The Day Steamboat Shook: Buddy Werner’s death changed Steamboat forever
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The church overflowed the day they buried Buddy Werner.
The crowds flooded the United Methodist Church on the corner of Oak and Eighth, hundreds from the Steamboat Springs community showing up and so many more from out of town — skiers and friends and coaches and competitors overwhelming the grand brick chapel.
Some stood outside the church anyway while more hiked seven blocks to gather in the high school gymnasium, where an audio feed from the service was being transmitted. They listened as Dr. Arthur L. Miller spoke of a man the community couldn’t bear to lose. Miller, visiting from the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver, was the preacher who had married Werner to Vanda Norgren only three years before, and on April 17, 1964, he buried him.
Loris Werner was there, and today, 51 years later, the spirits of his family still linger with him.
He’s the last one, the last of the world-famous Werner family that helped Steamboat Springs become the cradle of Winter Olympians that it is. He speaks boldly of the brother and the sister, the mother and the father who have gone before him.
He’s still proud. He still laughs and still cries and still is driven by their examples, their achievements and their memories, and sometimes, it’s almost as if he can still see them.
“We got banned from playing marbles on the rug in the living room,” he said recently, fresh off a slushy morning of skiing on a warm March day in Steamboat Springs.
He smiled, and he remembered, his brother Buddy, five years older, and his sister Skeeter, eight years older, and the end of marbles in the Werner household, by order of his mother, Hazie.
“We always got into a fight,” he said. “A coffee table had a life expectancy of a month in our living room until our mother finally put her foot down.
“You talk about someone being competitive. Buddy was competitive. I’m competitive. Skeeter was out of sight.”
Loris remembers marbles, and he remembers the day they buried Buddy — the crowds, the church, the high school, all of it.
“Bad,” he said, simply, one word summing up 24 hours.
It was 51 years ago in April when an avalanche swept away Steamboat’s son — a slide of snow on the other side of the world so big it shook a small Rocky Mountain town to its foundation.
Steamboat Springs will play host this month to Skiing History Week, five days of ceremonies and celebrations starting April 8 that will build up to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame induction ceremony April 11.
The skiing-obsessed city and those visiting it will pause to remember the hundreds of athletes, coaches, enthusiasts and innovators who have been inducted into the hall of fame and the 10 more joining them this year.
And they will pause to remember one of the first and one of the best, Buddy Werner, a skier buried 51 years ago, but one who left a mark on Steamboat Springs that has yet to erode away, and, thanks in part to an act of Congress, never will.
Thunder of the snow
It’d make more sense if it happened today.
It wouldn’t have made it any easier, but it would have made more sense.
Avalanches killed people in the 1960s, just as they do today. A string of high-profile deaths have made avalanches a huge topic for today’s skiers, however, and that wasn’t the case in 1964.
“None of us thought about it much,” said Billy Kidd, a Steamboat Springs icon in his own right and, in 1964, a member of the U.S. Ski Team who idolized Werner.
“Back then it wasn’t like nowadays,” he said. “Now, you really would pay attention to that and have the gear and awareness of it, and you’d spend time studying and learning which slope is likely to come down. Then, we just didn’t think about it.”
A boom in skiing technology has sent today’s skiers further and further into the backcountry. Everything from Alpine touring bindings to fat powder skis and split snowboards have helped make more terrain attainable. That’s put more skiers on slopes that were once only reserved for the most dedicated of the dedicated.
It’s not all changes in equipment, either. In 1964, skiers simply didn’t need to look as far for fresh powder.
“In our days of racing, in the ’50s and ’60s, you could ski in the back bowls at Vail for days and not cross your tracks,” Kidd said. “People didn’t know how to ski the powder, so you didn’t have people out there.”
That ignorance of avalanche danger was shattered in a terrible way on April 12, 1964, in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Buddy was at least a bit uncomfortable even being there, Loris Werner recalled.
