuit. Bennett came to her rescue. "I have had a little experience with zippers, so I have a picture of me kneeling in front of Lucille, fiddling with her zipper," he said with a laugh.
Bennett's story continued to interweave with the history of Sun Valley Resort until he left in 1960 for a job at the White Pass ski resort near Yakima, Washington, where he still lives. His oldest daughter, Charlotte, was born in 1949 at the hospital in Sun Valley.
After the war, Bennett and his first wife, Bobbe, lived in apartments in the Trail Creek Village building at the south end of Ketchum. Later, he and his brother bought the building. Bennett also built the low, gray house across Highway 75 that today houses Sew Simple Alterations and Alpine Enterprises.
But his biggest impression on Sun Valley still resonates with skiers and ski patrollers today. In 1946 Bennett began work on a ski rescue toboggan that would more efficiently allow ski patrollers to bring injured skiers down the mountain. "When I (arrived in) Sun Valley ... the rescue toboggan was a pleasure-type toboggan, period," he said. "There was just a pad and a rope on the front and a rope on the back."
Bennett began to think about the various ways the toboggan could be improved, experimenting with wooden shafts and braking systems, building prototypes using the skills he learned working in his uncle's machine shop. He tested his creations on ski patrollers, who drew straws to determine who would be the passenger and who would be in charge of trying to keep the toboggan under control. After a few trials went awry (including once when a resort visitor with a sprained ankle was unceremoniously dumped), Bennett finally came up with a working rescue toboggan.
The sled was a rickshaw-type contraption, with two shafts in front held by a ski patroller, a "fin" in back to help the sled traverse across the hill, and a chain on the front that allowed the patroller to easily brake. Instead of the pad, Bennett added a Stokes litter (a wire basket) to hold the passenger more securely.
The sled broke down into three pieces: the shafts, the sled and the litter. When it was used, the shafts were left sticking in the snow at the bottom of the lift for a patrolman to pick up; the patient was then taken to the hospital in the litter. A key feature was that the sled could be carried back up the mountain on a chairlift by one patrolman. "If they had not had a toboggan they could break down, we would have had to stop the lifts to get the sled on a bracket and get it to the top," Bennett said.
While today's Sun Valley is different in many ways from the one he first laid eyes on 72 years ago, Bennett feels the resort's current manager, Tim Silva, is similar to Pat Rogers, manager from 1938 to 1952. "He is somewhat like Pat in that he was out of his office and around the area most of the time," he said. "And he's a very knowledgeable skier, which is a plus."
Even at 98, Bennett's work and play in Sun Valley is not over. He will return to Sun Valley again this winter, as he does most years, to do things such as help the archivist at the resort identify some more faces in the hundreds of images from Sun Valley's early days and have breakfast with former ski patrollers at Perry's Restaurant every morning.
1941: Nelson Bennett, center, with his first Sun Valley ski patrol,
Evans (back), Jerry Hyatt (left), Chuck Hibbard, Floyd Dupuis and Adolph Roubicek (right).
Black and white photos courtesy of Nelson Bennett
Nelson Bennett, left, leads a private ski tour on Bald Mountain before the resort officially reopened following World War II. Standing with Bennett, from left to right, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Rocky Cooper, Sigi Engl, Jeff Gjevre, Bobbe Bennett (Nelson's wife) and Sebby Arriaga.
Bennett rubbed shoulders with many celebrities during his time in Sun Valley, he was particularly fond of Lucille Ball, to whose rescue he came following a wardrobe malfunction on top of the mountain (left).
Above, Bennett on top of Bald Mountain with today's version of the rescue toboggan he invented in 1947, below.