The sound of the biplane echoed off the valley walls as the powerful seven-cylinder radial engine drove the propeller through the air currents coming off the mountain. Those on the ground paid little attention. They had seen this biplane before. If they had looked up, they would have noticed that the second seat, which was usually empty, was occupied today, and the skis that were usually tied to the struts were missing. It was 1939, and things at the head of the west branch of the Little River near Stowe, Vermont, were about to change, and those changes would shape the course of NSP history.
For the very few paying attention, the change could have been predicted. Ten years before the first ski school had been created in New Hampshire. Three years later, the 1932 Winter Olympics took place in Lake Placid, and although there were no Alpine ski events, it brought the important understanding that winter could mean more than four to five months of hibernation. Two years later, in a farmer’s sloping field near Woodstock, Vermont, skiers tired of the long climb uphill for a brief downhill run were introduced to the rope tow, the first in the nation. The idea, imported from Quebec, was soon to be duplicated throughout the northeast. It created a new skiing experience, waiting in line for the ski lift. Alpine skiing was gaining a toehold in the attention of a larger segment of the population. Among those early ski enthusiasts were the members of the Amateur Ski Club of New York.
Starting with 71 members in 1931, the ASCNY had made regular pilgrimages to the mountains north of their home base of New York City. A well-coordinated organization led by Club President Roland Palmedo, it produced a regular newsletter for its members. The editor was known by the nom de plume “The Baron Dunski.” His friends knew him as “The Baron” or “Minnie.” We know him as Charles Minot Dole, National Appointment #3, and the founder of the National Ski Patrol.
The club may have had the word “amateur” in its title, but the skiers in the club were very serious about their skiing, and several of the members were world-class skiers in their own right. The club organized regular trips to the mountains of the northeast, always searching for the best snow and terrain. Friday evening saw them leaving the city. Driving into the night on roads that were mostly packed snow on gravel, their arrival was often in the early hours of Saturday morning. This did not deter them from a first-light ascent, climbing to the peak of the selected hill or mountain. After a full day of climbing and skiing on Saturday and Sunday, they would eat and sleep in farmhouses turned guest homes or hotels when they were available. Sunday night found them back in their cars, with heated bricks under the passengers’ feet to keep them warm for at least a part of the long drive home. Arrival in the city came in the early hours of Monday morning. It was, and still is, a very close-knit organization with camaraderie and the joy of skiing forming the key elements of its foundation.
The ASCNY was a ski club that was very social, not a social club that had an interest in skiing. It promoted the sport through their travel and competition. Palmedo was a staunch believer in the amateur athlete, especially when it came to skiing. Many of the club members were racers and were well respected for their skills. Club racing and the competitive spirit that it fostered would result in a tragedy, which in turn would shape the trajectory of ski and world history.
To Be Continued
Rick Hamlin is the NSP National Historian, and he plans to contribute regularly to Trail Sweep. Please watch for our next chapter in a future issue of Trail Sweep.
If you would like to learn more about the history of the National Ski Patrol, its founders, and the early days of skiing, the following are excellent resources:
“Roland Palmedo, A Life of Adventure and Enterprise,“ by Palmedo, Philip F. (2018), published by Peter E. Randall
“Adventures in Skiing,” by Dole, Minot (Minnie). (1965), J. Lowell Pratt and Company, Inc.
“The National Ski Patrol, Samaritans of the Snow,” by Besser, Gretchen R. (1983), The Countryman Press.
“Skiing in the Americas,” by Jay, John. (1947), The MacMillan Company.
“Ski Sentinels, The Story of the National Ski Patrol,” video-based film documentary, a Rick Moulton Film produced by the New England Ski Museum.