Profiling skiing icons Bobbie Burns, Chuck Ferries, Rick Kapala, Langely and Wiz McNeal, Phil Puchner and Penelope Street.
Whiz and Langely McNeal
The true spirit of Sun Valley is that of the pioneers—the type of people who don’t just idly sit back and wait for their dreams to come to them, but rather those who chase after their dreams with a passion. Here we profile a handful of the Valley’s true ski industry pioneers—people who brought their passions to life, and made Sun Valley a better place for their efforts.
About Rick Kapala...
When Rick Kapala sustained an injury during a pick-up football game in college, he was told he could no longer participate in contact sports. The news instantly put an end to the dream of being an Olympic wrestler that he had harbored since high school.
But having grown up with a love for the outdoors and having learned the discipline and passion for an active lifestyle from wrestling, he began Nordic skiing with some college buddies as a way to keep healthy. Little did he know that the challenge and solitude of the sport would draw him in and provide him with a new future far from the world of wrestling.
In 1987, after having coached a team in Alaska for a couple of years, Kapala moved to the Valley to take a position as the head coach of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s (SVSEF) cross-country program. Now 52, Kapala has coached students such as 2010 Olympian Morgan Arritola and many others who have gone on to earn national and international titles.
The SVSEF recently awarded Kapala with the 2010 Jack Simpson Dedicated Coaches Award and he also received the 2011 Al Merrill Award for Nordic Leadership and Commitment to Excellence from the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. In almost 30 years of coaching, he has worked individually with more than 400 athletes.
Kapala’s initial interest in coaching came from his high school wrestling coach, Tom Kroll, and a couple named Tom and Sue Duffield, who guided him one high school summer on a trail crew with the Student Conservation Association. Kroll made him feel welcome on the wrestling team from day one, even though he wasn’t much good. “I was this fat little kid who couldn’t do anything very well, and I got talked into this sport by some other kids on the street,” Kapala says. “I felt like it didn’t matter if I was the best guy on the team or the worst guy on the team. It was obvious that this coach valued everybody equally. To me that was a huge, huge lesson, and I never forgot it.”
That lesson, along with his time with the Duffields, taught Kapala to be curious about the world and provided him with exceptional examples of how to empower teenagers. Drawing on those experiences, Kapala began developing the views on coaching he still holds today. Kapala tries to coach with what he refers to as a servant-style leadership. He sees it as his job to help his athletes find the strengths within themselves to succeed.
“You have to really understand your athletes. It’s my job to adjust my coaching style to them, not theirs to change their personalities to suit me … so I have to figure out how to help their essential elements add to what they’re doing. My job isn’t to make them somebody else,” Kapala says. “At the end of the day, what you’re really trying to do with coaching is get people to awaken themselves.”
Mike Sinnott, 2011 Super Tour Champion and one of Kapala’s long-time students, says that Kapala’s efforts to adapt his coaching to each individual and his ability to infuse hard work with fun are what initially kept him on the team.
Looking back, Sinnott says, “I don’t think it can be overstated how great a coach Rick is and how important he’s been to the community. He’s very much affected my own life … I couldn’t imagine what I’d be doing now, probably would be stuck in an office somewhere, without him.”
Kapala says that one of the most rewarding aspects of coaching for him is seeing kids who struggle initially with cross-country skiing stick with the sport and undergo a personal transformation until, at some point, they finally succeed.
“We get tricked into thinking that the end result is where knowledge, competency or ability comes from. But it doesn’t come from getting the answer. It comes from working to get the answer,” Kapala says. “We never say to anyone, ‘You’re not good enough.’ We just keep saying, ‘You can be.’”
He also enjoys seeing old students out training, even years after they have moved on from the team. Kapala hopes that if his students leave with any lesson in particular, it is how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. -Hailey Tucker
About Bobbie Burns ...
Bobbie Burns is a slightly subversive icon, an irrepressibly flamboyant showman who has pretty much always done his own thing, and happily at that.
There’s little doubt in anyone’s mind, however, that Bobbie Burns was the first real “hot dog” skier. Back at the beginning of the freestyle movement, Bobbie had a kamikaze style of skiing bumps; he skied as fast as he possibly could, shooting his skis forward as he sat back with his heels locked together and held his hands and poles high over his head. The poles were his only real form of control because, as he says, “All I needed was balance.” His eclectic style quickly became famous. Everyone had larger-than-life stories about what they had seen Burns do on Sun Valley’s steepest runs. But the thing is, they were all true. Bobbie Burns owned the moguls!
