History to be made at Meister Cup race

Eventful life of Schneider will be honored at Mt. Cranmore

By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2011

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NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — In history he is fixed as “the father of modern skiing’’ and one of his best known quotes – “If everyone skied there would be no more wars’’ — is an unlikely mix of human activities.

But when the 15th annual Hannes Schneider Meister Cup race is held at Mt. Cranmore March 11-12, the imagery of the 10th Mountain Division, then and now, will be very much in evidence. And it will speak, as always, of Schneider and his comrades fighting high in the Alps through two world wars, before he came to this country, bringing the gift of skiing with him.

Of course there was skiing already in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, but when Schneider stepped off that train here in the winter of 1939, the clubby little sport was headed for the big time.

Since 1996, Mt. Cranmore has celebrated what became a turning point in the community, when Schneider took over the ski school that began imparting ski techniques to a new generation fascinated with the sport and hungry for some new post-Depression fun. It was an age before the latest equipment technology and snow grooming made learning a far less grueling process.

“It used to take several seasons before someone could be called a competent skier,’’ said Schneider’s son, Herbert, a few years ago. “It took plenty of work and practice along with the instruction.’’

For Schneider and his mates, the discipline came early, imposed at first by World War I, which erupted when Schneider was teaching skiing at a hotel on the eastern side of the pass through St. Anton. This was an escape of sorts from the career his father had chosen for him as a cheese maker.

Schneider was 24 when war broke out in 1914, and he enlisted as a mountain soldier in the rugged Alpine country where Austria and Italy were pitched against each other. Schneider was made a ski instructor for Austrian troops and taught large numbers of recruits in some of the most challenging terrain possible. After the war, he brought his teaching techniques to the St. Anton School.

Before that, though, Schneider was dispatched in 1918 to spend several months in command of an observation post at the summit of Konigspitz, highest peak in the Alpine country. The war may have been winding down, but the fighting was fierce, and Schneider’s unit found that grenade-triggered avalanches were a powerful weapon against the charge of the Italian Alpini Troops.

Still, his unit took many casualties, mostly from the lightning storms on the exposed slopes. Schneider wrote of his memories in a magazine article in 1944.

“We had many a nightmare trip down the mountain at night, carrying the bodies of our dead and wounded comrades. We discovered that by digging a series of snow caves, one leading from another and always down into the mountain, in the third cave a man was safe’’ from the lightning that had caused so many casualties.

By World War II, several men who had been students of Schneider’s expatriated to the US and volunteered to fight with the 10th Mountain Division. Among them were some well-known names who helped develop the sprouting ski industry. They included Hannes’s, son Herbert, Toni Matt, Friedl Pfeifer, Luggi Foeger, and Otto Tschol, most of whom stayed in skiing for the rest of their lives.

They also were joined by a mass of New Englanders, including several from North Conway. Some of the veterans will be a prominent part of the Meister Cup this year, and they will be joined by members of the modern 10th, soldiers who have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Back home from his war duties, Schneider’s career as a ski instructor solidified, and his reputation for taking beginners to advanced skiers in challenging terrain became well-known in the Alps.

He helped make a documentary film in which he demonstrated his Arlberg method, and in 1936 he appeared at a winter sports show at Boston Garden. His demonstration included such feats as sliding up and down a wood slide covered in shaved ice. He repeated the act in New York, and thus Schneider became well-known to the earliest generation of American skiers.

When Schneider returned to Austria, however, Hitler was making his first moves toward World War II with the elimination of Austria. Being head of the Arlberg School gave Schneider a high profile. The Nazis took away his license and threw him in jail.

However, several people took action on Schneider’s behalf. One North Conway native, Harvey Gibson, who was head of New York’s Manufacturers’ Trust, led a successful effort to get Schneider released and brought to America.

By this time the saga was front-page news. So it was hardly surprising that when Schneider and his family arrived in North Conway in 1939, he was given a huge welcome that included an arch of ski poles held up by members of the local branch of the Arlberg Ski School.

For the next 15 years, Schneider ran the Arlberg School at a time when skiing was undergoing its greatest growth spurt in this country, and after he died in April 1955, Herbert ran the school for several years.

The Meister Cup Race raises funds for the New England Ski Museum in Franconia Notch, which is home to extensive exhibits and material covering the life of Schneider and his generation, which planted and nourished US skiing from its beginnings. The museum also contains the extensive history of the 10th Mountain Division, its spinoff, the National Ski Patrol, and its connection with as many as 62 ski resorts and schools that flourished in the post-World War II years.

The races are geared to lower intermediate giant slalom courses, and will pit teams of five skiers. Individual skiers will be formed into teams based on ability level. Team members will be ranked according to two timed runs before the competition. The names of the winning team, and the fastest male and female finishers, will be engraved on the Hannes Schneider Meister Cup trophy.

Because the Schneider Meister Cup race combines modern ski racing with a heavy dose of nostalgia, organizers encourage participants to dress in vintage ski wear pulled from those old attic trunks and deep closets.

For race information, call the New England Ski Museum at (800) 639-4181.