Application to the United States National Ski Hall of Fame – June 15, 2003 – Walter Foeger
CATEGORY: American Ski / Sports Builder
CANDIDATE: Walter Foeger
SPONSOR: Bob Soden
WALTER FOEGER – BROUGHT PARALLEL TO THE PEOPLE
Walter Foeger created the first network of alternative direct-to-parallel ski schools in the United States. These accessible schools brought the secret of parallel skiing to the average person through “the first successful system for direct parallel teaching.” Foeger, born in Austria’s equivalent of a log cabin, did not enter the world with silver skis on his feet. It was an uphill battle to gain acceptance for his unorthodox theories against an entrenched and well-heeled establishment. Nevertheless, his ski schools flourished, primarily during the 1950’s and 1960’s (though the last one operated until 1991), and introduced an estimated 150,000 skiers to the sport. Foeger’s approach to ski teaching, christened Natur Teknik, intrigued editors, piqued public interest, and expanded the sport’s profile (from 1958 through 1970 there were more than a dozen feature articles on the man and his method, ranging from SKI Magazine, to The New York Times, to Popular Mechanics). In addition to publishing two books on his ski teaching technique and directing his ski schools, Foeger found time to build a first class ski resort from the ground up (at Jay Peak, Vermont), design the trail systems of at least two other ski areas, paint oil paintings, and make ski movies.
This Renaissance man had a tough start. Foeger was born in Innsbrück, Austria, on November 30, 1917 (a year before the end of WWI) to Franz and Anna Föger. Franz, a civil servant, had been wounded in the war. The couple fought to survive. After the failure of his mother’s small shop, the family moved to Kitzbühel where Anna found work as secretary at the town’s tennis club. It was a fortuitous move. When Foeger wasn’t in school, he was “ball boy” on the courts, and hockey “rink rat” on the converted courts in winter. He never stopped running, and struggling upwards in true Horatio Alger fashion.
No doubt the family’s reduced means contributed to the condition of the young boy’s legs – which were quite bowed. Foeger’s indomitable will and developing strength overcame the challenges. At age ten his parents presented him with a pair of skis. Two years later he won the Tyrolean Youth Ski Championship, defending it for three consecutive years. He won the East Tyrol Adult Tennis Championship at 14, and was chosen center for the Kitzbühel Men’s Ice Hockey Team at 16. In 1936, at age 18, he won the Junior Division of the Hahnenkamm, Downhill and Combined. WWII cut short Foeger’s promising career in competitive sports. During the war he was alpine expert for Ski Command 11.
In 1945, Foeger became co-founder and first sports director of the Austrian Ski Association. The following year he accepted the position of head coach for the Spanish National Ski Team, a position he maintained until 1956. Foeger there began experimenting with ski teaching methods. In 1952 he led the team to the Oslo Olympic Games. In his last four years he was also playing coach of the National Hockey Team.
In the spring of 1956 the residents of the six towns surrounding Jay Peak, led by the North Troy Kiwanis Club, realized they did not want to miss the economic snow train. They capitalized the ski area on $10 shares. What they really needed was a ski pro like Stowe’s Sepp Ruschp. Enter Rudi Mattesich, head of the Austrian Tourist Bureau in NYC, with a summer home in North Troy. Rudi called Austria. Austria called Spain. In December 1956 Foeger stepped off a plane in Burlington, Vermont. What awaited him would have dismayed anyone: an unassembled ‘Pomalift’ and one roughly bulldozed ‘Open’ slope. Foeger wanted to flee. But he was that rare type, a true adventurer in the O. Henry tradition. He stayed, “revolutionized” ski teaching, and became an American citizen in 1963.
Foeger had developed Natur Teknik to help beginning and intermediate skiers achieve parallel skiing without snowplow and stem-christie. The artificial platforms of these turns, Foeger explained, hindered gaining the independent balance achieved with parallel turns (FIS World Champion Emile Allais, in France and in the U.S., and Fritz Loosli, in Canada, had earlier come to similar conclusions and had offered their personal solutions, but they did not develop ski school networks). In no other sport were athletes taught actions they must unlearn later. With skis parallel and weight on the downhill ski, the Natur Teknik skier used “up-unweighting” of the ski tails, heel-thrust, counter-rotation, and side-sliding to effect turns. Foeger first published his methods in “Learn to Ski in a Week” (O’Shea Publishing, Enosburg Falls, Vermont, 1958), followed-up with “Skiing for Beginners – The Natur Teknik Method” (Ronald Press, New York, New York, 1962).
