Pg. 030 Tommy To­masi

A Ski Le­gend’s Legacy

Chill Factor - - Introduction - By Reg­gae El­liss

90 Years old this win­ter and still go­ing strong, an Aus­tralian ski le­gend whose legacy strad­dles six decades

Iwas rid­ing the Basin T-bar in Thredbo last win­ter with my ten-year-old son Joey when we saw Tommy To­masi lay­ing down some big, per­fect wide arc turns down the groomed slope.

“Look Joey, there’s Tommy. You know if you’re still ski­ing when you’re Tommy’s age, you’ll be ski­ing in 2096.”

Joey thought about it for a minute and said, “Wow, that means I’ll be 90. I’m go­ing to ski till I’m a hun­dred.”

Tommy To­masi was born in Berg­amo, north­ern Italy in 1926 and his life-long love of ski­ing started in the nearby Oro­bie Alps when he was four. He turns 90 this July. This win­ter, he will no doubt be ski­ing most morn­ings be­fore sit­ting in his favourite chair at Ea­gles Nest restau­rant, cap­puc­cino in hand, chat­ting with one of the many peo­ple who stop to say hello. Tommy is one of the legends of Aus­tralian ski­ing, in­flu­en­tial in its de­vel­op­ment since he ar­rived in the Snowy Moun­tains in 1953, and his legacy to the sport is pro­found.

He worked as a ski in­struc­tor in Char­lotte Pass in the 50s, founded the first ski pa­trol in Aus­tralia at Thredbo nearly 60 years ago, has held the Aus­tralian speed ski­ing record, and worked in ski re­tail and ski travel for years.

I met up with Tommy at the top of his beloved Thredbo a few weeks ago and lis­tened to his amaz­ing life story.

CF: Well, Tommy, where do we start?

TT: Ha, well, how far do you want to go back?

Back to the be­gin­ning of your ski­ing life. Where did it all start?

I was four, started ski­ing in 1930 when I was four and started rac­ing at nine. Un­for­tu­nately, the war stopped all the or­gan­ised ski­ing.

The war started when you were 13, and af­ter Mus­solini was de­posed Italy was vir­tu­ally spilt in two. The south­ern half fought with the al­lies while north­ern Italy, your home, was oc­cu­pied by the Ger­mans.

Yes, we got oc­cu­pied by the Ger­mans and they tried to force you into the army, that’s why I joined the par­ti­sans in 1943, I was 17. I had no choice. The law from Mus­solini and Hitler was from 15-years-old, no more school and you had to join their forces. We had no love for the fas­cists and I just asked my dad, “What should I do?” He just gave me a gun and said, “Get up there,” point­ing to the moun­tains – that’s all he said. That was a bit hard at the be­gin­ning, un­til a few bul­lets passed me close by. I had to fight against even my own peo­ple who were col­lab­o­ra­tors. Three of my school­mates were sym­pa­this­ing with the fas­cists – they were on the other side… that was a bad one.

And you ended up be­ing cap­tured by the Ger­mans.

Yes, I blew up a bridge to stop a con­voy of Ger­mans com­ing through, but I got caught af­ter that. I came down to pay a lit­tle visit to my mum and dad. I took off all my ar­ma­ments, be­cause if they find you with any­thing, even a pis­tol, they put you against the wall straight away. Lucky I didn’t have it. We found out later that one of my friends saw me. He knew my move­ments. There was a cur­few in those days, but there was a knock on the door. I thought it was some of my mates and we had to re­assem­ble af­ter blow­ing up the bridge. But I open the door and it was the Gestapo. Sev­eral of them – that was it, and I fin­ished up in a con­cen­tra­tion camp in Ger­many up in the Black for­est. Close to Hanover.

You were young, how’d you han­dle it?

Well, you have to. They had one sec­tion for cap­tured soldiers and then an­other for po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, like me. They’d starve you, just feed you a broth and some bread. I was in there for nine months. But af­ter nine months I was 32 ki­los – half my nor­mal weight.

But they’d make you do funny things. They’d make you go out­side naked in the win­ter and hose you down and stay there till you dry. We were there to be elim­i­nated, but in the end I ac­tu­ally es­caped. It was just the last few days be­fore Ger­many ca­pit­u­lated. It was tremen­dous, thou­sands of aero­planes flew over the camp – they de­stroyed ev­ery­thing. The Amer­i­cans’ ar­tillery was fly­ing over the camp. The guards’ at­ten­tion wasn’t there any more as the Ger­mans knew it was over and they wanted to es­cape. I es­caped with three oth­ers and we fin­ished up bury­ing our­selves un­der branches in the for­est hop­ing that some­one finds us, and even­tu­ally the Amer­i­cans found us. They couldn’t be­lieve it when we men­tioned we were Ital­ian. They put us in a small lit­tle vil­lage, well be­hind the front, in a big mar­quee, an im­pro­vised hos­pi­tal. Straight away thanks to the Amer­i­cans. They couldn’t feed us as my stom­ach had shrunk, so they fed me in­tra­venously. Af­ter 32 days of not eat­ing, all in­jec­tion, they got me back. That was tough.

Even­tu­ally I said, “How can I pay you back?” I was angry and I asked if I could join them as an in­ter­preter – the Amer­i­cans said sure, but I wanted to do a lit­tle more. They said I could, but in a uni­form. They put me in a sec­tion look­ing for ex-Gestapo. There were a few of us and I did that for about three months.

