Norma Bartol: From ski racing to a dude ranch, a tale to admire

Photo of Norma Bartol
Norma Bartol

Norma Bartol

Contributed Photo / Contributed Photo

“From childhood, my delight in simply being alive was intensified with every foot I could put between myself and sea level,” said Betty Woolsey, author of “Off the Beaten Track.” I met this extraordinary woman while skiing at Jackson Hole country in Wyoming, namely Elizabeth Woolsey, owner of a fabulous dude ranch, Trail Creek Ranch.

Before becoming the owner of the ranch, she led a life of fascination. Namely a life of skiing on two continents, in the Alps and out West. Her book is a record of the early days of ski racing, particularly by a woman. She also became captain of a women’s racing team.

Her skiing career actually started with mountain climbing in the Pyrenees, Alpes Vaudoises, Chamonix, and the Valois. Then she got to the Rocky Mountains and Navajo trails, Big Horn, San Juan’s Navajo Reservation, and the Canadian Rockies. Then the rivers of ice glacier skiing, and also skiing in the Alps.

This is something I wish I had the guts to do, as one small misstep can lead to real trouble. Unfortunately, I don’t have the wherewithal, says our author.

Then the famous ski racing took place. This was something new and quite different. It was in 1934 and in Elizabeth Woolsey’s favorite European place, St. Anton. She joined a group of American skiers who trained and raced in Europe in preparation for the Olympic Games to be held in 1936 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

Her invitation to join the squad was due to winning the downhill and slalom races on the famous Suicide Six in Woodstock, Vt., where at a later date I had my first ski lesson.

Alice Wolf met the group, followed by her large St. Bernard. Alice was a daughter of Walter Damrosch, a distinguished conductor and musician. She was an enthusiastic skier, who spent much of the year in the Austrian Alps. She was going to help them get ready for the Olympics.

I was amused at this point when our author writes, “Am settled in a beautiful room with running water for $1.80 a day. My first trip to St. Anton we stayed at a lovely spot in the village for $2.00 a day. How things have changed!” St. Anton was a small village with few Americans at that time. The author tells us about the Duke of Kent and the Duke of Hamilton, whose Scottish estate Rudolph Hess parachuted into.

According to the author, all her spare cash went into the latest model skis, hickory with metal edges for the tips, which were edged by a kind of bone. The bindings consisted of toe pieces and Bilstein springs around the heel of the boot. There was not much play between the boot and the ski, so precise control wasn’t possible as it is today.

With the fancy, modern bindings, one has more complete control over the ski. One would enjoy the skis and boots of today and hopefully the skiing would have improved to match. In any case, it makes for a wonderful sport and a wonderful book. Staying at the ranch was also a fine thing to do.

Also, in those days, skis for us cost about $15, more if you raced. If you went to the designer as we did in Stowe, Vt., it was a whole new world, and one that caused us all to go to Mad River Glen, rather than Stowe, which had become so crowded.

As for “Off the Beaten Track” by Elizabeth Woolsey, it was to me the most fascinating story I have read in a long time, especially if you love the sport of skiing, which has become a big deal. The author gives a wonderful picture of skiing and climbing on two continents, and finally ending up on the dude ranch. This had become a popular spot for those who loved the ranch in the Teton Mountains. Here one meets personalities from counts to cowboys.

Greenwich native Norma Bartol, a former Greenwich Time reporter and columnist, lives in the backcountry.