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Valley Profiles

Profiling skiing icons Bobbie Burns, Chuck Ferries, Rick Kapala, Langely and Wiz McNeal, Phil Puchner and Penelope Street.

(page 5 of 7)

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


Sun Valley Magazine encourages its readers to post thoughtful and respectful comments on all of our online stories. Your comments may be edited for length and language.

Old to new | New to old
Feb 6, 2012 12:02 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Love these shots. And great stories too! Thx for sharing.

Oct 22, 2013 09:56 am
 Posted by  superskier

Bobbie Burns - I remember him when I worked on the Sun Valley Ski Patrol. Other characters were numerous - Les Outes, Cathy Palm, ALL 35 of the Ski Patrol and last but not least - Lea Bacos - my fellow Canadian who managed Dollar Mountain and was my room-mate. He called me his fellow wet-back.

Those were the days when moguls were moguls (not the whale-back shapes you find these days), men were men, and women were glad. We had 1st powder on our way to safe ski runs too steep for snowcats. Then packed the runs and then skied the rest of the time when not slated for the patrol shack.

The instructors hated us for that and we hated them for getting all the girls but never mind - we were there only for the skiing. One trick when en route to ski packing was to pick out a particularly unlikeable instructor addressing his class - and systematically ski over the back of his skis - one after another after another. Childish really, but the hatred was tangible and we couldn't help ourselves.

Wish I could remember the ski patrollers' names - but the guys from San Francisco and LA were as mad as hatters and the lieutenants were local ranchers when not skiing. And me - i was the mad Canuck. Not mad because of my behaviour but mad on my skis. I don't know why people made such a fuss over Bobbie Burns. In my mind - Exhibition after a good dump WAS ALL MINE. One explosion, then another, then another - avalement - sat waaaay back, arms in the air - but not in slow motion like Old Man Burns. I liked to keep my speed up and blast over those bumps. If i didn't fall 3 or 4 times a run - I wasn't skiing. No disrespect to Bobbie - just flying the maple leaf. Well done Mr Burns for all your successes - you certainly got me revved up. I can still taste those steaks in The Ore House on Fridays with pay packet in hand. And the heated outdoor pool each evening with a Coors in hand at The Ram Hotel. What a life - paid to ski, room and board and all the latest skis to try out. Lovely Job.

Oct 23, 2013 06:23 pm
 Posted by  superskier

And whatever happened to Moe on the ski patrol - I was The only Crazy Canuck on the Patrol...back in the winter of '68-69. I remember come springtime when folks would gather at the bottom of River Run at the end of the day to watch various Patrollers schuss from quite high up as the snow was slow and then jump the stream at the bottom. Moe was always asked to do silly tricks and he never shied away - even though he never managed to pull them off. I can still see Moe and his skis stuck in the river bank, vibrating until he gradually slid back into the water - what a clown! He's probably area manager today.

And there was some crazy yet colourful chick who skiied full out on hard pack down through the trees and if she ran into one - she'd break into fits of unconrollable laughter.

And then there were the wonderful jazz duos at The Ram - husband on piano, wife on double bass during Happy Hour after a hard day's skiing and a swim in the heated pool...with sometimes more than a few Coors. After the paid entertainment did their thing - i would sit at the piano and take requests - double shot of single malt if you please. i missed so many staff dinners that spring.

My room-mate and manager of Dollar Mountain - Lea Bacos - giving me a lecture for dating Cathy Palm - his future step daughter with him marrying her mother whose other daughter was possibly marrying his buddy Les Outes - Area manager which would make Lea - Les' step father in law. Lea had 3 pictures of himself on the mantelpiece standing as proud father of different families in each. And HE'S A CANADIAN.

What a laugh - it could only be Sun Valley...gosh - 1968/69 - that's 45 years ago. Raichle Red Boots and Head Killy 215 Downhill skis in moguls that were absolutely fabulous. THAT WAS HOTDOGGING !

Oct 23, 2013 06:40 pm
 Posted by  superskier

Part of our job on The Patrol was- first ride up to look for skiers who had sneaked in without paying for a lift ticket very early before the lifts had started and would hide face down in the trees and half way up the mountain. I could see them on a sunny morning as any metal bits would shine in the sunlight and we were supposed to catch them up and then escort them out of the area. I confess I felt if they went to that much trouble - leave them to it - bless them - lying motionless - freezing their backsides for the better part of an hour. they deseerved to ski for free...though these days I don't think the management would condone such tolerance.

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