Tahoe Skiing Icons



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
amongst 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.

Austrian Bill Klein couldn’t fathom where someone could ski in the rugged terrain near Donner Pass.

Dr. Hildebrand had learned to alpine ski in
Europe and wanted to educate Americans in the new style of parallel skiing. The
Kleins had sent him a letter that outlined their teaching qualifications and
Hildebrand paid for their flight from Europe.

While he was giving Bill and
Fred a tour of the Tahoe-Sierra, 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.”

Pacific-bred winter storms soon covered rocks, trees and nearly everything else with deep snow. Bill Klein then realized that the Tahoe-Sierra really was a skiers paradise.

The Sierra Club had just built their Clair
Tappaan Lodge at Norden near Donner Pass 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.”

Southern Pacific Railroad was a big booster of California winter sports and ran frequent trains from the San Francisco Bay Area to the new Sierra ski operations. Circa 1933.

The brothers established their legendary 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 the Rainbow Tavern down the road. Affable, technically
skilled, and excited to be at the new frontier of alpine skiing, it’s no surprise that the Kleins
soon had more students than they could handle.

The Sierra Club installed a rope tow for their members in the 1930s.

By 1938 the Klein brothers 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.

American skiers were thrilled to get lessons from highly-trained European instructors like Bill Klein shown here.

Within the first few years, through their popular school the Kleins 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.

In 1939, Bay Area investors (including animator Walt Disney) opened the Sugar Bowl ski resort with Austrian Hannes Schroll as ski school director. The spectacular Sugar Bowl was located on the south side of Highway 40 and the transcontinental railroad, about a mile from where Bill and Fred Klein were teaching skiing. After Schroll left Sugar Bowl for other pursuits Bill Klein would take over the job.

Sugar Bowl is the “Grand Dame” of Sierra resorts and was California’s first true alpine ski area. Named for the prodigious accumulations of snow in the region, Sugar Bowl receives nearly 40 feet of snow a year, more than any other Tahoe resort.

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

Among its many amenities, at its 1939 opening Sugar Bowl boasted California’s first chairlift, a single that lifted skiers nearly 1,500 feet to the top of Mt. Disney.

After the war, Fred Klein left the ski industry and started a career in
aeronautical engineering. Bill returned to the Sierra Club’s Clair Tappaan Lodge, but when
Hannes Schroll retired as Sugar Bowl ski school director Bill took over the

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 that Klein
had worked at. Klein never recognized him and later said that Gaertner had
removed the FBI’s wanted poster from the nearby 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.

FBI wanted poster for Georg Gaertner, a Sugar Bowl ski instructor.

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

Bill Klein sure had style, circa 1946.

Klein has been honored with many awards, including 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 with former student and Donner Summit local Starr Walton. Starr competed for the United States in the women’s downhill during the 1964 Winter Olympics where she finished first among the Americans.

Bill Klein gave up skiing at the age of 90,
and retired with his wife Anneliese in Incline Village, Nevada. One of
America’s first and best known ski instructors, Bill died peacefully at home on
November 23, 2013 at age 96.  

Bill Klein with his wife Anneliese, circa 2009. Bill had a well-deserved reputation as a “Gentlemen’s Gentleman.”

excerpted from my award-winning book “Longboards
to Olympics: A Century of Tahoe Winter Sports.”