On Oct. 2, 1946, a date he is prepared to equate with Oct. 12, 1492, Walter Robert Schoenknecht (pronounced Shawn-connect) hopped a barbed-wire fence and half ran, half floundered to the summit of a snow-covered mountain in southern Vermont. "I stood at the top of that mountain—Mt. Pisgah they called her then—and I looked all around me," Schoenknecht says richly, savoring the historical moment. "I looked down at the snow at my feet—October snow 18 inches deep. I looked out over that broad and beautiful valley falling away below me. And most of all I looked far off into the future. And there, just waiting for me, I saw the ski resort of my dreams: it would be the largest in the world, it would be second to none, it would be absolutely fabulous."
Nowadays when Walt Schoenknecht ascends to the summit of Mt. Pisgah, which, with the blessing of a Madison Avenue friend, he has renamed Mt. Snow, he rides a quarter-million-dollar double chair lift ("one of the longest in the world"), and what he sees below him is no Vision of Tomorrow. He sees instead, exactly as he intended, a pulsing, throbbing, commercial empire which is, by count of customers (up to 11,000 a day), the largest ski resort in the world; which is, by any other count, second to none, for there is none other like it; and which is, if not absolutely fabulous, bordering on fantastic.
To Schoenknecht, a tall, slope-shouldered man with a frantic look on his face, none of this seems surprising. Extraordinarily extroverted, fully convinced of his own worth, and not beyond admitting it to friend or stranger, he does not marvel at his success but takes it as his due. "In the ski business I admire myself above all others," he says heartily. "I've skied nearly all my life and I've promoted ski areas for 15 years of my life. I've got an uncanny knack for sensing what skiers want and the imagination and resolute drive to produce it."
What skiers want by Schoenknecht's measure is not only a sufficiency of trails easily accessible by lifts and tows, but also the extras most other resort operators deny them; specifically: a heated outdoor swimming pool, a heated indoor ice rink, block-long cafeterias with block-long lines, walk-in fireplaces, a resort-wear shop with a $100,000 inventory, ski lectures, Hollywood movies in the base lodge, dog-sled rides, dances, cheese-fondue parties on Wednesday and church services on Sunday. "I also know," says Schoenknecht, "that a skier won't let you stand still, that you must provide something new, something tremendously exciting every year to get him back." To that end, Schoenknecht peers into the future again, and with eyes watering, reels off the details of expanding Mt. Snow almost three times beyond its present size, until it includes a four-story motel, a 12-story hotel, an amphitheater beside a man-made lake, an Alpine village and lifts and trails beyond number. He also schemes of a summer activity program featuring everything from Bavarian tea dances to boatless water skiing. Pulling the whole together in one tidy package will be an "unbelievable" aerial tramway seven miles long.
The shape of the future may be large and beautiful to Walter Schoenknecht; but among his detractors, there exists an even stronger conviction that Mt. Snow and its proprietor are already too much. "Go to Mt. Snow," says one of the less charitable critics, "and meet the Abominable Snowman." "See his Disneyland and Coney Island of the Snow Belt," says another. Says Walt Schoenknecht with a smile as cold as a Mt. Snow's tip: "When competitors hear my name they shudder, and I'm not surprised. History is in the making here, for when it comes to developing a vacation spot second to none, Schoenknecht is second to none."
Presumably, the last time Schoenknecht was second to anybody was that day 41 years ago when he was born in New Haven, Conn., the second child (but first son) of Henry and Meta Schoenknecht. His first pair of skis came 10 years later, and no sooner had he graduated beyond the slopes of a neighborhood golf course than he became a critic of the facilities available (or, more usually, not available) to dedicated skiers like himself. "There was simply no one around then astute enough to guess what was happening to the sport," says Schoenknecht. He means there was no Schoenknecht.
After high school, Schoenknecht helped organize the first sizable ski club in New Haven and became its tour director with the responsibility of finding new and better areas for the club's outings. His overriding fret, Schoenknecht remembers, was that if he were in the ski business, things would be a lot better for skiers.
"But by now war clouds were gathering and the handwriting was on the wall," Schoenknecht says, utilizing two of the many clich�s that flavor his speech. The young man got the message and went to work for an aircraft factory. Later he was obliged, he says, "to move heaven and earth" to get out of his essential job and into the Marines. In that career he principally distinguished himself by organizing a ski club in Florida: "We didn't go skiing, exactly; we just thought about it." Transferred to Washington, D.C., Schoenknecht did go skiing (driving time: 33 hours, skiing time: 3 hours), was eventually broken from corporal to private for being consistently late returning. But his plans for the future were taking shape, and Schoenknecht already knew he wanted to build a ski resort someday "that would be perfection in every detail." He had just been separated from the service and had just married Peggy Moss of New Haven when he chanced upon the sleeping face of Mt. Pisgah.