FRANCONIA, New Hampshire — The 11th Hannes Schneider Meister Cup Race, to be held in North Conway, NH on March 10, honors the legacy of the ski instructor many consider to be the founding father of alpine skiing as it developed down to the present day. Echoes of dramatic aspects of Schneider’s life in the mountains and on skis will be found by those who attend the event, a benefit for the New England Ski Museum.
Johannes Schneider was born in 1890 in Stuben Austria, where his father was the tender of the road on the western side of the Arlberg Pass. In the winter of 1907-1908 he was offered a job teaching ski lessons on the eastern side of the pass at a hotel in St Anton, saving him from the career his parents had planned for him as a maker of cheeses. Until his death in 1955 ski instruction would be his profession, a profession he more than anyone created.
While an Austrian soldier in World War I, Schneider was assigned to teach skiing to Austrian mountain troops in the rugged terrain of the Ortler Alps, where Austrians and Italians were arrayed against each other. In 1918 he spent months in command of an observation post on the peak of the K?В¶nigspitz, the highest summit in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Here Schneider’s unit used grenade-triggered avalanches to fend off their Italian Alpini foes, while losing many casualties to lightening on the exposed peak. “We had many a nightmare trip down the mountain at night, carrying the bodies of our dead and wounded comrades,” Schneider recalled in a 1944 article. “We discovered that by digging a series of snow caves, one leading from the other and always down into the mountain, in the third cave a man was safe” from the lightning hazard.
This phase of Schneider’s career is highlighted by the participation in the Meister Cup of contemporary US military skiers. This year a race team and honor guard from the 10th Mountain Division of Fort Drum, NY and two teams from the Army Mountain Warfare School of Jericho, VT are expected to attend. Several World War II veterans of the 10th Mountain Division should be on hand to run the course, and more will be present as spectators.
Schneider’s legacy rests on his development of the Arlberg Technique of skiing, his methods of teaching the skills of skiing to large numbers of students through classes of increasing difficulty, and his popularization of alpine skiing as a sport through the new medium of film. As the featured skier in the mountain films of Arnold Fanck that were widely seen in Europe, Schneider conveyed the excitement and beauty of downhill skiing to a mass audience for the first time. It was Fanck who convinced Schneider to drop the first two letters of his first name, so that we know him today not as Johannes but Hannes.
In the years before alpine skiing became an Olympic winter sport in 1936, the premier ski competition in Europe was the Arlberg-Kandahar race, founded jointly by Schneider and Briton Arnold Lunn in 1927. The A-K featured the best skiers in Europe competing in slalom and downhill in St Anton, and the winners held the cachet that today attaches to Olympic gold medallists. The A-K was also notable for festive awards parties following the event, a precedent that Meister Cup organizers try hard to respect.
As the 11th Meister Cup approaches, it is worth noting that it was the 11th A-K race that was suddenly cancelled in March 1938, just after Germany absorbed Austria. Schneider was no favorite of the Austrian Nazis, and was held under house arrest for nearly a year before being allowed to leave for the US, through the intervention of Mt Cranmore owner Harvey Gibson. Schneider moved his ski school to North Conway and devoted to the rest of his life to the development of Mt Cranmore and American skiing generally. Those attending the 11th Meister Cup at Cranmore this March will find many remembrances of this remarkable man there.
Located in Franconia Notch NH next to the Cannon Mountain Tramway, the New England Ski Museum is a non-profit, member-supported museum dedicated to collecting, preserving and exhibiting aspects of ski history. The Museum is open from 10 AM to 5 PM seven days a week from Memorial Day through the end of March. Admission is free. For more information call 800-639-4181 or visit www.skimuseum.org.