In the four years since the outdoors-happy inhabitants of Anchorage, Alaska awoke one morning to find themselves blessed with the first major ski development of the 49th state, a number of singular events have transpired in the vicinity of Mt. Alyeska. One night a moose ate the tow rope. Again, a bear chased a skier up a tree. Max Marolt, a visiting Coloradan, achieved geographic immortality by bumming his way to the top of a neighboring mountain via helicopter and skiing down its side; they promptly named the mountain after Max. But last weekend Secretary Seward's bustling baby proved that it had grown up to its stretch pants. The first National Alpine Ski Championships ever held in Alaska—in fact, the first national championships of any kind—turned out to be a rewarding success. The moose and the bears may never be the same again, but more than half a hundred racers, including the ingredients for the finest Olympic Alpine team America has seen, were enthusiastic.
So, too, was the competition committee of the U.S. Ski Association, which has been striving for years with remarkably little success to develop an Olympic team built around—as opposed to being built entirely upon—the sturdy presence of Wallace (Buddy) Werner. Buddy Werner, now 27, emerged once again as the most versatile American ever to slide down a mountain. He won the combined national championship for the second time and, in the process, twice in three races finished ahead of the sensational European discovery, Switzerland's Jos Minsch (SI, Feb. 25), who served as a more than adequate international test. Yet Buddy couldn't win a race. He finished second to Minsch in the giant slalom, a development that left U.S. officials less than overjoyed, but he also finished second to Chuck Ferries in the slalom and second to a 19-year-old University of Colorado teammate, Billy Marolt (Max's brother), in the downhill. And, because Werner is America's most popular skier as well as its once again best, this made people bubble with delight.
"Buddy is skiing better than he ever skied in his life," said Bob Beattie, coach of both Colorado and the U.S. Olympic team. "He's not falling back. The other lads are catching up. We still need a lot of work, but maybe we're about ready to win some of those medals at last."
Medals are no novelty to American women, and in 1964 the likes of Gretchen Fraser, Andrea Mead Lawrence, Penny Pitou and Betsy Snite can prepare to move over for Jean Saubert, a bouncy, brown-haired girl from Oregon with a marvelous grin. Sixth in the giant slalom and ninth in the downhill and the combined in her first world championships in Chamonix last year as a 19-year-old, Jean has been almost unbeatable in 1963. She won the Roch Cup slalom, giant slalom and combined; she won the Vail Cup downhill, slalom and combined; two weeks ago, at Sun Valley, she beat one of the world's best women racers, a pretty, dark-haired mouse from Munich named Barbi Henneberger, two out of three times to win the Harriman Cup downhill, slalom and combined. Last weekend, with the other Americans trailing far behind, Miss Saubert and the German invader hooked up again in a duel that rivaled the Werner-Minsch affair. Miss Henneberger won the downhill, with Jean second. Miss Saubert won the giant slalom with Barbi second. And Miss Henneberger won the slalom only when Jean, leading after the first run, fell on her second trip just three gates from the finish line.
Despite the fireworks, the natives seemed reluctant at first to take part. But then the sparkling spring weather—the temperature never fell below 15° at night and soared as high as 52° during the day—brought them pouring out of Anchorage, by jeep and car and pickup, onto Seward Highway and the winding 38-mile trip to Alyeska along the shore of Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm. The latter, boasting the second-highest tide in the world, is a Norwegianlike fjord that earned its name when early navigators, hoping to find a shortcut to Disneyland, came smack up against a glacier instead. The spectacular beauty of the mountains rising almost vertically alongside is best appreciated at high tide, when there is two of everything to fascinate the viewer, one upside down. At low tide—Turnagain Arm also has the second-lowest tide in the world, although Alaskans seldom mention this—mud and glacial silt combine to produce a scene that looks like hell froze over. At low tide, the traveler is happy to turn off the main road for the jolting two-mile ride to Mt. Alyeska.
Alyeska, an Aleut word meaning "Great Land of White to the East," is one of the few sea-level ski resorts. From the lodge at its base, the mountain rises 3,994 feet to a peak from which one can see dozens of other mountains, eight glaciers and several broken arms and legs any day of the week. The tree line, consisting almost entirely of spruce, ends at 1,800 feet; above there are open slopes, a miniature of the Swiss and Austrian Alps. Upon one of these slopes was set a downhill racing course that brought sounds of pleasure from every competitor present. "It's not as fast or as steep as some of the European courses," Buddy Werner said, "but it sure is interesting. It's long, and there are going to be some problems."
Not the least of these problems was a transition one-third of the way down that brought the racers out of a relatively flat stretch into a sharp drop and then up a dizzy hump. At this point, press photographers gathered hungrily like hopeful relatives at the reading of a will. Rewarded by a constant stream of flying bodies, some of them inverted, the cameramen departed happy. Not all the skiers were so happy, but most of the good ones survived. Werner did, despite his slightly undesirable No. 1 starting position, and for several hours afterward Buddy thought that he had won. But an electronic timing device had somehow malfunctioned with human assistance, and for a while Minsch thought that he had won, too. Finally the officials decided that Billy Marolt had won, in the shadow of brother Max's mountain, with Werner one-tenth of a second behind, Minsch third and Ferries tied with Jim Gaddis of Utah for fourth. Marolt didn't hear the news until 5 p.m. when he came down from giant slalom practice.
Germans are not eligible.
"Boy, that's great," said Billy. "I never won anything this big before."
"All along we were more worried about Marolt than Werner," said the Swiss coach. "Last week at Sun Valley that boy showed us something. He's going to be a great skier."