Buddy had announced his retirement from skiing three weeks prior, having recently competed in his second Olympics. He wrapped up his racing career at the National Alpine Championships at Winter Park, then headed back to Europe to work with top German skier Willy Bogner Jr., who at the time was beginning to branch out into an entirely new career: filmmaking. He had been inspired by the song and dance of West Side Story and set out to create his own spectacle on snow and on film.
“Buddy was apprehensive. He was excited about skiing in the film and doing something different on skis, but I don’t think he really wanted to go back to Europe,” Loris said. “I think he was burned out from the campaign for the Olympics and the competition season.”
Bogner’s first ski movie attracted a dozen of the top skiers in the world to Switzerland, and they produced a one-of-a-kind flick — a movie with as much thought put into costumes as slopes and with considerably more thought put into choreography.
Skiers wearing bright colors bobbed and weaved down the snow in careful coordination.
A day before the accident, Werner was photographed flying high, wearing a white ski suit and tight racing pants, sun on his face and brilliant white clouds in the blue sky above him.
A Life Magazine article published the week after the accident described the next day.
“A hot wind called a Föhn, blowing up from the Mediterranean set the stage for the disaster,” Life writer Marshall Smith wrote. “Overnight this thermal wind had eaten into the snow-laden slopes of the Alps above St. Moritz, creating avalanche conditions.”
They went out that morning on what looked to be a safe slope, nearly 20 skiers with Werner, Bogner and Bogner’s fiancé, Barbara Henneberger, a German Olympic bronze medalist, packed together in the middle.
“We were crossing the slope in a file while the crew was filming when all of a sudden the snow gave way under our skis,” said German racer Fritz Wagnerberger, who survived to tell the tale in an Associated Press report. “Pandemonium broke out. It was terrible. We were yelling, and the screams could be heard over the thunder of the snow. Buddy Werner raced down in front of me trying to get away. He was a little lower down and probably thought he had a chance to ski away from the slide.”
Bogner veered to safety while Werner and Henneberger stuck in front of it, suddenly racing for their lives.
They won that race, too, but the avalanche they outran wasn’t the only one they had to contend with. The first slide had triggered a second on an adjacent slope, and as they reached safety from one, they skied into another.
“He got to the bottom, then he slipped, somersaulted and was lying in the snow as the second arm of the slide crashed right on top of him,” Wagnerberger said. “I think the same happened to Barbi.”
The survivors did what they could, digging into the snow. Swiss patrollers eventually arrived and put a temporary halt to rescue efforts as they fired explosive rockets into the nearby peaks, trying to rid the slope of any more danger.
“In the end, there were hundreds helping us.” Wagnerberger said, “but for Bud and Barbi it was too late.”
They found Henneberger with three hours of digging and in eight feet of snow. An hour later and two feet deeper, they found the body of Buddy Werner. He was 28 years old.
‘The Colorado Cowboy’
Buddy Werner wasn’t Steamboat’s first Olympian. He wasn’t even his family’s first world-class skier.
“That was Skeeter,” Loris Werner said. “She’s the one who started the whole thing. She broke the ice and set the tone for the family.”
A mistake late in the tryout process cost Gladys “Skeeter” Werner a spot on the 1952 Olympic team, but she was there in 1956 before retiring from competition in 1958.
Loris, too, went on to a great skiing career, on the 1964 Olympic team as a ski jumper and the 1968 squad for Alpine skiing.
Wallace “Buddy” Werner was a bit different, however. By the end of his career, he had established himself as perhaps the greatest American Alpine skier of that time.
He was winning big races before he was 20 and setting himself up as a real contender in any event, shoulder to shoulder with the European skiers who’d never before had a reason to worry about an American challenger.
He did it with a breakneck, all-or-nothing style that the crowds grew to adore, the “Colorado Cowboy” who was always shooting to win.
That approach had its ups and downs.
He crashed. A lot. For instance, he only barely finished a race at the 1956 Winter Olympics. He fell twice and was 21st in giant slalom, fell and lost both his skis and didn’t finish in slalom, then fell, lost one ski and finished on the other to place 11th in downhill.
When he stayed up, however, his stunning risks paid off with huge victories, and he cemented his name atop the ski racing world.