Born in 1935 in south-central Idaho, Burns grew up in Ogden, Utah, and learned to ski at Snowbasin. He had been a gymnast and dancer as a kid and then a competitive diver, but in skiing he exhibited absolutely no control. “I was an accident waiting for a place,” Bobbie explains. “The only thing I had was a lot of guts, balance, and the ability to have fun.”
In the late 1950s, Sigi Engl and Sepp Froelich of the Sun Valley Ski School told him he could get a job teaching, “if you think you can learn to ski.” Bobbie did learn to ski and ended up teaching in Chile, New Zealand and Sun Valley. He also started skiing a lot of bumps. Burns noticed that he seemed to have a higher balance point than most, so with his hands and arms up high over his head he learned to absorb the bumps better. “Hot-dogging” was born.
Racers couldn’t believe that Burns could do what he did on skis because it was so contrary to the technical control they aspired to … and that on top of his unique skill, he did it laughing the whole time! Dick Dorworth, well known for a multitude of legendary mountain endeavors, was training for ski races in 1963 in Sun Valley and was Burns’ roommate in the dorms. As Dick remembers, “Nobody could ski the bumps on Exhibition like Burnsie and none of us even tried to keep up with him. He was this great guy, but an anomaly, so unlike us serious, almost grim racers. He skied the entire time smiling as if he was actually having fun.”
Burns says for him it’s always been about how much fun you can have, how big the bumps are and how fast you can ski them. He adds, “Racing was never for me. What possible fun is it to run gates? You have to slow down to do it!” Bobbie didn’t believe in many barriers and perhaps this is because of his innate talent. He laughs at that suggestion. “If you’re coming down the mountain and having fun, then it’s right!” he says with a smile. “Once, Jean Claude Killy told me, ‘there is no wrong way.’”
The late filmmaker Dick Barrymore called Burns the “first hot dogger” and described him as a “handlebar-mustached, steel-thighed skier attacking a field of moguls like Errol Flynn attacking a band of pirates … no one can ski like him.”
Burns really became famous after starring in the cult classic ski film, “The Performers,” while working as a rep for K2. He was called a “genius” for his knowledge of how to tune skis for the best results and he also helped design skis in the K2 factory.
A creative, albeit non-conforming kind of guy, Bobbie wanted to make a high performance bump ski that would allow for torsion and ultimate forgive-ability. With backing from friends, he began building his own personal brand, “The Ski,” in his garage. The Ski became an instant favorite on the freestyle circuit. By 1980 Burns was selling 10,000 pairs a year. Burns successfully sold the company in 1985 and began to produce a casual outerwear clothing line known as “Bobbie Burns,” which he still sells in Sun Valley.
For Burns, no mountain community in the world compares to Sun Valley. The last few years have found him on Dollar Mountain teaching his two young daughters to ski. His oldest child has just completed medical school. Bobbie says, “I always tell them: Be the best you can be and have fun, no matter what it is.”
He obviously follows his own advice, for Bobbie Burns is still having the time of his life. At Sun Valley’s Freestyle Reunion last winter, he was at every event, joining in the re-telling of stories from the glory days with ribald enthusiasm. “Probably only slightly embellished,” he laughs. -Julie Gallagher
About Chuck Ferries ...
The first time Chuck Ferries was in Sun Valley it was for a mere three hours. Arriving by train with a one-way ticket, he was a 16-year-old with a dream to ski a big mountain. Just days before, he had lowered his suitcase and ski gear by rope from his bedroom window, running away from home in upper Michigan. But it was November in Idaho and there was no snow. So, on the advice of “some guy I met,” as he explains, Chuck hopped the next train for Alta, Utah, where he worked for room and board and happily skied powder for a few weeks until he broke his ankle.
Ferries then returned home where his relieved but understanding parents agreed that he probably needed to “get the skiing out of his system.” He had obviously outgrown the Mont Ripley Hill and its 423 vertical feet, where he had learned to ski and race, so in the fall of 1956 he moved on his own to Aspen, Colorado, to finish high school and hone his racing skills.
Through tough training, perseverance and focus, Ferries made the Aspen Ski Team and became a talented slalom specialist. He then raced on scholarship for the University of Denver, coached by the infamous Willy Schaeffler, who was quoted as saying, “Chuck has made his own way and never asks anything of anybody. He has tremendous concentration, determination, and spirit and is mentally perfect … if he makes a mistake he forgets it, goes back, and does it right.”