In January 1957, in deep snow, with a crew of volunteers (and his boss Harold Haynes) Foeger began cutting the ‘Sweetheart Trail’ (he had determined that the solitary ‘Open Slope’ was too steep for the expected skiers). That winter he taught classes of fifty students. He also had to groom trails with a hand roller, and sell tickets and hot dogs, assisted by Jay’s first manager Don McNally of Derby.
Over the next eleven years Foeger was devoted to Jay Peak. In the summer of 1957 he laid out the ‘Montrealer’ and the ‘Giant Slalom’ trails; that fall the extension of the Pomalift. In the spring of 1958 he organized the first of Jay’s annual international Giant Slalom races. That summer more trails were cut, and in the fall the installation of the 3,000-foot ‘Jet T-bar.’ By 1960 Jay would boast a new double chairlift and more trails, including the ‘St. George’s Prayer’ and the 3-mile ‘Long Trail.’ So great was Foeger’s belief in the necessity of this chairlift to the area’s success, and so strapped were the young corporations finances, that he chose not to accept his salary that season rather than postpone the project.
By 1959 Foeger had passed on the principles of his system to his first full-time instructor, Hubert Daberer. By 1960, the year ASTAN (American Ski Teachers Association of Natur Teknik) was incorporated, five instructors had been certified. In 1984 ASTAN records indicate 421 instructors had been certified to teach the system.
Foeger put everything into boosting the area’s charms, locally and on the ski-show circuit. He made promotional movies, such as “White Trails” and “The Eagle,” filmed by Montgomery Center’s Bill Sylvester, about Jay Peak and Natur Teknik. He promoted the area on WIKE, a weekly local radio show in Newport, hosted by Don Thurston.
By 1967 Foeger had been Jay Peak’s general manager for three years. As he reviewed his transformation of the mountain, Foeger saw an 8,500-foot aerial tramway, three chairlifts, three T-bars lifts, a Pomalift (which was an upper-mountain lift, as was one of the chairlifts), forty-five trails, snowmaking facilities, a mountaintop restaurant, slope-side condominiums in planning, and an Austrian-style hotel under construction. Over the past decade he had found time to open ski schools at Okemo Mt., Vt., Camelback, Pa. (where he had also laid-out the trail and lift system), Thunder Mt. (now Berkshire East), Mass., and at nine other hills in the U.S. and two more in Canada.
Foeger had achieved the American dream. With all these accomplishments behind him, his future, his memory, and his legacy to American skiing all seemed assured.
In 1966 Weyerhaeuser, Inc., became the principle shareholder of the Jay Peak ski area, championed ironically by Foeger, who knew the area needed capital to survive. He felt an aerial tramway would draw customers. They agreed, and he built it. In 1967 he felt the ski school needed to expand further afield, in this case to Japan. They disagreed, and he went west. The rest is history. “Due to fundamental philosophical differences on management styles,” Foeger and Weyerhaeuser parted company in 1968. Weyerhaeuser was a forest products company, which had ventured into the recreation field, perhaps not appreciating the varied skills of this man (athlete, ski teaching theoretician, ski area designer, construction supervisor, surveyor, manager, promoter, artist, author), who had raised Jay Peak to the point where they had taken notice. Within ten years, finding the ski business did not suit them, Weyerhaeuser moved on to greener fields. In its wake the record of Foeger at Jay Peak was lost.
Subsequently, he moved on to assist Jim Moore, of Camelback, in developing Dutchess Mt., in New York State, which would offer a Natur Teknik ski school. Foeger kept himself in condition by competing at tennis and was Vermont Seniors’ Tennis Champion for many years. He wrote an autobiography entitled “Through Heaven and Hell on Skis” (Carlton Press, New York, New York, 1970). In 1973 he was offered the Directorship of the Austrian Tennis Association, a position he accepted and ably maintained until his retirement in 1982. The leadership of ASTAN passed to Marilyn Hertz, longtime ski school director at Camelback, and the association continued to promote Natur Teknik well into the 1980’s. Natur Teknik was taught at Camelback until 1991.