He opened eyes on the far side of the Atlantic and on the near side.
“He was on a pedestal for me,” Billy Kidd said. “He was a hero of mine when I grew up in Stowe, Vermont. He used to come to Stowe because that was one of the centers of ski racing in America. My dad took me to watch Buddy Werner, and Buddy came back and beat everybody. He was the best skier in the world for awhile there, so I wanted to ski like Buddy.”
He wasn’t alone. Werner had dominated the 1958-59 season and was a favorite for gold heading into the 1960 Winter Olympics, but he broke his leg leading up to the event.
“Practically every kid in Steamboat Springs appeared in the Ski Carnival parade with a leg in splints and bandages,” the Steamboat Pilot reported.
Kidd got his chance to ski with Werner when he joined the U.S. Team. Werner was the leader of the pack at the time, showing the way for legends-to-be like Kidd, Jimmy Heuga and Bill Marolt.
They hung tight, spending long hours together as they criss-crossed Europe between races. They never exactly got to be close friends with Werner, however. That wasn’t how the relationship worked.
“I don’t want to say he was like a father figure,” Kidd said. “He was like an older brother maybe, but in a much higher category than that. He was this incredible hero for us, who was also very helpful.”
Kidd said there were plenty of laughs during their time on the road together, some wine with the French, a few close calls trying to make a connection in a busy Swiss train station, and, through it all, more lessons than a young skier could ever count.
They learned how to pick a race line, how to help teammates, how to talk to the media and even how to wield a shovel.
“We all watched him so closely,” Kidd said. “We didn’t just want to ski like Buddy Werner. We wanted to be like Buddy Werner.”
He was really gone
Loris Werner was filling his gas tank in Boulder when he got news so devastating his knees could have buckled. The station attendant had fingered Loris for a skier and started a conversation, unaware who he was speaking to.
“He asked, ‘What happened to Buddy Werner?’” Loris said. “I thought he was still talking about the Olympics. I said, ‘Ah, ya know, he just had a bad day. It just wasn’t his day.’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘You don’t know, do you?’”
Phone calls with the news came to the Werner household in Steamboat, the first ones from reporters. Loris called from the filling station to check in, then raced to Lakewood to be with Buddy’s widow, Vanda.
“The whole world knew by then,” he said.
The nation mourned.
U.S. Ski Team coach Bob Beattie escorted Werner’s body back to the United States, and there were memorial services in New York City and in Denver.
Then there was the funeral in Steamboat Springs.
They closed down the city that day. The flags flew at half staff. The businesses were shuttered in downtown and school was canceled.
Werner’s teammates from the U.S. Ski Team acted as pallbearers, carrying his casket into the brick church on Eighth and Oak before a grieving community.
“That’s when it really hit us,” Kidd said. “I don’t think any of us had gone through having someone really close to us die. We hadn’t lost parents or siblings or really close friends and certainly not heroes, but then when we came back for the funeral, saw what this meant to so many people, the people that came from so far.
“He was really gone, and it sank in how lucky we were to have known him, just to have met him and to have had him as a hero.”
Indeed, Steamboat always loved Buddy. His obituary in the Steamboat Pilot lamented, “He was not only the greatest skier the United States produced, but he was also the greatest example of American youth to be found in these United States.”
People immediately began searching for ways to memorialize Werner, and today, those efforts — the big and the small — still do just that.
His former coach Bob Beattie helped establish the Buddy Werner Race League, now a youth ski racing circuit that stretches across the country.
Werner was considering starting his retirement by taking on the ski school director position at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, a ski area he helped map out. A long intermediate trail at the resort is now named “Werner” and it has a race venue tucked alongside it.
The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association hands out the Buddy Werner Award for sportsmanship.
Winter Park retired the No. 9 from its major races because that’s the number Werner wore there in what would be his last competition.
The University of Colorado, which Werner attended, has the Buddy Werner Memorial Scholarship Award that’s given annually to a skier.
The biggest memorials, however, lie in the town where Werner grew up, Steamboat Springs.
