Bill Klein: Donner Summit ski pioneer |

Bill Klein: Donner Summit ski pioneer

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun

Photo courtesy Bill Berry Collection

When 19-year-old Wilhelm and#8220;Billand#8221; Klein first arrived on Donner Summit in the fall of 1936, he looked around and wondered, and#8220;Where are the mountains?and#8221; Bill and his older brother Fred, both Austrian-born ski instructors, didn’t see any towering mountains with alpine summer snowfields to which they were accustomed. Bill couldn’t fathom where it would be possible to ski among the jagged volcanic cliffs and muscular granite features that comprise much of the Summit’s rugged terrain. The Kleins were visiting Donner Summit at the invitation of Professor Dr. Joel Hildebrand, a future Sierra Club president and the U.S. Olympic team manager.

Dr. Hildebrand had learned the Arlberg System in Europe and was a strong advocate for alpine skiing and for educating Americans in this new style of parallel skiing. The Klein brothers had sent him a letter that outlined their teaching qualifications and Professor Hildebrand invited them to California. While he was giving Bill and Fred a tour of the Donner Summit area, Hildebrand assured the young immigrants, and#8220;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.and#8221;

The Sierra Club just built their Clair Tappaan Lodge at Norden and Dr. Hildebrand convinced the Klein brothers to start a professional ski school there. They received free room and board along with 50 cents a lesson. Affable, technically skilled, and excited to be at the new frontier of alpine skiing, the Kleins soon had more students than they could handle. Within the first few years, the Kleins and their school taught parallel skiing to thousands.

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 Mexico. He became the intermediary between the POWs and the camp commandant.

After the war Bill returned to the Clair Tappaan Lodge, but when Hannes Schroll retired as Sugar Bowl ski school director Bill took over the position. In 1947, a European named Dennis Wiles got a job at Sugar Bowl working in the cook shack. 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 four decades later it turned out that Dennis Wiles was really Georg Gartner, a former German prisoner of war who avoided repatriation by escaping from a New Mexico POW camp. Gaertner later admitted to Bill Klein that he had removed the military’s wanted poster from the Norden post office shortly after his arrival at Sugar Bowl. Gaertner was later pardoned and wrote a book called and#8220;Hitler’s Last Soldier in America.and#8221;

Bill 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 ski and clothing shop at Sugar Bowl and one in San Francisco. In the off season Klein was successful in real estate in the Bay Area. He has been honored with 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.

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Bill Klein gave up skiing at the age of 90, and now lives with his wife Anneliese in Incline Village, where he enjoys golf, gardening, fishing, and his memories as one of America’s first and best-known ski instructors.

and#8212;Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning author and professional speaker. His newest book, and#8220;Longboards to Olympics: A Century of Tahoe Winter Sportsand#8221; is available at local stores or at You can reach him at