By Ellen Miller-Goins
Sigi Klein has shared skiing at Red River Ski & Summer Area for over 50 years — quite an achievement considering he almost turned around back in 1963 when he first beheld the fledgling ski area that was to become his home.
“I thought, ‘Well, it’s too late to turn around now,’” Sigi says, adding he planned to leave in the spring.
Fortunately for Red River – and for skiing – Klein stayed. He was formally inducted into the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame, along with Benny Abruzzo, the owner/operator of Sandia Peak and Ski Santa Fe, Saturday (Oct. 25) at the Albuquerque Balloon Museum.
He is pleased with the honor but there is sadness as well: The ceremony came on the heels of the death of his daughter, Melanie (Klein) Glenn, on Oct. 16. Sigi and Martha, his wife of 50 years, acknowledge their deep pain from the loss but graciously consent to an interview in their Red River home, a gorgeous European-style place that is unmistakably a “Sigi House.”
“I’ve been a builder all my life,” Sigi says, noting that he was apprenticed as a carpenter and cabinet-maker as an 18-year-old in Germany.
The building may not technically have lasted all his life, but the skiing has lasted most of it. In a 2010 interview with The Chronicle, he was unable to say exactly when he learned to ski, noting only that in the Black Forest of Germany, skiing was simply something one did. “We all used to use skis to get around the village. It was a mode of transportation more than anything else.”
A competitive skier, at age 20 Klein decided to try his luck in North America. He taught skiing in Banff, Canada, Yosemite, California, and was wooed away from Arapahoe Basin in Colorado to teach skiing at Red River Ski Area. Klein admitted he was not immediately impressed by what he saw. “Red River has come a long way. The mountain was much smaller. During busy times the lift crew and ski patrol helped out. Everybody helped everybody.”
Klein was one of three full-time instructors that first year. His plans to depart in the spring were scuttled when the ski area’s former owner J.B. Veale asked him to stay to help with carpentry work.
Klein built what was the first Ski Tip restaurant that summer — mostly by himself.
“J.B. Veale would say, ‘Get John (Miller) and Jim (Jordan) out of the office to help build here,’ so I’d have to go to them and say, ‘J.B. told me to get you guys.’ They didn’t like that too much.”
His second winter Klein recalls, “We had no snow, except for some limited snowmaking on the bump. We were playing flag football on Main Street.”
He met Martha and so, again, he stayed. They married in 1965 and had three children, Melanie, Katherine and Sigi.
He introduced ski racing to Red River
Klein was instrumental in starting the first junior race program in 1963 and coached Red River youngsters like George and Rudi Woerndle, Dirk Neal, Lori Starbuck, Beje Bohannan, and many others, for “three, four years.”
“It wasn’t like nowadays where coaches get paid,” Sigi says with a smile. “People pitched in for gas money and that was it. I threw them in the back of a Red Panel Ford and drove them to races in Cloudcroft, Sierra Blanca (now Ski Apache in Ruidoso), Los Alamos (Pajarito), Santa Fe and Taos.”
Adds Martha, “We had a mattress in the back and they all piled in.”
A ski-instructing pioneer
From 1965 to 1970, Sigi was Red River Ski Area’s ski school director.
Klein, who will be 80 on Dec. 9, “has been a major influence in the development of the Red River Ski School as well as developing the teaching progression used in the US,” according to a press release from Ski New Mexico.
“Back in those days, the U.S. didn’t really have a progression of teaching,” explains George Brooks, Ski New Mexico director. “In Austria, they had the Austrian teaching technique and other countries had theirs. In the U.S., different ski schools had different progressions.”
Klein has been skiing long enough to see styles, technique and equipment change dramatically. He remembers owning a pair of 220-centimeter skis made of solid wood that were only a couple of inches wide.
“The style of skiing and teaching back then changed a lot, depending on which countries had the most victories in the World Cup. It’s a lot easier these days than it used to be. It has come such a long ways, it’s not even comparable.”
Klein helped standardize ski instruction and has since taught thousands of people to ski. He plans to teach this season, too, though at presstime he is still recovering from a July 21 fall off a ladder that left him with a broken elbow and pelvis.
It is not his first serious injury – Klein broke his back in the early ’90s and has had other injuries from either skiing or building – but he notes, “This s about the most painful injury I’ve ever had. It was bad.”
Adds Martha, “We went from wheelchair to walker to crutches. He started doing pretty good about mid-September.”
She’s OK with his plans to teach skiing if he can, but, according to Sigi, after this accident, “Martha gave me an ultimatum.”
Martha admits, “Basically I told him, ‘Either you give up building or I’m going to leave!’ This was his last summer of building. He is officially retired.”
Master builder in Red River and Colorado
In his early days in Red River, Sigi did construction for Joe Janney, “the only contractor in town,” during the summer months. Then, in 1970, he moved to Denver to start a construction company, but noted, “We always knew we were coming back.”
“I built in Denver and Aspen in the ’70s and all through the ’80s,” he says. “Red River was pretty depressed at that time. If anybody thought the last five years were hard, back in the ’80s you couldn’t give anything away in Red River! When the bottom falls out in Texas, it falls in Red River, too.”
Martha, stayed in Red River during that time and Sigi commuted back and forth.
In 1990, he built a bed and breakfast (the Kleins has since sold this property) and in 1991, Sigi began creating a little community, building speculative houses on property near the bed and breakfast just off Caribel Trail in Red River.
This year, Sigi says, “I’m closing (the building) business down.”
Still coaching skiers after all these years
If his recovery goes well, this winter Sigi plans to teach full time.”
Sigi was Ski New Mexico’s “Ski Instructor of the Year” for the 2012-2013 ski season and has maintained his membership and certification with the Professional Ski Instructors of America for over 50 years.
These days, he admits, “I try to stay away from teaching beginners. Now our beginner lessons are three hours long.”
He will work with more experienced skiers and spend as much time as he is able out on the slopes. “I try to stay on the snow as much as possible… upright!” he says laughing. “I love to ski and I ski to live.”