Profiling skiing icons Bobbie Burns, Chuck Ferries, Rick Kapala, Langely and Wiz McNeal, Phil Puchner and Penelope Street.
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About Phil Puchner
Phil Puchner says that his heroes have “always been the younger skiers. They keep you going!” But when he was a kid, back in the 1920s in Wausau, Wisconsin, his heroes were also the “big boys from Milwaukee” who came to race on nearby Rib Hill. By watching them and studying picture books from the United States Ski Association, he says he “learned to ski a little bit.”
Phil practiced jumping on the local wooden ski jump and by high school he was racing as well. In 1941, he captained the Dartmouth Ski Team and competed in the Collegiate Championships in Sun Valley, where he made his way to the podium via Rudd Mountain’s 30-foot jump. Phil was impressed by Sun Valley’s downhill terrain and five chairlifts: River Run, Exhibition and College on Baldy, and one each on Rudd and Proctor Mountains.
In 1942, Puchner left his studies behind to volunteer for the U.S. Army’s 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment. After some intensive training with the 87th, the infamous 10th Mountain Infantry Division was formed at Camp Hale, Colorado, and Puchner joined other mountain-savvy soldiers for rugged winter training. In December of ‘44, the 10th was shipped off to Italy, where they were inserted into the front lines of the North Apennine Mountains and faced intense combat against strong German forces imbedded in the ridgelines. On May 2nd, the 10th helped force a surrender at the foot of Brenner Pass in the Italian Alps. Four months later, the now legendary 10th Mountain Infantry Division was demobilized, but the brotherhood and friendships have lasted lifetimes.
With his service complete, Phil headed back to the mountains of the West, teaching skiing, climbing peaks, and visiting Sun Valley again. In 1947 he began working on Bald Mountain for fellow 10th Mountain boys, Nelson and Eddie Bennett, widening runs like College and cutting the cat track to Roundhouse. They also cut logs on Upper College, dragging them to the top to build the current ski patrol shack. That winter Phil worked on the ski patrol and raced as much as possible, competing in the U.S. Olympic Trials and running his first Harriman Cup. Over the years, Puchner raced in five Harriman downhills (considered to be the toughest in the country) and in 1952, with a near-perfect run, placed third against an impressive international field.
Thanks to the G.I. Bill, Phil picked up his education again, entering the University of Colorado in 1949. After graduating with a degree in engineering, he returned to Sun Valley, ready to raise a family. He secured the two-acre piece of property at the bottom of Greyhawk and built his home. Phil worked on a variety of nearby engineering projects including: Galena Road, Hells Canyon Dam, Jackson Lake Lodge and the development of both Elkhorn and Greenhorn Gulch. But in 1959, Phil left for Nepal to oversee the construction of a 27-mile freight tramway from the Terai Plain near the Indian border to Katmandu. He continued to work in Thailand and Pakistan, always finding time to hike and climb.
A decade later he started his own firm and became more interested in Nordic skiing; it took less time than downhill, which helped with his busy work schedule, and the equipment was changing, which he found intriguing. A competitor at heart, Phil began racing cross-country and became a familiar entrant at every local, and often regional, race. He also participated in World Masters Championships, held everywhere from Norway to Alaska to Lake Placid, New York, and even in McCall, where he medaled. In 1975 Phil competed in his first American Birkebeiner, the prestigious annual 50-kilometer race in Hayward, Wisconsin. He competed in the “Birkie” for 18 straight years. His last race there, at age 70, garnered him third place in his age group.
Longtime Valley local Bob Rosso has known Phil for over 35 years and recognizes his committed involvement to cross-country skiing and racing. “No one better represents the spirit of cross-country skiing than Phil,” says Bob. “He has always been available to help us build trails, put in tracks on which he would then compete, always with that smile and predictable chuckle.”
At 89, Phil Puchner is a gracious, generous host with his wife, Ann, enjoying classical music, fine art and books, and wines of excellent vintage. The mountains of Sun Valley, however, still hold his spirit. As he reflects, “I can’t think of anywhere else I would have ever wanted to live. This is such a pleasant environment and it draws such free-spirited people.”
When asked about the future of the Sun Valley skiing culture his eyes dance. “Well, I wouldn’t mind being a kid again to try that ski cross … but the half-pipe? I don’t know,” he chuckles, “is that really skiing?” -Julie Gallagher