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ON THE SCENE: Whiteface skiers, managers reminisce at new exhibit

February 2, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

The history of the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington is creatively showcased in a new exhibit that opened Friday, Jan. 26 at the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, located at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid.

It's a fun exhibit with many interactive displays, lots of photographs and informative maps that trace the growth of the ski venue from its early days on Marble Mountain, shift to Little Whiteface, and subsequent expansion up to just beneath the summit.

"I started skiing at Whiteface in the early seventies, and before that at such local areas as Fawn Ridge, Scotts Cobble, and Mount Whitney" said Mike Pratt, president/CEO of the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates the ski center. "Whiteface is one of the branding images of Lake Placid. It's iconic with its Olympic Trails and the castle on top. It's part of the Adirondacks and a part of us. Today it is just as good for families learning to ski as it is for hosting world-class events. It's a very friendly resort, and it's getting friendlier all the time."

Article Photos

Above, from left, are former Whiteface Mountain Ski Center general managers Jay Rand and Bruce McCulley and state Olympic Regional Development Authority President/CEO Mike Pratt.
(Photo provided — Naj Wikoff)

Fun on Friday was meeting several people who attended the opening, such as John Eldridge, Natalie LeDuc, Don Metzger, and Mike Sullivan. Also on hand were several of the former venue managers, such as Ted Blazer, Jay Rand and Bruce McCulley, and current manger Aaron Kellett.

"My mother, father and sister brought me to the opening," said Don Metzger. "I was 12. I've been skiing at Whiteface ever since, except when I was working overseas. I was skiing today, and it was great. Now there are far more trails and lifts than when I started. The lodge and the mountain are more user friendly. Everything is better today, the clothing, the goggles, the ski equipment and the snowmaking. It's an alpine experience. It isn't a Disneyland experience."

"This is my 71st year skiing at Whiteface," said John Eldridge. "I skied on Rossignols back when it opened. They had the metal edges that you screwed on. I had lace-up boots, bamboo poles and the whole bit."

"I've been skiing there since day one," said Natalie LeDuc. "It's my home. I taught there forever."

Whiteface Mountain Ski Center, which has the highest vertical drop in the East and ranked 10th in the nation, is one of the High Peaks region's most enduring economic engines. Its roots go back to the creation of a ski center on Marble Mountain, a shoulder of Whiteface, in the late 1940s.

Marble was to be New York state's answer to Stowe in Vermont and Cannon in New Hampshire. An added bonus was skiers could ride in Snowcats to a large curve in the recently completed Whiteface Mountain Veterans' Memorial Highway and ski over to the top on Marble connecting with its trails.

Prior to that, in 1938 Herman-Smith "Jackrabbit" Johannsen and members of the Lake Placid Ski Council created New York state's first certified Class A racing trail along the lines of the current Wilderness on Little Whiteface. Missing a lift, racers had to hike the 2,700 vertical feet two hours up for a two-minute trip down.

Six years later, Johannsen, along with Otto Schniebs of Lake Placid and Hannes Schneider from North Conway, New Hampshire, was called back to Whiteface to lay out the initial ski trails at Marble under the direction of Art Draper. The first skiers hit the slopes in 1949. Unfortunately, Marble's exposed location often resulted in wind-swept trails that dampened visitor enthusiasm, and the ski center lost money from the start. Soon thereafter, Draper moved to the Catskills to manage the Belleayre ski center.

In 1954, newly elected governor and ski enthusiast Averell Harriman, who previously founded the Sun Valley Ski Resort, gave Draper a call suggesting they meet at Marble Mountain. The governor felt the region needed a ski center, but in a different location. They agreed that Little Whiteface made the best sense.

In 1955, a committee was established and by 1957 they, too, agreed on the Little Whiteface site. The governor twisted arms and $2.5 million was authorized for the initial chairlifts and a base lodge. The ski center's opening ceremony was Jan. 25, 1958 with Draper as its first manager, a newsworthy event as a power failure stranded the governor, Draper and more than 100 skiers up in the air for over an hour. Embarrassing as that start was, the ski center has constantly upgraded its facilities and reputation ever since. It is now often voted as one of the best ski areas in the East and nation and described by U.S. News & World Report as "a skier's paradise."

An interesting thread, especially during the early days, was the deep connection between Whiteface Mountain and the 10th Mountain Division, the U.S. Army's famed World War II mountain troops modelled after the Finnish ski troops that successfully held back the Soviet army. The U.S. Army began training winter soldiers in 1940 at the Plattsburgh Army Air Base and at Whiteface Mountain. In 1941, the U.S. Army set up a training center on Mount Rainier and in 1943 pulled all the elements together at Mount Hale in Colorado. After the war, many of the returned 10th Mountain Division veterans got involved in the ski industry, such as Art Draper. On opening day in 1958, Draper and Gov. Harriman dedicated the ski center to the 10th Mountain Division.

Fittingly, two other 10th Mountain Division veterans served as managers of the venue: Harold "Hal" Burton and Don Adams. Plus, two-time FIS downhill champion Walter Prager - a legendary Dartmouth College ski coach who went on to be an instructor at the 10th Mountain Division - had a ski shop at Whiteface for many years. Hannes Schneider, who helped cut the trails for Marble Mountain, also was a 10th Mountain Division ski instructor.

"Our future plans revolve around strengthening the intermediate experience for our guests," said Aaron Kellett, the current general manager at Whiteface. "Improved lodge amenities, improvements in our snowmaking system, and just making us better and more family friendly. I inherited from the general managers before me a lot of pride in what we do, a love for the mountain, and a desire to keep improving the experience for our visitors."

Gary Grady was an instructor at Whiteface for 48 years. He thinks he started skiing there as junior in high school.

"The first couple ski school directors were great," said Grady. "I worked for Karl Fahrner. What a guy! I learned everything I know about skiing from him. He was an extraordinary skier. Nine to 5, he was all business. After business, he'd have a few with the boys anytime. What I like about Whiteface is the varied terrain. You can always challenge yourself. It keeps you honest."

"I was at Whiteface the day it opened," said Mike Sullivan. "I rode up the top and its scared the crap out of me. I took my skis off and rode back down. Up until then I had only skied at Pisgah, which has a vertical of only 320 feet. But, I came back, won a few races, and have skied there ever since."



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