Warren Miller: Stein Eriksen: The Pied Piper Of Skiing
My friendship with Stein Eriksen goes back to the mid-1950s when he first appeared on the American ski scene as the ski school director at Boyne Mountain, Michigan.The owner and developer of Boyne Mountain, Everett Kircher, was quite proud of the fact he was paying Stein more money than any other ski school director in America - at a never before heard of five figure annual salary. Whatever amount it was is academic in today’s world of $5 cups of coffee. In the mid-1950s coffee had doubled in price to 10 cents per cup.
At that point in time, Boyne Mountain was arguably the smallest mountain in the world with a chairlift. Everett Kircher had bought that chairlift from Sun Valley where, in 1936, it was the first one ever built in the world. Everett paid $4,800 for the chairlift and put it up on a mountain he bought for $1 because it was too steep to grow potatoes on.
Stein Eriksen that year, with his revolutionary technique of skiing, was in my ski movie, filmed at Boyne Mountain and shown in Detroit’s luxurious Ford Theater. Everybody that saw the movie wanted to ski like Stein when he skied with his knees and ankles locked together and he performed his amazing, full layout forward somersaults, even way back then.
Stein and I became friendly partners as he moved from ski school to ski school across America and my audiences really appreciated his performances in front of my cameras. In addition to filming Stein at Boyne Mountain, I filmed him at Sugarbush, Vermont, (more commonly known as Mascara Mountain) when he was the ski school director at Heavenly Valley, then a brand-new resort in the Lake Tahoe basin. Again he was the hit of that year’s film.
When he was the director of the Aspen Highlands Ski School we got a lot of good powder skiing documented on film because nobody skied there in those days. As I recall, there was only one small hotel, an A-frame base lodge and a couple of chairlifts.
When Edgar Stern bought all the property that eventually became Deer Valley, it was only logical Edgar would hire Stein, build one of America’s best and most luxurious ski lodges, and call it The Stein Eriksen Lodge.
Sometime during the many years that Stein was the outstanding skier in my films, I discovered during the process of editing the film that Stein Erickson turned to the right with reverse shoulder and to the left with rotation. When I narrated the film at the Ford Theater in Detroit that year and had a cup of coffee with Stein after the show, he challenged me on my narration because no one had ever told him that before.
I made arrangements to rent a projector the next day and invited him to lunch so we could look at the footage forward and backward many times to prove I was right in disclosing to the world that he did not ski with reverse shoulder turns in both directions. After watching the film forward and backwards four or five times Stein said, “Warren, you are right. I’m surprised that no one including all of my coaches ever told me that before.”
Stein and his lovely wife, Françoise, have an equally famous ski shop in Deer Valley and have been living in Park City for the past 25 years.
Stein skied to fame in the World Championships and the Olympics in the 1950s and parlayed those gold medals to a lifelong career of running ski schools. This was the era when the difference between first and second place in an Olympic race was the difference in becoming the ski school director at a big name resort like Jackson Hole, Wyoming or Nubs Knob, Michigan.
The executive position of being a ski school director has changed radically since those days and an Olympic gold medal becomes worth a minimum of $1 million in endorsement fees instead of a job running a ski school. Today a ski school director has to be public relations savvy, but also a good administrator.
For example, a ski resort such as Vail has over 1200 ski instructors coming there from all over the world, many of whom have a second language to English. To get all 1200 of them skiing exactly the same way and teaching exactly the same way is not an easy job to handle.
When I was a ski instructor in Sun Valley in 1948/49, an all day private lesson cost an awesome $7.50 an hour. Today, an all day private lesson at Vail is $825.
Over Christmas vacation all 1200 instructors are not nearly enough. Many of them are giving private lessons that allow their customers to go to the head of a lift line.
Stein’s father Marius manufactured skis in Norway. When Stein came to America in the 1950s he brought along what he thought was a revolutionary pair of skis. They were long, wide and had half a dozen very small grooves instead of one normal large groove.
Stein represented the Bogner Ski Clothing Company in America for many years. This business relationship came about because Willy Bogner senior, and Stein’s father became good friends when they competed against each other in the 1932 winter Olympics. Marius raced for Norway and Willy for Germany.
When Germany occupied Norway during World War II, Willie as a colonel in the SS, lived with Marius and his family during the occupation. During that same time, Stein’s older brother Marius escaped to England and was flying British spitfires as escorts for bombing runs on Berlin. It really is a strange world to have father and son on opposite sides of a terrible conflict.
With all due respect to the many excellent ski school directors and ski instructors in America today, Stein brought a certain grace, elegance, and showmanship to turning a pair of skis on the side of a hill. Stein probably had female private lesson students lined up for a decade or two in advance. Whether they wanted to ski like Stein or just be with Stein, no one will ever take his place in American ski folklore.
On top of all that, you could probably credit Stein for the invention of freestyle skiing because he brought the full layout forward somersault to the ski hill. I was fortunate enough to be traveling the world at the same time and I even ran into Stein in Zurs, Austria one day. We quickly found a shovel and built a ramp so he could do his famous forward somersault with the Arlberg Pass as a scenic backdrop for me to film.
Unfortunately, a few years ago, a young boy came hurtling out of the trees at right angles to where Stein was making a turn and hospitalized Stein with a broken sternum and a bunch of broken ribs.
Stein did not ski the rest of that winter.
As I look back at all of the great skiers that I got to know while I was filming them, Stein Erickson stands out as the most effective Pied Piper representing skiing and, as I said, one of the most gracious human beings I’ve known.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)