TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — When 19-year-old Wilhelm “Bill” Klein first arrived on Donner Summit in the fall of 1936, he looked around and wondered, “Where are the mountains?”
Bill and his older brother Fred, both Austrian-born ski instructors, didn’t see any towering mountains with summer snowfields like they were used to. Bill couldn’t fathom where it would be possible to ski among the jagged volcanic cliffs and bulky granite features that comprise much of the Summit’s rugged terrain.
The Klein brothers were visiting California at the invitation of Dr. Joel Hildebrand, a future Sierra Club president and the U.S. Olympic team manager.
Dr. Hildebrand learned to alpine ski in Europe and wanted to educate Americans in the new style of parallel skiing. The Kleins sent him a letter that outlined their teaching qualifications and Dr. Hildebrand paid for their flight from Europe. While he was giving Bill and Fred a tour of the Tahoe-Sierra, Dr. Hildebrand assured the young men, “Don’t worry about the cliffs and boulders. Come winter they’ll all be covered with more than 10 feet of snow and the skiing will be great.”
The Sierra Club had just built their Clair Tappaan Lodge at Norden and Dr. Hildebrand was trying to convince the Klein brothers to start a professional ski school there. Noted ski historian Morten Lund wrote, “It was California’s luck that the Kleins brought with them their technique, their devotion to skiing, and their knowledge of ski mountaineering. These talents were in very short supply in the United States in 1936. The Kleins were matched by no more than 20 other men in the country — probably less.”
The brothers established their Ski School Klein that winter. They received free room and board along with 50 cents a lesson. Most of their clients were visitors from San Francisco and the Bay Area who stayed in nearby Soda Springs or at Rainbow Tavern.
Affable, technically skilled, and excited to be at the new frontier of alpine skiing, the Kleins soon had more students than they could handle. By 1938 they had trained more instructors to help staff their ski school and were teaching up to 150 skiers every weekend. Bill Klein displayed a powerful, but graceful skiing style that inspired his students to succeed.
Within the first few years, the Kleins and their school had taught parallel skiing to thousands. In 1940, Bill and Fred Klein helped organize the California Ski Instructors Association, which made unified teaching its goal.
10TH MOUNTAIN DIVISION
During World War II, Bill served with the 10th Mountain Division as a technical master sergeant in charge of the instructors who were teaching American troops to ski. But when the time came for the 10th to be deployed to Europe, Klein was detached from his unit.
His superior officers recognized Klein’s command of the German language and his ability to handle men, and in 1944 he was assigned to a German prisoner of war camp in New Mexico. After the war, Fred Klein left the ski business and started a career in aeronautical engineering. Bill returned to the Clair Tappaan Lodge, but when Hannes Schroll retired as Sugar Bowl ski school director Bill took over the position.
In 1947, a European named Dennis Wiles got a job at Sugar Bowl working as a cook. He was a decent skier and soon asked Bill Klein to train him as an instructor. Klein obliged and Wiles worked at Sugar Bowl teaching skiing for several seasons.
Nearly 40 years later it turned out that Dennis Wiles was really Georg Gaertner, a former German prisoner of war who avoided repatriation by escaping from the New Mexico POW camp where Klein had worked. Klein never recognized him and later said that Gaertner had removed the military’s wanted poster from the Norden post office shortly after his arrival at Sugar Bowl.
Gaertner was later pardoned and wrote a book called “Hitler’s Last Soldier in America.”
Klein headed the Sugar Bowl ski school until 1957, when at the age of 40 he turned the position over to Badger Pass ski school director Luggi Foeger, who was ready to move up to a bigger mountain. Bill ran a fashionable ski and clothing shop at Sugar Bowl until 1993, and also a ski and sporting goods store in San Francisco, which he sold in 1987.
In the off seasons, Klein worked as a successful real estate developer in the Bay Area. He has been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the Charley Proctor Award for his contributions to the sport by the North American Ski Journalists Association.
Bill Klein gave up skiing at the age of 90, and retired with his wife Anneliese in Incline Village, Nev. One of America’s first and best-known ski instructors, Bill died peacefully at home on Nov. 23, 2013.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Mark’s blog: www.tahoenuggets.com.