Few have left a mark on outdoor sports like Klaus Obermeyer. The German skiing pioneer arrived in Aspen in 1947 to work as a ski instructor at the urging of his old friend Friedl Pfeifer, the founder of Aspen Skiing Corporation. And soon after, he and Pfeifer recognized a deficiency in winter gear and technology—skis, bindings, and clothing weren’t evolving—so Obermeyer invested his free time into making winter sports more innovative.
Over the past 70 years, his company Sport Obermeyer has produced some of the most useful products in the skiing industry, like two-pronged brakes, high-alpine sunscreen, and double-lens goggles. Today, while the company continues to push technology forward, Obermeyer still serves as the CEO, coming into the office almost every day. Even more impressive, as he turns 100 years old on December 2, Obermeyer still skis at Aspen as much as he can every season—something he says is “perfect every day.”
How does he keep doing it after all these years? We caught up with Obermeyer to find out.
5280: Do you remember your first pair of skis?
I made them [at three years old]. My dad was getting oranges from Italy and those baskets they came in were made of very thin chestnut boards, and so I took two of those boards, nailed my best pair of shoes—don’t tell my mom—nailed them on there and used a string to pull up the front of the boards so I had tips. Those were my first skis.
How did they work?
They worked great, but when I bent my knees forward I lost the tips.
What about the first real pair of skis?
I was four years old and my mom got those from Stein Eriksen’s father in Oslo. They had permanent tips on them and they were wonderful. An absolute luxury.
What’s it been like to watch the progression of technology?
It’s been a slow-but-steady progression. Now, skis are wider, inspired by the snowboard. They float at lower speeds. They’re easier to turn. They’ve made the whole winter world a ski area.
Why did you stay in Aspen?
I came here as a ski instructor in 1947 and was hired by my friend Friedl Pfeifer, who started Aspen Skiing Corporation and Aspen Ski School. I knew him from Austria, he was a great skier, and he thought it would be fun to have me there. I stayed because the climate is sensational…The air is very dry and makes us wonderful powder snow. We’re very high, this area is fantastic for outdoor sports—winter or summer.
How has Aspen changed since you arrived?
[Laughing] I have a hard time finding a parking place now.
But what are the other major changes you’ve seen?
I think it is a sensational success that we were able to grow from a little ghost town to a world-known, phenomenal ski area. Also, the music, the meetings people travel for, those are also sensational. It’s a wonderful place for intelligent people to meet and share ideas.
Were there any moments when you worried the company might not work out?
No, I never worried. I always look forward to better ideas. I always say, ‘you’re never made.’ You’re always making it in life and business.
Do you have favorite product from over the years?
I like them all. We aim to be on the leading edge of technical possibilities in everything, and that makes skiing safer and more fun.
What would you consider a perfect day skiing?
Skiing is a perfect day every day. Skiing is skiing. It’s a fabulous sport that allows you to slide over the snow. Fast or slow, you make turns, you do jumps, and you end up at the bottom with a smile on your face.
Has skiing become more challenging as you’ve grown older?
No, no. It’s easier than walking.
How many days every season do you ski?
I don’t count the days. I go when it’s nice. When the sun shines and there’s good snow. I don’t count the days.
How long will you keep skiing?
As long as I can stand up.
What’s your secret to living long and continuing to ski?
One should do at least one hour each day of physical exercise, all your life. That will keep you most probably in shape. Tennis. Running. All kinds of sports. I swim an hour each day and do other exercise. One of the sports that has been probably the most important for me is aikido martial arts. It is a pretty fantastic thing. I’ve done it for a long, long time and it also helps to keep you in shape. It’s phenomenal.
Do you ski alone still?
Oh yeah. Always. I hate to wait for people.
When did you decide you weren’t going to retire?
To me, retiring means to give up. What are you going to do? Sit there and twiddle your thumbs if your nails are not too long? As far as I’m personally concerned, I just don’t want to give up.
Jake Burton, who invented the snowboard, died recently. Did you know him well?
He was a good friend. He made the extra-long snowboard for my youngest son, who was the first snowboarder in Aspen. The snowboards have inspired the skiing technology. Jake, in the East, he was a good friend of my youngest son.
What do you think about the future of skiing?
It has a phenomenal future. More and more people are skiing. People climb uphill now. And many people find that they don’t have to have a lift necessarily. They’re doing what we had to do when [the sport] first started. It’s absolutely fabulous.
What was the biggest challenge in your career?
Everyday is challenging. You face them every day, but challenges are your teachers. You have to love your challenges and you’ll learn something.
How will you celebrate your 100th birthday?
I’m not planning anything but my people here have arranged a big party at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen with a big tyrolean Bavarian music.