Ski Patrol Pioneer, Nelson Bennett, Dies at 102

Ski Patrol pioneer, rescue toboggan inventor and 10th Mountain Division skiing skills trainer, Nelson Bennett, passed away just a few months after his 101st birthday. Sun Valley, Idaho, Ski-Patrol 1940-41 Bennett was the recipient of a National Ski Patrol (NSP) National Appointment, #1304, in the 1950s.

Bennett, a native of Lancaster, New Hampshire, graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1940 with a degree in Forestry. He was also an early member of the UNH Ski Team, and during school breaks worked at Peckett’s Inn on Sugar Hill in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, one of America’s first resorts and ski schools. During World War II, Bennett was drafted in 1942 and served as a skiing skills trainer for the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division and in Italy, as a member of this US alpine infantry group.

After college, during the summer of 1940, Bennett worked briefly for a lumber company in Northern California. He quickly tired of the desk work aspects of the job, and that autumn he took a trip to Sun Valley, Idaho. Sun-Valley-Poster-Late-30s There he ran into a New Hampshire college race circuit colleague, Dick Durance (NSP #7). Durance had been doing some promotional photography work for Sun Valley’s General Manager, Pat Rogers. Bennett was offered a job on Sun Valley’s fledgling patrol for the 40-41 season. When Patrol Director Eusebio (“Sebby”) Arriaga took a job in the ski school, Bennett was appointed Sun Valley’s second Patrol Director in January of 1941, before the end of that season.

The NSP’s John E.P. Morgan (NSP #11) helped Charlie Proctor (NSP #93) lay out the first trails at Sun Valley in the 1930s and with engineering and testing of that resort’s first chair lift. The lift was reportedly the first lift of its kind in the world. Morgan later worked closely with NSP Cofounder Minnie Dole (NSP #3) and the US War Department to found the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, where Bennett later served as an early recruit.

From left to right, Nelson Bennett, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Rocky Cooper, Sigi Engl, Jeff Gjevre, Bobbe Bennett and Sebby Arriaga.
From left to right, Nelson Bennett, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Rocky Cooper, Sigi Engl, Jeff Gjevre, Bobbe Bennett and Sebby Arriaga.

He worked for many years at Sun Valley, a resort founded by Averell Harriman, that was frequented by many celebrities of that day. From left to right, Nelson Bennett, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Rocky Cooper, Sigi Engl, Jeff Gjevre, Bobbe Bennett and Sebby Arriaga. While it is not typical ski patrol duty to babysit movie stars, Bennett skied and worked with many, including Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman and Lucille Ball. The resort marketed to celebrities in those days and was also frequented by Jane Russell, Claudette Colbert, Ester Williams, Tyrone Power, Van Johnson, Ray Milland, Darryl Zanuck, Lex Barker, Norma Shearer, Janet Leigh, Ann Sothern, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Ford.

One of Nelson Bennett’s most significant accomplishments is his early design of the ski patrol rescue toboggan. With his brother, Bennett also developed an early prototype of the snow cat trail groomers used today.The photo below shows Nelson Bennett’s ski patrol rescue toboggan design, first used in the 1949-1950 season at Sun Valley. He first started designing and testing it in 1946.

Bennett’s toboggan innovation had three removable components – (1) the rescue litter basket, (2) the toboggan with tail rope and chain, and (3) the transport handle and rails. First Rescue Toboggan Making these three sections removable facilitated transport by one patroller on a single passenger early lift. Bennett made the decision not to patent his innovation, a decision that allowed every patrol in the US economically duplicate and make incremental improvements.

The basic design had dual rear skegs for stability and tracking; a tail rope for safety; a litter that can be used for transport and/or as a splint, with room for a trauma pack; and a drop chain that allows for braking when used in conjunction with downward pressure on the metal handles. This combination of features is still used in virtually every rescue toboggan today by patrols around the world.

Bennett left Sun Valley in 1960 for a position at another ski resort in the Pacific Northwest. He took a job as General Manager with equity at White Pass near Yakima, Washington, where he stayed for 25 years from 1960 to 1985, and lived until his death on 29 January.

Bennett was frequently involved as an official at international ski races from the 1950s through 1980. He was head of the US alpine ski program in the 1956 Olympics; Assistant Director of ski events at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif.; and was Chief of Course for the men’s downhill at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980. Bennett also did consulting work late in his career for ski area development at Bogus Basin, Whistler Mountain and Park City. In 1986 he was inducted into the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

Bennett’s family is honoring his wishes not to have a memorial service. According to a Chronicle report in Bennett’s Lewis County, Washington hometown paper, he thought the recent memorial services honoring his 100 years of service to the ski industry should have the final word on the subject. Bennett noted, “It’s been done for me already.”