Mix one part alumni reunion and one part celebration, add a pinch of nostalgia, and pour it into a large 1960s-era decanter filled with frosty memories, and what do you get?
A savory 50th anniversary cocktail recalling the now-historic winter of 1968 high up on Luce Hill in Stowe, when the Trapp Family Lodge opened up the first commercial ski touring center in the United States — and launched a brand new sport in America.
This week, Trapps commemorates that seminal moment in cross-country skiing, when a lodge mostly famed for its ties to “The Sound of Music” also became the place that kick-started America’s adoption of Scandinavia’s national kick and glide tradition.
Johannes von Trapp, the youngest son of Maria von Trapp, recalls that was hardly what he had in mind when he imported 50 wooden Trysil-Knut hickory skis and a 24-year-old Norwegian named Per Sørlie to teach Nordic skiing in a downhill-dominated world. For him, it was a semi-desperate Hail Mary pass to lure some paying winter guests up to the family’s 27-room lodge.
Back then the infamous hairpin climb to Trapps was unpaved, and SUVs and all-wheel drive Subarus were a distant glimmer in some auto engineer’s eye. When virtually every lodge and motel on the Mountain Road was closer to Mount Mansfield, getting winter visitors was a tough sell.
Thankfully, Mother Nature gifted him with copious white stuff in 1968. That snowy serendipity was matched by Sørlie’s ample gifts of personable enthusiasm, a fact noted by Sam von Trapp, now 45 and the executive vice president of the lodge. In wry comments to a gala gathering Saturday of ski center staff over the past five decades, Sam von Trapp said without Sørlie and four really good snow years in a row, “this might all have been just a bad idea.”
Last Saturday, Sam Von Trapp and his mother Lynne joined Sørlie, who is visiting from Norway with his wife for the celebration, to lead a reminiscence ski tour for a group of festive skiers attired in vintage ski gear and clothing. Among those joining was Ingrid Prouty of Johnson, in knickers and a colorful Norwegian sweater, using wooden Eggen skis that Trapps sold in the 1970s. Her father, Jed, was half-Norwegian, and in the 1970s called weekly square dances at the Lodge, while she worked in the coffee and ski shop. To honor their heritage, she recalls her dad decided “our family’s got to get involved,” and she became an avid cross-country skier and racer.
That tale of embracing the new sport was repeated thousands of times in the 1970s as Trapps became known as ground zero for a sudden Nordic ski boom.
For his part, Sørlie, now 73 and still hale and hearty, had no grandiose schemes in mind when he came to the U.S. for the first time. Recruited through a Norwegian roommate of Johannes at Dartmouth, his main qualification was being a good skier — and up for an adventure.
“I was 24 years old and the world was open for everything,” Sørlie said. Johannes, he recalls, said not to worry about his not-very-good English, saying, “you just have to speak with an accent.”
A lasting legacy
The touring center was a repurposed garage near the lodge. Sørlie hired a couple of “Norwegian girls” living in Stowe and a Norwegian student from Michigan to help run it. That Norwegian connection continued for several years.
“You’d walk into the ski shop and think you were in Norway,” quipped Jared Gange of Shelburne, who was hired in 1972 to man Trapps’ then-new log ski cabin high up in the woods.
“The grooming consisted of Per going out in the morning and skiing in the track,” said Johannes with a chuckle, recalling 1968. But the deep snows smoothed out gnarly spots and swamps on the old logging roads and walking paths at the lodge.
The 1970s brought back-to-the-landers interested in getting back to nature, and as some alpine skiers also began to look askance at lift lines and crowds, the idea of a quieter and active winter alternative took off. It didn’t hurt Trapps’ growth that a bevy of expert instructors worked there, such as Norway’s cross-country Olympic gold-medalist Babben Enger, along with Vermonters like four-time Olympian Larry Damon and touring center director and adventurer Ned Gillette, and Olympian Joe Pete Wilson, widely regarded one of the greatest salespeople in the sport.
A lasting, and less appreciated, legacy is that of Johannes von Trapp, who had a forestry degree from Yale but found himself stuck running a family lodge, fed his forestry interests through trailwork and land conservation. Gange was one of the first to join a legendary bushwhacking trail crew of amazing skiers that included Dudley Rood, Ray Leggett (now Dhyan Nirmegh) of Huntington, and others who created many of the iconic backcountry trails that now symbolize Stowe, such as Skytop and the Trapps-to-Bolton trail.
“He was totally into it,” recalls Gange of von Trapp, who hired him almost accidentally after they met at the main desk in the old lodge when Gange wandered in looking for a job.
Johannes, now 79, says land conservation is one of the things he is proudest of in hindsight: the property around the lodge now totals 2,600 acres, up from the original 700.
At Saturday’s gala, staffers and guests gave von Trapp an impromptu standing ovation in recognition of his efforts and vision. As for Sørlie, ever humble, he says it took him a while to accept his role in Trapps legacy, noting he really just came over to have some fun. But seeing what has happened over time and knowing thousands of skiers a day sometimes cruise the trails, he says, “I feel that I have really done something — and that makes me feel very good.”
Writer and journalist Andrew Nemethy worked at Trapps for two years at the front desk, and badly caught the cross-country ski bug.