Sun Valley History

Celebrating Benni’s 100th

In Nelson Bennett’s 100 years, he has lived many lives. One was as a model for classic Sun Valley photos like this one taken on Dollar Mountain in 1946. Pictured from left: Bobbe Bennett (Nelson’s late wife), brother Eddie Bennett, Victor Gottschalk and the charming Nelson

On Saturday afternoon, dozens of friends and fans gathered at the River Run Lodge to fête a very important person on a very special occasion. Nelson Bennett, the father of Sun Valley Ski Patrol and much, much more, was celebrating an amazing century. Nelson officially passed the 100-year mark in December, but when you have lived 10 decades, it only seems right that the party should keep going. All of “Benni’s” Sun Valley friends welcomed the opportunity to toast this man who has impacted the lives of so many.

The legendary Nelson Bennett celebrated his 100th birthday Sun Valley style with a party at River Run. Here, he wears a gift: a new jacket from Ski Patrol

Born in Lancaster, NH, Nelson grew up in New England where he learned to ski because, he has said, there was nothing else to do on frigid winter days. Skiing on what he called “barrel staves with a toe-straps on them,” in an interview for the Yakima Herald Republic, a star was born. He raced in high school and at the University of New Hampshire. After college, he went west to work as a surveyor for a lumber company in Northern California. When the rain got to him, he drove to Sun Valley for a welcome change of scene.  A chance encounter with Dick Durrance, against whom he had skied in college, changed his life. Durrance introduced him to Sun Valley’s general manager and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nelson secured a job for the winter, circled home to collect his things and hurried back. He made the entire trip from Lancaster, New Hampshire, to Shoshone, Idaho, by Union Pacific Railroad. He then stayed for 20 years straight, excluding the war years. In December 1942, young Nelson was drafted. He was a natural fit for a new specialized ski infantry, the 10th Mountain Division, a unit that has been credited with helping to hasten the end of the war. Nelson and his compatriots breached the Nazi’s “unbreachable” so-called “Gothic Line”, heavily fortified alpine posts. He survived not only the 10th Mountain Division’s heavy casualty rate but also debilitating stomach ulcers.

Nelson Bennett, Sun Valley ski legend, front and center with fellow Ski Patrol from the 1950s

After the war, Nelson returned to Sun Valley and to Ski Patrol and worked his way to superintendent of recreational activities and mountain manager.  He went on to manage the U.S. alpine ski team in the 1956 Olympics and directed all ski events at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley. In addition, he served as an official at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid and was inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1986.

Many well-wishers came out to toast Bennett and his amazing life

In Nelson’s day, Sun Valley Ski Patrol did not benefit from snow grooming, dynamite guns and other sophisticated means to help keep guests safe. “Back then it was a lot of maintenance, a lot of shoveling,” he said during an interview in 2013, “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.  At the party, Mike Lloyd, Head of Sun Valley Ski Patrol, said, “Nelson saw the need to help figure out how to get people off this mountain safely. The toboggan he engineered has stood the test of time and that history will never go away.”

Nelson returns to Sun Valley every year with long-time girlfriend Madi Springer-Miller Kraus, a 1958 FIS World Championship skier. He skied with her until just a few years ago and the couple maintains strong ties to our community.

Nelson poses with current and former members of Sun Valley Ski Patrol before cutting his birthday cake

There was much to say about this living legend and Sun Valley Mountain Manager Peter Stearns, Ski Patrol member Whiz McNeal and others took the microphone to honor their friend and colleague. Mike Lloyd both roasted and toasted his long-time friend and concluded, “Today the whole Sun Valley family celebrates Nelson and everything he has given.”

Nelson modestly remarked that he was surprised to see so many people at his party and that he had come because “they told me there would be good food.”

Happy Birthday, Nelson Bennett! Best wishes and thank you for all you have done

A large après-ski crowd enjoying the music of the one-and-only Andy Frasco joined in a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday”, the cake was cut and the party was on.

Happy Birthday to a living legend, a true gentleman and a visionary!  And many more.


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