Bob Hicks' Skiing Adventure

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Willy Schaeffler and André Roch in 1966 (Courtesy Hicks Collection)

It was the spring of 1966. Winter storms had blanketed the slopes of the Mineral King cirque with a snow cover that fed visions of a massive ski resort, fueled fears of avalanche, and beckoned adventurers on skis.

André Roch had spent most of his sixty years on skis. He raced in the 1927 Student Olympics in Italy, winning both the slalom and downhill. He created the Aspen Ski Club, and was a renowned member of the Swiss Alpine Club and the Cascade Ski Club. He and two friends were the first people ever to ski down from the summit of Mount Hood. A ski run and a racing trophy were named after him. When it came to skiing, he was a recognized expert.

Roch was also an avalanche expert. He first experienced the deadly power of snow in 1939 while climbing a peak in the Himalayas. An avalanche struck the expedition, killing two porters. Roch joined the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, and became head of the Section on Snow and Avalanche Mechanics and Avalanche Control.

In 1965, Walt Disney Corporation hired him to evaluate avalanche conditions in the Mineral King cirque where Disney was planning to develop a ski resort. Roch spent much of the winter in the valley, conducting surveys and taking measurements to assess the avalanche threats in various portions of the valley. Based on his evaluation, Walt Disney Corporation decided to move the proposed resort to a safer location down the canyon.

Roch’s preoccupation was not short on danger. By 1966, he had survived three avalanches and dug his son out a fourth. Such trauma did not prevent him from embracing new adventures that came his way, however. One such opportunity came that spring of 1966.

The only run

Earlier that year, Ron Taylor, ski writer for the Fresno Bee, requested a visit to Mineral King to conduct research for a newspaper article. According to Bob Hicks, manager of Disney’s Mineral King Project, Disney decided to fly Taylor into the cirque with skis. Willie Schaeffler, an Olympic champion skier, selected a spot where a helicopter could drop Taylor, Hicks, Schaeffler, and a twelve-year old boy named Craig  Thorn off for a memorable run down to the valley floor.

“Willie [Schaeffler] said nothing about where we were going,” recalls Hicks.

Their destination was Eagle Crest, a relatively flat 11,190-foot peak. Upon disembarking, the group found themselves perched on top of a nearly vertical cliff with the frozen Eagle Lake 1200 feet below. Schaeffler launched himself down the cliff face. “As I recall, he yodeled on the way down,” says Hicks.

“The next to ski was the young boy. He took off and did fine. While I was standing, waiting, I began to tremble, wondering what was I doing there. I remember the helicopter taking off, blowing snow and ice all over me, and I thought I should never have come on this trip. Ron Taylor was the third man to go. He hadn’t gone ten feet when his skis slipped out from under him and he went fully head over skis all the way down to where Willie was standing.”

Schaeffler helped Taylor rise, and Hicks concluded that Taylor had survived. Telling himself that he couldn’t make a mistake now, Hicks took his turn.

“I leaned way out over the skis so they could bite into the snow. I made my first turn and I knew I was home free. Ron Taylor was all bloodied and skinned up and half in shock. We had to help him down to the base, where the helicopter then took him back to Fresno. That was our only run that day.”

A lesson learned

Hicks and Schaeffler weren’t done, however. They invited Roch to join them on a second helicopter adventure, along with Dave Beck, a Disney surveyor. This time they had the helicopter drop them off above a steep slope that descended to Mosquito Lakes.

“Willie took off skiing and yodeling down,” remembers Hicks, “and then Dave Beck took off and made it fine. But André Roch, who was an expert skier, took off his skis. With his skis over his shoulder, he backed downward, kicking his boots in the snow to make steps.”

"I think it saved, me,” concludes Hicks, “because I did the same thing.”

As Roch liked to say, "Remember, the avalanche does not know you are an expert."

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