In the 1930s, an age when college athletes would often outshine the pros, Dick Durrance was a totemic figure, a slightly built guy who made national headlines in the 1930s while skiing for Dartmouth. But if the story ended there — despite the fact that Durrance brought a much more refined turning technique to American slopes and became the first U.S. ski racer to beat Europeans on their own mountains — it wouldn’t tell you half of what the man accomplished in his incredible 89 years.
Durrance was born in Florida, but as a kid his mom brought him and his four siblings to live in Garmisch, Germany, at the foot of the Alps. Durrance was 13, a ripe old age for becoming a natural skier, and yet that’s just what happened. With the rise of fascism in Europe, Durrance’s mother moved the family back to Florida in 1934 but Durrance immediately went off to Dartmouth, where he proceeded to set the nation and the world on fire with his ripping skiing.
Durrance not only beat everyone in college, but as a pro he won 17 national titles — he won so consistently that the medal for being a U.S. skiing national champion was recast to bear his likeness. It’s worth remembering, too, just how harrowing skiing was then. Durrance was a downhiller and he competed on incredibly steep, scary courses like the narrow chute called the Thunderbolt on Mount Greylock in Massachusetts, a seam cut directly up the face that drops 2,275 feet in two miles. It was Durrance’s form that always amazed spectators: A breathless New York Times piece about his narrow victory in the 1940 FIS Cup against world-class competition at Alta described him riding his hickory boards during a whiteout: “Down the steep wall he came, through the tight four-gate flush, across the ridge and down the canyon, always the master of his skis.”
That year’s Olympics were called off due to war, so he didn’t get a second shot at medaling (he came close in the 1936 games). But that hardly slowed Durrance — he was far more than just a skier.
For one thing he was also a filmmaker — Warren Miller credits Durrance for turning his eye toward the craft — and was psyched to use film to let the world understand what was so magical about skiing. And in a stealth way, he also was a clever marketer, since his two 1940 films, “Sun Valley Ski Chase” and “Sun Valley Holiday,” were part of work with Averill Harriman to expand notoriety about Sun Valley, which Harriman was helping to bolster as America’s first European-style ski resort. Durrance had not only won three Harriman cups on Sun Valley’s Baldy, he helped cut the course on that mountain in 1939.
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In 1940 he married ski racer Margaret “Miggs” Jennings and together they managed the lodge and ski school at Alta, and there helped assemble a team of America’s best skiers to help train U.S. Army ski paratroopers through the winter of 1942 — most of the soldiers were from Georgia and had never seen snow, let alone skied. The experiment, Durrance later commented, had mixed results: “The end of that winter we came to the conclusion that maybe a third of them would become pretty good skiers, the middle third could get by, and the remaining third had better stay in the paratroopers and forget it.”
By the end of the war Durrance and his wife were deeply involved in all aspects of the ski industry, helping develop ski-lift technology such as the J-bar and T-bar and manufacturing skis in Denver. In 1947, Durrance was asked to become the general manager of the Aspen Ski Corp., the home of Ajax — a mountain with only three runs and an unfinished T-bar.
Durrance figured Aspen would earn a spot on the world’s ski map if it happened to host the 1950 FIS World Championships. Which is precisely what he managed to make happen, furiously working to cut new runs and put up new lifts on the mountain while also lobbying to get the race to the States.
“It was an exciting time,” he told The Denver Post in 1997. “Skiing was just getting started. Lots of people who were interested in skiing were moving to Aspen. Aspen had turned into a wild place where people were just as interested in drinking and partying as they were in skiing. They had come to relax after the war and do things that were fun.”
Naturally Durrance also made a documentary film about the event, in color no less, which ran at art houses nationwide, and as he had done with Sun Valley, Durrance’s moviemaking helped spread the word about the little Colorado town and its ski resort.
Durrance’s involvement in Aspen’s growth, and in skiing’s growth in North America continued for the rest of his life, including heading up skiing operations at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley.
Even into his 80s Durrance was creative: At Aspen, with the rise of snowboarding and skier-snowboarder collisions in the late 1990s, he helped devise a bounty system for so-called hit-and-run shredders. You could collect upwards of $500 if you caught someone fleeing such an accident and all of the sudden skiers and snowboarders managed to hit each other a heck of a lot less often.
Today there’s a street named for Durrance in Hanover, New Hampshire, home of Dartmouth College and a peak’s named for him in Sun Valley. And to this day, nobody’s won more national ski titles. That’s pretty badass.