by Bob Soden
Previously published in the Journal of the Ski History Congress – 2002 – Park City, Utah
All rights reserved by author
Paper for 2002 U.S. Ski History Congress
Walter Foeger and Natur Teknik were a colorful and ‘controversial’ part of the American ski scene in the 1950’s1 and 1960’s2, but regrettably have been overlooked in recent ski chronologies.3 No story about the development of skiing in the USA during this period should be considered complete without their mention; their absence in today’s skiing histories impoverishes the richness of the record. Foeger’s numerous ski schools taught Natur Teknik which was one of a handful of alternate approaches to teaching parallel skiing, (or sensational Wedeln) that were current at the time. He was, however, ‘the original teacher of direct parallel’4 in this country. Most other American ski schools during this period taught systems that derived from the Arlberg method of Hannes Schneider, which started out with snowplow and stem, leading to parallel as the final goal (the disparate systems would begin to unite under the Professional Ski Instructors of America, PSIA, in 1961, and the American Ski Technique, that followed).5 The heated verbal and written battles about which system was right are long over, and in the end the direct approach to parallel lost the war (at least for now). But the epic contests back then, between the rotation and counter-rotation crowds, and the snowplow-stem and direct-parallel crowds, made for interesting times on the slopes and at the inn, where ski philosophy became minor theater with parlor demonstrations and various props, such as ‘the classic piano stool illustration.’6
Foeger arrived in America in December 1956 (he would become a U.S. citizen in 1963) to be the Austrian ski pro for the newly created Jay Peak ski area in northern Vermont, which would open officially one month later.7 He was a ‘bandy-legged human dynamo’8 who was not content with solely developing Jay Peak ‘from a pomalift (operation) with a gross under $5,000 to a four-million-dollar complex with an aerial tramway …’ in a whirlwind ten years. Foeger’s seemingly boundless energy lead him to extend his ski school system to ‘eleven eastern ski areas,’9 including Okemo Mt., VT,10 Camelback, PA,11 Dutchess Mt., NY,12 and Enchanted Mt., ME,13 as well as to design a number of their trail systems.14
He had arrived at an opportune time. The new sensation, Wedeln, was sweeping the ski world, along with a ‘violent controversy’ 15 about its place in ski instruction. Foeger stood ready with one of the answers. 1956 had begun, for skiers, with the Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy, where racers exhibited their prowess with ‘the new running style’ or ‘wedeln,’ which in fact had been on the scene in Europe for a couple years by this time. The wedeln phenomenon subsequently exploded on the American skiing public’s imagination with something of the effect the H-bomb produced over the Bikini Atoll a few months later. It blew everything else off the slopes. Everyone who saw the new style wanted to ski that way. Ski schools had to scramble to supply the demand. Recreational wedeln had been ‘developed by racers’ for slalom, for example, where they had to efficiently make quick, short, reverse shoulder parallel turns through a series of closed fall line gates (a flush). Wedeln looked good, looked sexy – goodbye rotation, goodbye Arlberg crouch (with apologies to the memory of the great Hannes Schneider – but it was now a different age, with different equipment).
In October 1956 SKI Magazine described how skiers could ‘Ski the New Way,’ with accompanying photos of American Olympian Brooks Dodge. Wedeln is an Austrian term describing a dog ‘wagging his tail.’ In well-executed wedeln the lower body does indeed resemble a wagging tail, and the upper body counteracts the twisting with an equal and opposite action (reverse shoulder), in one sinuous and continuous action (some said it was like Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist’ on skis). The great controversy centered around the following point: ‘… wedeln has been taught as a matter of course in the top classes of many ski schools in this country … That beginners could learn wedeln right from the start … is subject to serious doubt.’16 In November 1956 certified Austrian instructor Clemens Hutter described very clearly, in ‘How You Can Learn Wedeln’ in SKI, a method of stem wedeln and jump (‘hop’) wedeln by which competent skiers could learn the technique.17 In December 1956, the same month in which Foeger had arrived in the USA, another article in SKI, ‘Wedeln: What Is It All About?’ by managing editor Fred Springer-Miller, and others, offered several approaches to the new holy grail of skiing; as well, some of the continuing controversy’s many points of view were brought to the fore.18
Foeger took the point of view that wedeln could and should be taught to beginners. So did Stein Eriksen, Doug Pfeiffer, and a few others. In January 1957 Eriksen’s article, ‘How Stein Eriksen Teaches Wedeln,’ in SKI, stated ‘Teach wedeln to beginners? Of course! Why not? There is no reason why beginners cannot be taught by a method which leads them directly to wedeln – without detours, without the wasteful rigmarole of first learning and then unlearning an entirely different set of movements and responses before arriving at what everyone agrees is the most practical and graceful way to ski. I know this is true because during the last two years I have been doing it in my own ski school.’19 (Eriksen used abbreviated forms of snowplow- and stem-christie (or Christiania, the original term for a parallel turn) leading to pure wedeln). In December 1957 Doug Pfeiffer’s article in SKI, ‘Can 2,000,000 Skiers Break the Snowplow Habit?’ (the article was an extract from Pfeiffer’s proposed book ‘It’s Easy to Ski Parallel’), stated ‘… Some say a parallel christie is for experts … To me, the parallel christie is the thing that makes an expert’, and described sequences that could take a beginner from straight running through to parallel, employing among other things, ‘rhythm hops.’20
The controversy had continued all through 1957, the year of Sputnik, which SKI named ‘The Year of Wedeln.’21 Foeger took time away from the fray to dabble in oil painting to promote the ski area, and in December SKI carried a photo of an ‘area manager’s … visionary painting of Jay Peak.’22 In addition developing to his ‘picasso,’ during 1957 Foeger expanded the number of Jay’s ski trails hands-on, directed the extension the area’s sole ski lift (using a Coke bottle for a plumb bob), made a ski movie in Chile, and was promoted to general manager. ‘Revolution in Ski Teaching’ proclaimed the cover of the February 1958 SKI, and an illustrated article in the same issue introducing Foeger and his ‘direct wedeln method’ to the American skiing world. ‘Of all the newfangled methods in this country … Foeger’s is probably the only one which is organized systematically down to the last detail.’ His technique to teach beginners ‘wedeln in a week’ was met not only with ‘fabulous success’ 23 on the slopes, but often with misunderstanding and ‘cudgels’ 24 from skiing’s establishment.