Stretching across Steamboat
It’s not easy changing the name of a mountain.
It literally takes an act of Congress to get it done, but Buddy Werner made enough friends in his life that upon his death, the wheels started turning.
Within nine months of Werner’s death, Storm Mountain, which had for two years been home to a fledgling ski resort that would eventually become the massive Steamboat Ski Area, became Mount Werner.
Loris Werner said a freshman senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, helped in the process, motivated by his own love for skiing and the loss of a brother.
Within a decade of Werner’s death, a bronze bust was installed atop Mount Werner.
That wasn’t easy, either.
“The Forest Service won’t just let you go stick a statue or a monument out there,” Loris Werner said.
Local government officials made that happen, too, and local sculptor Jack Finney went to work on the sculpture.
“We sat in his studio and looked at it many different times,” Loris said. “We tweaked this and that, little stuff like his smile or his features.”
Now skiers in Steamboat Springs take Mount Werner Road to Mount Werner itself to ski at Steamboat Ski Area. There, they can ride the Bar-UE chairlift, named for the cattle brand used by the patriarch of the family, Ed Werner.
At the top of that lift, they pass Buddy Werner’s bronze likeness and can ski down Buddy’s Run, a popular intermediate run on the north side of the mountain.
When those skiers are done skiing and head downtown, they may pass or even stop in at Bud Werner Memorial Library, dedicated in 1967 and acting as a mini Buddy museum.
“It’s because he was Buddy,” Loris said, his voice catching. “He was a hell of a guy. It wasn’t what he did. It was who he was.”
The main drag in Steamboat Springs is named after Abraham Lincoln, but there’s no question, it’s Buddy Werner that stretches from one end to the other.
The effects of an avalanche on the other side of the world still linger with Loris Werner.
His life changed immediately.
He continued competing and skied for Western State University. Eventually, he and Skeeter went together to buy The Storm Hut, the sporting goods business Buddy had started in Steamboat Springs, and Skeeter moved home to help run it.
His training on the U.S. Ski Team took him to the same valley where Buddy died, and Loris had to take time to himself before he could get on with skiing in the area.
Bogner came to the United States the summer after the avalanche and spent a week in Steamboat Springs, fly fishing with the Werners and soaking up Buddy’s town.
Bogner was put on trial in Switzerland and was eventually convicted of manslaughter by negligence, but there was never any animosity or blame from the Werners.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Loris said.
Bogner went on to an illustrious film career and was scheduled to be on hand when he was recognized for it in Steamboat Springs next week by the International Ski History Association as a part of the Skiing History Week, but Bogner had to cancel with an illness.
Buddy has since been inducted into every relevant hall of fame. He was put in the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame almost immediately, in 1964. He was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1967, the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1977 and the University of Colorado Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010.
When one came late, Loris said he couldn’t help but get a little fiery in private.
“I was my pleasant, little smily self,” he said, laughing, “but I was thinking, ‘What took so long! You don’t have that many great athletes around!”
And, Buddy still looks over Steamboat, his bust perched high on the ski hill.
It’s a popular spot.
They said Buddy was the skier without any luck, considering all of his falls in major competitions, his 1960 broken leg that kept him from Olympic glory and his untimely death.
Now, skiers in Steamboat glide by his statue and reach out with their ski poles and give it a tap, hoping for good luck on the way down.
They’re in the right place, Loris said.
“He loved it up there,” he said. “We skied it. We hunted it. We hiked it.
“You feel his spirit. What’s up in the cemetery is not him. He’s on the mountain. My parents are on the mountain. Skeeter’s on the mountain. They’re all dead, but they’re still right there. You can feel them.”
It’s been 51 years since Steamboat mourned, since the schools closed and the church overflowed the day they buried Buddy Werner, and there are always fewer and fewer people around who remember it, and who knew the man.
Still, his spirit lives on.
The snow fell Wednesday and waves of skiers filed past Buddy’s statue, tapping their poles and heading off to find powder on his mountain.
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It was a love story that brought Jason Erwin to Steamboat Springs from Nashville, Tennessee.