By Bob Soden
Previously published, with permission, in the Newport Daily Express – Dec. 1998;
& in the Kingdom Historical (now the Northland Journal) – Mar. & Apr 2003
All rights reserved by author
Who is Walter Foeger and what is Natur Teknik? Perhaps you weren’t asking, but everyone interested in ski history and ski technique ought to know of them. Both once played an innovative and influential role in the evolution of ski teaching theory and methodology, as well as in the early development of the Jay Peak ski area, yet unfortunately they are largely forgotten today.
During a brief twelve years, beginning in December 1956, Walter Foeger was the catalyst, and perhaps the key ingredient, in a mix of community spirit and local entrepreneurship that propelled Jay Peak from an obscure corner of Vermont onto the national skiing scene. Starting out as the mountain’s first and only ski pro, Walter was dealt a hand that included one ‘Open Slope’, a ‘Pomalift’, and a recycled ‘CCC’ (Civilian Conservation Corps, legacy of FDR’s New Deal) barracks for a base lodge. Walter beat these odds, eventually winning the position of vice-president and general manager of the mountain corporation. By the time he reluctantly moved on in May of 1968, he had led Jay Peak’s transformation into a major ski center with over 40 trails, seven ski lifts, including an aerial Tramway, and the beginnings of a year-round sports complex.
But perhaps even more significant was his maverick and very popular parallel-from-the-start ski teaching method Natur Teknik – that unsettled proponents of the more established American Ski Technique which taught snowplow, stem, and then parallel. Natur Teknik earned varied praise and criticism from the press (‘Ya, besser zum press zen no press,’ quipped Foeger about the negative reports) but brought crowds to the mountain, and kept them there throughout the week – taking lessons.
According to Al Flory of Newport (chief engineer and manager of Citizens Utilities Co. at the time, and who in 1957 was responsible for putting through the first power line to the first lift at Jay with the help of a team of horses from Newport’s Jersey Drown): ‘Without Walter Foeger there would have been no Jay Peak?’ Of course there were many others who made Jay Peak’s success a reality, whose small and large contributions have gone as yet largely unsung. Why now sing the praises of just one man? For one, logic would suggest that due to his exceptional efforts on behalf of the Jay Peak and his achievements in the ski teaching world, Walter Foeger would today be well-known both in his adopted state and beyond. Not that he would be virtually forgotten here. And two, Walter Foeger is 86 this year, living in Austria, and virtually forgotten here. I’ll let you do the math.
Walter Foeger’s story is an American story. An American dream realized and lost. Arriving with a background in Alpine ski racing, ski teaching, and mountain management, on a day in December more than forty years ago carrying little more than his Kneissl skis and a dictionary, the simple beginnings at Jay Peak might have dismayed a lesser man. But Walter was entranced by the area and saw its possibilities as probably few did. As he shortly thereafter advised Rhoda Berger (clerk and reporter for the Richford Journal-Gazette) in thickly accented, broken-English, ‘Zuh money, it is not down here vis four-leg vuns, but up zhere vis two-leg vuns’. This was his moment, a young Caesar in Gaul, if only he had the courage and the strength to seize it. The mountain lay before him like a fresh canvas awaiting the first strokes of his imagination. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and Walter did not shy away. Far from it.
On that day in December 1956, Walter saw that the ‘Open Slope’ (which had been cut under the direction of Jay Peak president Harold Haynes and Perry Merrill (Vermont State Forester), on advice from Sepp Ruschp and Charles M. Lord of Stowe), while an excellent trail, was too steep for the experience and equipment of most of the expected skiers. What was needed, in addition, was a trail that sought out the natural contours of the mountain and found an easier route to the bottom. Three weeks later, on January 1, 1957, he started cutting trees for the Sweetheart Trail, in -25 degree (F) weather in deep snow with his boss, Harold Haynes, leading a second crew of cutters up from the base (Haynes, a Newport high school teacher at the time, was an early Jay Peak visionary who had spearheaded the effort to bring this young Austrian ski pro to America.)