Imagine going 90 miles per hour on a pair of skis. Unless you’re currently racing at the World Cup level, trust me, you have not gone that fast. After searching your life experience for a similar sensation—driving Highway 50 across Nevada or a high speed roller coaster, perhaps—now imagine skiing at 90 miles per hour on a pair of straight, wooden boards, right before World War II.
And that is one reason why Anton (Toni) Matt was a badass.
Toni Matt (1919-1989) reached his insanely fast speed while straight-lining the infamous Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine, in New Hampshire. It was 1939 during the third running of the American Inferno, a top-to-bottom race from the summit of Mt. Washington to the lodge at Pinkham Notch. Matt was just 19, a ski instructor from Austria, but he trained under the father of modern ski technique, Hannes Schneider, was already known for his blazing runs. At Stowe in Vermont, he cut the record for descending the Nose by 12 seconds. At a downhill in New Hampshire’s Cannon Mountain, he won by such a large margin that the timing system was challenged. On the second downhill that day, he was again—by the exact same margin.
He also won the U.S. national downhill championship just two weeks prior to the Inferno. But still, he’d never skied Tucks and, on top of that, he could barely see the course.
Winds that day were well over 60 mph, enough to obscure the horizon. Matt’s plan for the race was to make a few turn on the Headwall, then tuck the bottom section of the course. But with snow blustering in the winds, he lost track of where he was. Realizing he was carrying too much speed into the steepest section, he made the split second decision to straight-line the Headwall. He finished the four-mile course in 6:29 minutes, to an astonished crowd. Dick Durrance came in second place, a full 59 seconds slower than Toni.
The Boston Herald reported, “Maintaining almost unbelievable speed and control down the snow fields of the summit cone, the almost vertical 1,000-foot headwall of Tuckerman Ravine and the twisting pitches of the Sherburne Trail, Matt literally raced the entire field of 44 starters into the snow.”
That literally is not literally true. But Matt’s schuss was deserving of hype.
Much was made of his time, which not only shattered the Inferno record but was twice as fast as the previous winning pace. The entire field was rocking, though: 37 of the 44 beat the 1934 record during the second Inferno thanks in part to a huge tailwind.
Matt continued to race, winning the American national downhill championship in 1941, too. Soon thereafter he enlisted in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division during World War II. He was stationed in the Aleutian Islands and fought to defend the archipelago against Japanese advancement.
After the war, Matt moved to the Rocky Mountains to be a part of the burgeoning ski industry there. He landed at Whitefish, Montana, where he continued to race until he broke his leg in devastating fashion, in 1951. Not one to give up on skiing, he turned his talents to race coaching and ski instruction.
Matt was inducted into the Ski Hall of Fame in 1967 and continued to teach and coach until 1980. He was a true talent who burst onto the scene in a somewhat accidental way. When he reflected back on that 90 mph run at Tuckerman, he didn’t attribute it to the hard work, skill and guts that made it possible. Apparently he shook his head and marveled at the luck of being, “19, stupid, and [having] strong legs.” And that sums up the underrated quality of a true champion and badass: humility.
Top photo: Richard Matt/CC