Ferries went on to prove that his parents’ support of his passion was the right thing to do. He was named to the U.S. Ski Team (USST) in 1960, ’62, ’63 and ’64, made two Olympic teams in ‘60 and ’64, and became the first American to ever win a European classic gate race, Austria’s famous Hahnenkamm slalom.
Although he retired from competitive skiing at age 24, Ferries remained immersed in the culture. He coached the U.S. Women’s Team at the ’68 Olympics. And then he heard about a special company on Seattle’s nearby Vashon Island that was developing a commercially viable, light, resilient, foam-core fiberglass ski. So Chuck asked Bill Kirschner, who had just formed the K2 Ski Company, for a job, specifically to develop a fiberglass racing ski. They shook hands and Chuck came on board.
Ferries laughs, “That handshake was the only contract I ever had with K2. Bill was wonderful, a genius kind of guy and he never said, ‘no, it can’t be done.’ Instead he would say that we’d figure out a way.” Chuck wound up developing a relationship with the USST, especially Marilyn Cochran, to test prototypes. Building skis to Marilyn’s specifications led to success; in 1969 she was the first American to win a World Cup on American-made skis, a fiberglass K2 model.
Kirschner sold the company in 1972, but Chuck stayed on to build skis. In 1976 he decided to move his family to Sun Valley where he had always wanted to raise his kids, Annie and Tom. Chuck had just launched PRE (Precision) Skis as K2’s second brand and moved that part of the company to Sun Valley for a short time.
Looking for a long-term opportunity, Ferries and Bob Smith (the owner and founder of Smith Optics) found one: the 1981 Scott USA bankruptcy. Together they bought the company, a technical product leader in the skiing market. Chuck guided Scott USA into a very profitable brand as they became the top global developer and distributor of ski poles and goggles, mountain bikes, motorcycle goggles, and accessories. Reflecting back on those days, Ferries says, “I feel that you make choices and decisions based on inspirations. I have always tried to learn from the best, find out who has the best product, observe and ask questions, and then come up with new ideas.”
In 1989 Ferries was inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. He is proud and quietly passionate about his longtime USST affiliation, including his involvement as a member of their Board of Trustees, which is directed by his close friend and former Olympic teammate, Bill Marolt. According to Marolt, “As much as anyone I know Chuck has played a major role in the growth and development of the USST and the USSA (United States Ski Association). Through his leadership, USSA has become a huge success when measured against any standard of excellence.”
Still enjoying the Sun Valley lifestyle with his wife, Nancy, Ferries also mentors his son and son-in-law who own a local outdoor product manufacturing business, Chums. “Sun Valley is the best place in the world to live,” Chuck exuberantly laughs. “How could you possibly have a better life? I consider myself very, very lucky.” -Julie Gallagher
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
About Whiz and Langely McNeal ...
Whiz McNeal was in the doghouse. While his daughter was making her figure skating debut at this past summer’s Battle of the Blades ice show, he was in an airport. To make matters worse, she won the whole shebang with a grand prize of $3,000 for her charity of choice, the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF). And Whiz had missed it all.
The video of Langely decked out in a bright ’80s-tastic costume, flipping around the ice and performing lifts with difficult-to-pronounce names is already going viral on the internet. (In defense of Mr. McNeal, his flight home from visiting family was canceled.) But here’s the thing: Langely isn’t even an ice skater. She is a skier. To be more precise, she is an X-Games ski cross racer and a former SVSEF and Division 1 collegiate alpine racer.
Born and raised in Sun Valley, Langely was swimming, skiing, and riding a bike without training wheels by the age of two. She credits her love of the outdoors and adventure to her parents and to this community, one that she says is uniquely devoted to its youth programs, complete with world-class coaches, facilities, mountains and trails.
She also has a father adept and accomplished in his own right as an avid outdoorsman and 30-year veteran of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol, who instilled in her the values of hard work and commitment, along with a lifetime love of the outdoors. Together they ski Baldy, ride dirt bikes (though Langely wasn’t allowed to have her own until she turned 19), race mountain bikes and explore the mountains. Whiz’s words of encouragement to his daughter are always simple: “Be cool Lange, be cool. You got this.”
Langely is currently trying to follow in her parents’ footsteps and make Sun Valley her permanent home. “To make a living here, you sometimes have to be pretty creative,” she says. She is now an accomplished athlete beyond her alpine racing career. After switching to ski cross in 2006, she was a member of the World Cup Ski Cross Team from 2007-2010, was one of the top two ranked female ski cross racers in the country, and has competed at several X-Games
and North American Cups.
