Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ski Clothing Pioneer Obermeyer Still Going Strong at 90

Klaus Obermeyer, founder and president of Sport Obermeyer, has a 100-watt smile and a successful business to match. For a long time, he's been a leader in the ski clothing biz. Here he is with me and a fellow journalist from New Jersey, Martin Griff, ( at the SIA Snow Show in Denver recently.

The 90-year-old skis every day in Aspen, his home since 1947 when he immigrated to the U.S. from Bavaria looking for a job as an aeronautical engineer. Instead, he found an opening as a ski instructor, falling back on a sport he knew and loved since first skiing on homemade skis crafted from runners of a wooden crate at age three.

When he arrived at the tiny ski hamlet, it was almost deserted. “There was snow on the ground like I had never seen except maybe at 3,000 meters in the Alps,” he said over breakfast at The Wienerstube in Aspen. “When I put my ski down, flakes flew like feathers, it was so dry. It snowed almost every night with the sun shining in the day — a paradise for skiers, but there were no people here!”

Undaunted, he joined his friend, Austrian racer Friedel Pfeifer, Pete Seibert (who would later discover Vail) and four others who made up the first ski school in Aspen. He lived at the Jerome Hotel, skating on skis through the streets to the mountain. He remembers being followed by packs of barking dogs that were left behind by miners. “There were more dogs than people in those days,” he said.

The single-chair number one lift from the base to midway had just been completed. The second lift was a rebuilt mining tramway that dripped grease on riders so frequently that the ski company obligingly pickup up dry cleaning tabs. To ward off the cold, Obermeyer wore a “long city coat” for the 15-minute ride to midway, and then sent it back down while he skied two and a half minutes to the bottom and rode up again sans coat. “I had one warm ride and one cold one,” he laughed.

Eager to earn his $10-a-day pay, he scoured the slopes for students. He found that people were reluctant to commit to lessons because “they froze like hell.” Ski clothing then consisted of long underwear, a sweater and unlined shell and pants, hardly enough to keep warm in the best of conditions. To keep his classes filled and students happy, he began making down parkas for them after fashioning the first one from his goose-down comforter he brought from Europe. Later, he built machines and made the first quilted parka out of shavings from the floor of a textile factory in Munich.

Severe sunburn was another problem in the high-altitude of Aspen. “People came here in February and March for a 14-day vacation and left after two days because they sunburned so badly,” he said. So he and Pfiefer concocted Sportana, “the first suntan lotion that really worked.” To foil the sun even further, he helped develop mirrored sunglasses with a French manufacturer using vaporized metal to block the sun’s UV rays.

No idea escaped Klaus Obermeyer. His turtlenecks were the world’s first with elasticized collars and shoulders. He was the innovator of a dual layer ski boot with a soft, warm liner inside a strong rigid shell. The list goes on and on.

“There was a lot of opportunity then,” he said modestly. “There was no supply because there was really no market. So it was easy to become a supplier with very little money.” Soon dealers heard about his products at the same time the sport exploded, and demand was created. It was a classic moment of being in the right place at the right time.

Today, after scores of awards honoring the clothing pioneer and his company, the innovation continues with fabrics made from bamboo and recycled materials. “We try to step lightly on the planet,” he said.


  1. At 90 years old and skiis everyday - hope I can get to that some day!

    Seems Klaus kept his ear close to the ground to detect an opportunity when it came past.

  2. As they say: "Necessity is the mother of invention." Klaus certainly was paying attention to the needs of skiers! Thanks for your note, Malcolm.

  3. Wow, what an inspiring story - will definitely have to check it out next time I'm in Aspen!