Los Angeles, often associated with palm trees and expensive luxury cars, has always had more than its share of exotic imports. Joseph ‘’Sepp’’ Benedikter, an Austrian ski racing champion and daredevil, raised the bar by establishing a ski school in a town where snowflakes are as rare as modern ski resorts without cues!

Passionate athlete and thrill-seeker Joseph Sepp Benedikter

Joseph Benedikter was one of five dashing ski enthusiasts from a country where modern downhill skiing techniques developed. He was also known as a passionate athlete with 200 medals whose constant travels were governed by changing seasons and an irrepressible craving for thrills. The Austrian daredevil was closely involved in the development of Sun Valley resort, appeared as a ski instructor in some 1930s Hollywood films, and was reputedly employed as a dry slope skiing teacher by Hollywood stars including Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper.

Dry slope skiing in the American West

As ski fever was just beginning to afflict the American West, Joseph was lured to Los Angeles by the star-studded Wooden Wings Ski Club, which included Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Henry Fonda and more. In June 1939, he opened his Pine Needle Ski Slope on the North Hollywood hill where today the Universal Sheraton Hotel of famous celebrities is to be found. With an engineering background, Joseph designed the runs, decided how the slopes were to be groomed, and organized the construction of the lodge.

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He dumped 6.000 burlap sacks of pine needles on an 800-foot-hill between Lankershim and Cahuenga boulevards, installed two rope tows, and built a ski rental shop, where he introduced and promoted the new sport of dry-land skiing to the US! Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Robert and Elizabeth Taylor were among the stars attending the opening. The giant slope was located at the juncture of two busy boulevards, near Universal Studios, and was seen plainly for a long distance on Ventura Boulevard. Exceptionally smooth and attractive, the hill had a view of the entire San Fernando Valley.

Hollywood stars in action

With cows grazing in the surrounding area and temperatures reported to go above 100F (38C), Hollywood jet-setters and downtown professionals, dressed in fashionable bathing suits, rattled down the dry slope with long wooden skis. Mind-blown from the first descent, skiers clung to the rope lift for dear life, making their way up the hill to relive an adrenaline-filled and unique dry slope experience. Students, including Lori Saunders, Ginger Rogers, and Joan Bennett, never had to wonder which ski wax to use because the pine needles on the slope were slippery enough to ski like a pro. After the summer of 1939, Joseph left Los Angeles and Pine Needles closed. Nevertheless, Joseph’s efforts to promote dry slope skiing as a sport have led to snowless skiing still being a popular sport in the USA today!

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Joseph in the National Ski Hall of Fame

After the second world war, Joseph returned to the Los Angeles area, taking charge of ski schools at some of Southern California’s newly opened mountain resorts. He supplied them with certified instructors, while still devoting part of his time to daredevil stunts. In July 1948, when snow was sparse, he jumped 110 feet across a highway lined with cars at Mt. Lassen in the Sierra Nevada. Later, lawmakers outlawed such antics after a less skilled leaper was killed. Defying mother nature, Benedikter built what was called the world’s highest artificial ski jump at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona in 1951. Thrilling hundreds of thousands of spectators, he brought in the U.S. Olympic team for exhibition jumping off a 225-foot tower that sloped 500 feet. In the 100-degree weather, as much as 8 million pounds of crushed ice was blown onto the slope. But the biggest surprise came when no one on the team wanted to be the first to take the breathtaking leap. Benedikter stepped in and made the opening jump and, reluctantly, the team followed. The skier’s journey ended with his death in 1981, four years after he was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame.

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