Swiss champion

Passing Date: 
Thursday, February 25, 2016

Walter Hänsli, a native of Klosters, Switzerland—a leading coach and instructor who played a key role in the early promotion of Head skis in Europe—died February 25, at the age of 95.

Hänsli was named to the Swiss national ski team in 1938, at age 17. He never competed in the Winter Olympics—the 1940 and 1944 Games were canceled due to World War II, and his name wasn’t chosen when the Swiss team drew lots for the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz. His second chance came when U.S. coach Walter Prager hired him to train the American women’s team at the 1948 Games. Gretchen Fraser became the first American to win gold and silver medals that year, and Jack Heinz (from the Heinz Ketchup fortune) lobbied to have Hänsli hired by the prestigious Sun Valley ski school for the 1949–50 season. 

That year, Howard Head asked the school to test his second series of prototypes skis—four blank aluminum skis, consisting of two aluminum plates bonded to a thin core of plywood. Hänsli found the skis excellent in powder, recorded the trials and wrote to Head suggesting some improvements. Head then invited Hänsli to visit his “factory,” a garage in Baltimore. At the meeting, Hänsli suggested steel edges, and, for esthetics, a plastic material on top. Head chose phenol, a black material, to eliminate the glare of the metal. Head, not a rich man, asked Hänsli how he could recompense him for his advice. Hänsli suggested the right to sell Head skis in Europe. During 1950–51, he sold 18 pairs, and in succeeding seasons sold 57, then 186, then 1,500 pairs and in 1958 more than 20,000—more than a third of Head’s annual production. Hänsli was also a key figure in setting up Head’s production center in Kennelbach, Austria.

In the meantime, Hänsli began traveling to New Zealand’s Mt. Ruapehu for the northern summers, and in 1949 proposed to replace an existing rope tow with a network of lifts. With business partner Bryan Todd, he built the first of a series of chairs in 1954. Hänsli taught at Ruapehu for 16 years. Even today, Hänsli is honored every year by the Hänsli Cup ski race held at the ski resort. Karen Williams covered his life in her biography Barrel Staves to Carving Skis: A Skier’s Story: Walter Hänsli of Klosters. —Luzi Hitz

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