Summit County pioneers: Alf Tieze
Special to the Summit Daily News
Alf Tieze always knew “the hills” as a place of refuge. He often escaped to be alone with his thoughts and to explore vacant mines in the High Country of Summit County, and he remembered all too vividly when the mountains symbolized life or death.
The sleepy mountain village in Austria where Alf grew up, now part of the Czech Republic, instantly changed the day Hitler’s troops marched in during World War II.
“You suddenly had to greet your friends differently,” Alf said. “If you said the wrong word, you were already marked by the Nazis.”
During the Nazi occupation, his father and adopted mother were killed. His grandparents and sister were shipped to a prisoner of war camp while Alf, just a young boy of about 12, was off chasing chickens and hunting for food in a nearby village that was evacuated due to the threat of advancing Russian troops. In the meantime, Alf and his friend rode their bicycles back to the village and discovered they had been left behind. Eventually, the Germans caught them as the Russians continued to advance.
They were then sent to a relocation camp where Alf was reunited with his sister and grandparents. The ache of hunger affected everyone at the camp, so Alf and his friend would sneak out to steal food for the others. For the second time, they returned from their hunt to discover an empty camp. Russian soldiers captured the two boys while they were sneaking back in and separated them, sending Alf to work in an agricultural collective run by the Russians. Alf recalled major depression setting in.
“I had the feeling that the war was my fault because of all the bad things that continued to happen to me.”
Eventually, Alf escaped to the west after being chased by police dogs and shot at by Russian border guards. It took him two weeks to get out of the country while aiding an old man in the journey.
“I had big, clumpy wooden shoes with old inner tubes nailed on the bottoms so they wouldn’t make so much noise when we walked,” Alf recalled. “Nobody in the camps had regular shoes. All we got were wooden shoes.”
For two nights, Alf and the old man hid silently by the Bavarian border and observed the guards to learn how to time their escape. Finally making a run for it, they were forced to cross a small river while the Russian guards were yelling and shooting at them. As Alf breathlessly crawled up the bank on the other side, he found himself in Bavaria staring directly into the barrel of a machine gun. Much to his relief, it belonged to an American soldier.
Alf then spent time in several refugee camps. Most days, he remembered, they would stand in line for hours waiting for meager daily rations. One day, in a camp outside Nuremberg, Germany, Alf was called into the office of the camp administrator. Instructed to go into town to a social services office, Alf was assigned to be a brewery apprentice. With introductory papers in hand, the brewmaster invited him in and offered him a beer. Having not eaten a decent meal in more than a year and a half, Alf gladly accepted the liter of beer along with some cheese and bread. A small bunk in the brewery became his new home, and Alf began his apprenticeship.
When he was summoned to the social services center a second time, they decided to send him to the experimental “Boy’s Town” outside of Munich. While there, Alf discovered that his grandparents were in East Germany. A letter from his grandmother informed him that his sister was in an orphanage. Not long after, a letter mailed to his grandmother was returned stamped “Addressee Deceased.” Trying to hold on to the few family connections that remained, Alf continued to write his sister, and in 1961, he succeeded in having her smuggled out of East Germany. A year later, Alf traveled to Germany and saw her for the first time in 17 years. She had since married and had two children.
“I became a brother, a brother-in-law and an uncle all in one visit,” Alf remarked. His niece eventually came to Summit County and attended Summit High School for one year.
The dawn of skiing
Hearing the call of the mountains once again — this time as a happier beckoning — Alf made his way to Colorado and worked in Denver. He fondly remembers doing a lot of mountain climbing and exploring around the old mines, like the ones on Independence Mountain in Keystone, through the inspiration of the book, “Stampede to Timberline.” While living in Denver, he would drive to Arapahoe Basin Ski Area whenever possible and ski. At this time, a lift ticket cost $1.50 per day. He remembers when the board of directors wanted to raise the daily price to $2.25. Many people were appalled and said that there was no way anyone would pay that much to go skiing. They quickly discovered the number of skier visits weren’t affected in the slightest as the price increased.
The skiing bug first infected Alf when his grandfather taught him at age 6 or 7 on a hill near his home in the small Austrian village where he grew up. Alf explained how a cross bar was used between the tips of wooden skis to keep the tips from straightening out when they weren’t being used. A block also was used between the skis under the bindings to maintain the camber. A leather strap was used for a binding.
“You used galoshes or whatever boots you owned to go skiing in those days,” Alf said. “You certainly couldn’t turn the skis; they were like downsized two-by-fours, and they were extremely heavy. Of course everybody else’s gear was the same, so nobody knew the difference.”
