Stories You Should Know: Buddy Werner and the Race of His Life

Wallace “Buddy” Werner had just retired from the competitive ski scene. He had a very disappointing final season culminating in being shut out of the medals again at the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

It was April 12th, 1964. Werner had announced his retirement three weeks earlier. His last competitive race was at Winter Park, Colorado, but Germany’s top skier Willy Bogner convinced Buddy to return to Europe to film a Ski Movie. Bogner was attempting to make a ski movie to rival the dance sequences of “West Side Story”. He’d hired twenty world class skiers to perform the moves.

“Buddy was apprehensive. He was excited about skiing in the film and doing something different on his skis, but I don’t think he wanted to go back to Europe,” his brother Loris said years later.

A warm wind, known as a Fohn, had come up from the south. The temperature change had changed the mountain at St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps. There was a severe avalanche danger, but at the time world class skiers didn’t take those conditions seriously. “None of us thought much about it. Back then it wasn’t like nowaday. Now, you really would pay attention to that and have the gear and awareness of it. And you’d spend time studying and learning which slope is likely to come down. Then, we just didn’t think about it,” said the legendary skier Billy Kidd.

When they went out that morning they thought they were on a safe slope. Twenty world class skiers that included Werner and Bogner’s 23 year old fiance, 1964 Olympic bronze medalist Barbara Henneberger. Buddy and Henneberger were in the middle of the formation. “We were crossing the slope in a file while the crew was filming when all of a sudden the snow gave way under our skis,” said fellow participant Fritz Wagnerberger to the Associated Press. “Pandemonium broke out. It was terrible. We were yelling, and the scream could be heard over the thunder of the snow. Buddy Werner raced down in front of me trying to get away. He was a little lower down and probably thought he had a chance to ski away from the slide.”

Wallace “Buddy” Werner was born in Steamboat Springs, Colorado on February 26, 1936. He was the middle child of Ed and Hazel Werner. He and his two sibling were raised on the ski slopes of Steamboat Springs. All three were accomplished downhill skiers. His sister Skeeter even joined Buddy on the 1956 United States Olympic Team.

Werner joined the international ski tour at an early age, earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team before his 20th birthday, finishing 11th in the Olympic Downhill in 1956. At age 22 he won the downhill on the famed Hahnenkamm course, which is regarded as the most difficult course on the World Cup circuit, in a then record time of 2:33.4. He was the first person to win the Hahnenkamm Downhill who was not from Switzerland or Austria.  He would have many other World Cup victories, but due to his “go for broke” style he had many spectacular falls, and disappointing results in the most prestigious competitions. He never medaled at either the Olympics or the World Championship events. He was probably the best downhill skier in the world in 1958 and 1959. In the 1960 Olympics he was one of the favorites for the Gold Medal at California’s Squaw Valley, but broke his leg during a practice run two weeks before the event.

He was the veteran leader of the 1964 U.S. Olympic team in Innsbruck, where he didn’t medal, but mentored fellow Americans Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga to Silver and Bronze medals in the Slalom (he finished 8th). Even today, he is considered the first world class skier from the United States, excelling in all three alpine events.

His personal life was just as volatile. He was dating fellow American Skier Jill Kinmont in 1955 when she had her devastating fall in the Giant Slalom at Alta, Utah. She would be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of her life. Her story is told in both the book and movie The Other Side of the Mountain. Werner would break off the relationship after the accident. He then married Vanda Norgren in 1961.

Back on the mountain near St. Moritz on that April day in 1964, Wagnerberger, Bogner and the rest of the crew skied laterally, out of the avalanche, but Werner and Henneberger were in front of the slide, attempting to outrun it. They did, reaching the bottom of the hill ahead of the snow. Suddenly, the avalanche they had just outpaced triggered a second avalanche that approached them from the side. The two skiers adjusted and attempted to stay out in front of that one too. Unfortunately they couldn’t. The cascading snow first overtook Barbi Henneberger, but Buddy was staying in front of it. “He got to the bottom, then he slipped, somersaulted and was lying in the snow as the second arm of the slide crashed right on top of him.” Wagnerberger remembered.

“In the end there were hundreds helping us.” Wagnerberger continued, “but for Bud and Barbi it was too late.” It took three hours to dig out Henneberger, then another hour to find Buddy Werner, 10 feet down in the snow. Wallace “Buddy” Werner had turned 28 just a month and a half earlier.

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