Klaus Obermeyer describes it like it was yesterday. Eighty-three years ago, he fell in love with the sport of skiing.
He was only 3 when he first saw people on skis and first fashioned his own pair, nailing together the chestnut boards from a crate of imported oranges.
He speaks about skiing’s past and present like a proud father. Enthusiasm paints every corner of his face. His youthful exuberance is befitting of someone half his age. His admiration and passion are infectious.
He eyes the upcoming winter with the same anticipation he had when he was a boy growing up in the German Alps. The snow is coming via Fed-Ex, he says with a laugh.
Signs that the season will soon be here are everywhere. Highland Bowl is blanketed in a fresh coat of white, gleaming in the brilliant autumn sun. Aspens desperately cling to their leaves. Trees will soon be lit up on Main Street.
And the crowd that gathers at the Wheeler Opera House will usher in the new season by viewing Warren Miller’s annual display of splendor and brilliance.
Both Friday and tonight, fans will fill the seats to view Miller’s newest installment, “Higher Ground.” Miller’s 56th film chronicles athletes on their quest to find new and creative ways to take the sports of skiing and snowboarding into uncharted territory.
Familiar faces in the film abound, from locals Peter and Michael Olenick, to 5-year-old Bridger Gile. But the smile that lights up the screen most is Obermeyer’s.
You may not think Obermeyer would be surprised by anything. He lived in post-World War II Germany, witnessed Aspen’s skiing transformation first-hand and helped revolutionize the ski clothing industry.
You may think Obermeyer has seen at all. But after viewing the aerial exploits of today’s visual artists on the slopes, in the parks and half-pipes, the 85-year-old ski legend is simply awed.
“It’s like a whole new world out there today,” Obermeyer said Tuesday. “Young people today are willing to take chances that have pushed forward skiing and snowboarding. It’s so phenomenal, unbelievable and beautiful.”
The possibilities for the future of the sport are endless, Obermeyer says. Every chance he gets he skis alongside today’s premier freeskiing athletes, wearing out Buttermilk’s terrain park and even taking on a few kickers along the way.
“I love skiing with the kids, they are the best,” Obermeyer said. “I had a hard time keeping my [baggy] pants up, though.”
Perhaps the two groups bond because of their mutual admiration and respect. Perhaps they bond because – although generations apart – the two share more in common than they realize.
Obermeyer was only three when he witnessed skiing for the first time while growing up in Germany. The infatuation blossomed. Winters were consumed with trying to master the sport, building 30-meter jumps with friends and impressing locals with his unorthodox feats and ski-racing prowess. When he became the first person around to complete a somersault on skis at age 12, Obermeyer had the whole town talking, he remembers.
It was in 1947 that Obermeyer came to the United States with hopes of building a career in aeronautical engineering. With job prospects fading in the period after the war, Obermeyer turned to selling ties to make ends meet.
In the fall of 1948, Obermeyer took his business west to Sun Valley, Idaho, and it was there that he met a struggling salesman named Warren Miller.
The two friends took a road trip together – Obermeyer advertised his ties and Miller sold dyed belt pouches made from army surplus ammunition holders, ski boot laces made of parachute string and even a cartoon book.
By the time they reached Los Angeles, the two had a quarter between them.
“We split a hamburger,” Obermeyer says with a laugh. “Then we descended on Warren’s parents’ house in South Pasadena. We cleaned out their refrigerator. They were happy to see us go.”
The pair continued on to Alta in Utah before parting ways. Miller headed to Sun Valley, where he taught ski school for beginners. An appreciative student from New York liked him so much that he gave Miller an 8-millimeter camera, Obermeyer said. After failed attempts to shoot surfing videos because he could not find a casing to keep the camera dry, Miller switched to shooting on the slopes.
Obermeyer headed to the relatively unknown town of Aspen, where he taught ski school with good friend Friedl Pfeifer, of Austria, for $10 a day. It was in Colorado that he soon diagnosed the problem that would change his career.
“I was teaching at a time when there were few people in Aspen,” Obermeyer said. “There wasn’t much equipment, and nothing they had was good.”
Skiers rode the lifts wearing restrictive city overcoats and complained about their feet being sore. Obermeyer decided to cut up his down comforter and made a parka that was both warmer and shorter than other jackets.
“One of my students asked me if he could try it,” Obermeyer said. “He went up, came down, and said it was terrific. He paid me $250 for it, which was a lot of money. You could buy a new Buick for $1,250, with a radio.”
Obermeyer returned to Germany and convinced a friend who worked in a bedding factory to help him make parkas. Obermeyer would make a return trip to patent the first-ever ski boot with a plastic outer shell. He spent a summer in Alaska as a crane operator to pay for the supplies.
It would not be long before Obermeyer would introduce ski sweaters, turtlenecks and the first high-altitude sunscreen. As Aspen began to transform, so too did burgeoning Sport Obermeyer.
“I didn’t aim at it,” Obermeyer says of his success. “What I did aim at was to make skiing more comfortable. There were many opportunities because there really was no industry here.
“There is one thing in this country that is special and that is people here have very open minds. They are always ready to help somebody. I have been fortunate to meet nice people.”
More than half a century and millions of dollars later, Obermeyer’s passion is as intense as ever. He hasn’t been tempted by short-term business schemes driven only to increase profit, and he charts success by the number of content skiers, not profit numbers.
His story is one filled with intrigue and charm fit for a big screen bio-pic. Obermeyer, however, will settle for the joy of seeing himself in one of Miller’s creations.
“The movie is a celebration of this time of year,” Obermeyer said. “It is telling us to get ready for the season and get the skis waxed. We are lucky to be living in this time. A Warren Miller movie is a wonderful invitation to go skiing again.”
Obermeyer may be more cautious now – even though he says his skis are faster – but some things never change. His eyes, his soul remain fixed on one thing: the upcoming season.
There will be a familiar face in the lift lines Nov. 24 when Aspen Mountain and Snowmass open for business. Like he has every year since Warren Harding was president, Obermeyer will be on his skis.
He will be alongside fellow ski innovators – young and old – whose shared progressive spirit, drive and perseverance have transformed the sport.
He will be right where he belongs. The sport is in good hands.
“I have a wonderful life and I feel like a kid,” Obermeyer said. “You’re limping as you get older, but when you’re on skis, no one can tell.”
— Jon Maletz, Aspen Times, photo: Aspen Historical Society