For 10 years from 1961 to 1971, Alf managed ski shops and taught ski school at Arapahoe Basin. Alf recalls that, “everyone wanted to be an instructor in order to get the parka and the patch, the pin and all the gadgets they all had to impress the ladies.” Perhaps it was an effective strategy as Alf met his wife, Sunni Dercum, while interviewing to become an instructor himself. The Basin featured the Willy Schaeffler/Gart’s Brothers/Rocky Mountain News ski school each weekend, which drew the largest number of skiers of any ski school in the United States. There might have been as many as 2,300 people taking lessons on any given weekend, he said. Alf and others also would visit places like East High School in Denver and give demonstrations on short skis developed by Howard Head (Head skis) that could be used on indoor carpeting. In the summer, he helped build lifts and do other on-mountain maintenance. At the time, holes for new lift towers were dug by hand.
Alf vividly remembers waking the night of Dec. 5, 1964, when someone, banging on his apartment door above Arapahoe Basin’s rental shop, screamed that the Swiss chalet-style lodge at the base was on fire. Alf went to work making sure everyone was evacuated. It was extremely cold, so many of the car batteries were dead, and the cars had to be pushed away from the building. The next morning, with the debris still smoking, the usual throngs of avid skiers showed up, eager to hit the slopes. They sold hot dogs out of the rental shop.
“We’d rent ski boots, and the ketchup and mustard would be dripping into those old lace-ups. But we got by. It was amazing,” Alf recalled.
Evolution of winter sports
In 1968, Alf worked with a group to start the first amputee skiing program in Colorado, which lasted for three seasons at Arapahoe Basin. Personally, Alf developed one of the first retractable “outriggers” for amputee skiing.
“That was really the most rewarding teaching I ever did,” Alf recalled. “It was absolutely unbelievable. Here, the patients had a chance to find out that, “Hey, there’s something I can do!’”
He noticed that the amputee skiers would often learn faster than skiers without physical disabilities. Within two weeks, they would be skiing intermediate runs and soon after, participating in races and winning awards. One time that Alf vividly remembers, an amputee who had just left the hospital came out to ski. Upon reaching the Poma lift with no prior skiing experience, he started down the mountain unable to stop and crashed into a giant snow drift at the bottom of the run. When people ran over to see if he was OK, he looked up and exclaimed, “Man I was lucky. If I’d have had a leg, I would have broken the darn thing!”
Also in 1968, Alf discovered ski-bobbing, an activity that is similar to bicycling on snow. By sheer coincidence, the Austrian ski-bob demo team was headed over Loveland Pass when they stopped to ski-bob at Arapahoe Basin and wandered into the rental shop where Alf was working. They let Alf try it, and he instantly took a liking to the sport. He eventually ran the National Ski-bob Championship two years in a row and competed in many races in Europe. One year after winning the championship, Warren Miller called him and asked if he could film Alf ski-bobbing at Arapahoe Basin. For the shoot, the cameraman told him to slide off a cornice on the West Wall and make a sharp turn. Alf had never attempted this stunt before, nor had he ever ridden the new “test” model ski-bob until that day. The snow was icy and as Alf shot down and turned off the cornice as instructed, he remembers thinking, “Oh my god! There’s nothing!”
“It was like jumping off a 10-story building,” he said.
As soon as he flew off the cornice, the front of the ski-bob turned and pointed at Alf. He let go of the handlebars, pushed the ski-bob away from himself when he realized he wouldn’t be able to land and crashed very hard in front of the cameraman who nonchalantly said, “Retake.” He did redo the stunt, the second time with success.
“They never showed that one,” Alf said. “They only showed the explosion. When they showed the movie in Keystone, I had to pay $2 to see myself crash.”
Making a home
During his final year at Arapahoe Basin, Alf became the general manager. When he finally left. Alf went on to become an instructor of Ski Area Technology at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville from 1971 to 1976. During one downhill training session in winter 1971, a skier who was not supposed to be on the race course ran into him. Due to the injuries sustained from the crash, Alf did not eat solid food for nearly two years. The following year, he underwent knee surgery.
The accident allowed him time to pursue his other passion: architectural design. Over the years Alf has designed and built numerous houses in Summit County.
Alf gazed out one of his large picture windows at his home in Montezuma when asked what compelled him to stay in Summit County. The mountains, the great snow and the abundant recreation are just three reasons.
“My favorite pastime has always been crawling around the woods way up there in the hills some place,” Alf said.
Editor’s note: Alf Tieze and his wife, Sunni, live in Montezuma.
This story previously published in the book “Summit Pioneers,” which was printed in 1999. The book was written by Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz with photos by Bob Winsett in partnership with Wilson-Lass Creative Communications. It was published to raise money for The Summit Foundation. Read more about the history of Summit County at summitdaily.com/news/history.
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