As a ski cross racer, it helps that Langely grew up skiing the slopes of Bald Mountain. “Standing on top of Upper Greyhawk with four buddies while someone screams ‘FIRST ONE TO THE BOTTOM WINS!’ is exactly where ski cross came from,” she explains. -Katie Matteson
About Penelope Street ...
A dynamic skier with an exuberant flair and flash both on and off the snow, Penelope Street was a pioneer of the women’s freestyle movement in the early 1970s. A talented, aggressive competitor who was not afraid to catch air, Street learned upright jumps, front and back flips, and layouts as she excelled in mogul and aerial disciplines, mentored by the legendary freestyle skiers John Clendenen, Jack Taylor, and Bob Theobald. With her red hair flying, “Penny in the Sky” was a freestyle favorite: glamorous, risky, and confident.
Penelope was an athletic wild child, smart, full of fire, fiercely independent, physically tough, and crazy about skiing and the mountains. She was born on the third floor of the Sun Valley Lodge in 1948, just two hours after her mother, Polly, a nurse, walked from Ketchum to Sun Valley. Bud Street, her dad, was a baker at the Challenger Inn who taught his two-year-old daughter to ski on Dollar Mountain. In grade school she was dropped off at Baldy at 7:30 a.m. so she could ride up with the ski patrol to help pack the bowls every morning. It was a pretty exhausting routine for a little kid, but apparently the reward was great. “I got to run the 103 steps to the Roundhouse,” she giggles, “where lunch every day was a chocolate roll and a chicken salad toast-tight.”
Penelope attended the old Ketchum Grade School that boasted about 20 kids per class. If you could ski, you raced, so she joined just eight or nine kids on the ski team who trained and ran gates on Penny Mountain. They were coached by Jack Simpson and Betty Bell. “Betty,” Street says, “was a great mentor to me as a little girl.”
Penelope excelled in racing, but in high school she decided to just go skiing instead. On the weekends she skied, only going to school on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, often writing her own excuse notes for skipping classes. In the spring of 1966, just one credit away from graduation, she quit school and headed for San Francisco, a naïve Idaho girl who learned to love the beat of the music and the freedom of the streets in Haight-Ashbury.
When she returned to Sun Valley she modeled for Avventura, did a photo shoot for Seventeen magazine, and left again for Aspen, Lake Tahoe, and Lake Louise, ending up as the manager of a cattle ranch on Maui.
Then, in 1971, Penelope literally “jumped” into the earliest days of freestyle, talked into a team skiing event in Tahoe. “I really appreciate how we did it in those days,” she explains. “We were creative with lots of adrenaline, helping each other learn new stunts. Self-inventive, we were always having fun.” She adds with laughing eyes, “We were such free spirits and definitely not good role models!” The team was promoted in the media and in Warren Miller’s movies, but it was Penelope who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated doing her famous layout on a bluebird Baldy day.
Helping establish the International Freestyle Skiers’ Association, Street played a pivotal role for women by facilitating better press, sponsorships, and the prize money they deserved. Penelope was a consistent performer in North America and Europe who loved the control of mind and body that was needed to excel in freestyle skiing. But in 1976, after a competition in Crested Butte, Colorado, she retired when she saw some radical telemark skiing. It captured her untamed spirit and she never looked back.
Penny rocks a Daffy. Posing for a head shot.
Extreme telemarking became Penelope’s new passion and she helped promote it by teaching and racing. She became a certified cross-country and telemark instructor and was sent by Ski Instructors of America to Europe and Scandinavia as a member of the first U.S. Demonstration Team.
“Basically,” she remembers, “we would just haul-ass on any slope with no tracks!” But she missed her family in Sun Valley, so she headed back home where she became a certified backcountry guide in 1983, working for over 25 years for Sun Valley Trekking.
Penelope still loves the quietness of alpine touring, telemarking her way down radical terrain and pristine snow in the mountains she knows so well. She also happily chooses the peaceful creativeness of gardening for private clients during the non-snowy months. “I have learned to be in the present, but it does make me laugh to look back like this because it’s been so much fun! The biggest thrills of my life though,” she exclaims excitedly, “were jumping the cliffs at Squaw and telemarking the steepest, deepest powder in the Monashees.” -Julie Gallagher