How long did you stay in Ger­many? You must have been look­ing for­ward to get­ting home and see­ing your fam­ily.

I stayed eight months in Ger­many. I wanted to let things set­tle down at home. I knew if I went home I’d do some­thing wrong. I was angry and think­ing about pay­back against the peo­ple who did the wrong thing. I lost a lot of friends who were ex­e­cuted on the spot. But I went back home and when I got to Mi­lan I ran into a friend of mine from school and he said, “Oh, you’re still alive. They told your mum and dad you were dead.” Even­tu­ally I got back and saw Mum and Dad.

Like the rest of Europe, I sup­pose things must have been tough in Italy af­ter the war.

Yes. I went look­ing for work straight away. First I went down to the Par­ti­sans’ head­quar­ters and asked them what I should do. They were still look­ing for col­lab­o­ra­tors and said, “Easy, here’s a gun. If they try and do some­thing, shoot them.” Ev­ery­thing was a she­moz­zle, but the war was over and I didn’t want any more part of it. But I found out the guy who dobbed me in was caught by the group of par­ti­sans I was in. They found him and shot him, so it saved me from hav­ing to dirty my hands.

What were your plans to get back to liv­ing a nor­mal life?

Af­ter a while I couldn’t see any fu­ture in Italy. I couldn’t go back to study. Af­ter the con­cen­tra­tion camps, I couldn’t ab­sorb any­thing and I couldn’t get a job.

All the big shots, par­tic­u­larly the very wealthy fac­tory own­ers, were fas­cist; they changed their shirt from a black shirt and put on a red one. Ev­ery time I went for an in­ter­view, they’d ask me, “What did you do from 1943 on­wards.” No point telling lies – as soon as I said I was a par­ti­san, they wouldn’t hire me. That went on for months, and I wasn’t fussy about the job. I would have been happy if I had to clean toi­lets. That’s when I made up my mind that I had to go. Be­cause of my time with the Amer­i­cans and be­ing an ex-po­lit­i­cal pris­oner, I got a per­mit to come to Aus­tralia straight away.

Why Aus­tralia?

It was the big­ger one and it was fur­thest away. I thought I’d take potluck and it’s turned out to be the best move I’ve made. It was a sad move be­cause I had to leave Mum and Dad and my sis­ter be­hind. But you’ve got to look af­ter your­self; I saw no fu­ture in Italy. In those days it was very hard.

You landed in Fre­man­tle and then ended up in the mines near Kal­go­or­lie. Didn’t you end up work­ing with ex­plo­sives in the mines?

Yes. I ar­rived in Fre­man­tle af­ter 35 days on a boat. My English was good enough to make my­self un­der­stood and I found out there was work up in the mines. When I first started work they took me down 32 lev­els, right to the bot­tom, and gave me a sledge­ham­mer. They showed me where you dumped the rocks and told me to break up the big ones. I said, “With a ham­mer? Give me a few sticks of gel­lie and I’ll show you how to do it.” They said, “Can you use gelig­nite?” And I said, “Of course. Dur­ing the war I blew up ev­ery­thing that moved.” They said, “You’re now a pow­der mon­key.” I never had to use a ham­mer!

So, how did you end up in the Snowy Moun­tains?

A friend of mine was killed and I needed a break from the mine. He was only a young fella, 19-years-old. Any­way, I was in Perth and I was walk­ing down the street and I saw a tourist bureau with a pho­to­graph of the chalet and snow in the win­dow. I went in­side and asked the guy be­hind the counter where the photo was from. I didn’t know Aus­tralia had snow, I thought it was New Zealand. He said you have to go to NSW, that’s where it is. I walked out, bought my­self a mo­tor car and I drove straight away across the coun­try. Just left and went to Cooma. No prob­lem get­ting a job. What shocked me about Cooma was how you could hear any lan­guage in the world when you were walk­ing down the street.

Did you work up at Char­lottes at the Kosciuszko Chalet straight away?

I worked on the Snowy scheme for a while,

driv­ing a bull­dozer, but I wanted to work up at the chalet. I ap­plied for a ski in­struc­tor’s job in 1953. I raced in Italy af­ter the war, only for 18 months, but be­cause I was an ex-racer they made me a grade three in­struc­tor. I was meant to start in win­ter, but I ended go­ing up to the chalet early and ended up do­ing all sorts of things. I worked be­hind the bar, which was busy. All the Nor­we­gians work­ing on the Snowy Scheme would come down from Guthgea and they liked a drink. That’s where I met Joyce – she was a book­keeper. Then the win­ter started and I worked at night in the ski shop, do­ing re­pairs and wax­ing and then I started in­struct­ing and met Tony Sponar (founder of Thredbo) who was also teach­ing up there. Af­ter Joyce and I got mar­ried, I went back to the Snowy and worked in the hy­drol­ogy depart­ment – I did that for ten years.

And you guys used to head out from the chalet and ski the main range.

Yes, Tony and I used to ski right here, where we are now. (Tommy points out the win­dow to­wards Thredbo’s Basin area.) We’d come in from across the top. We’d stand out there and look down to­wards the val­ley and Tony would say this is where he wanted to build a re­sort. I looked down and I like it straight away. I’d say, “How are you go­ing to do it? Where will you get the money?” Of course Charles An­ton was a share­bro­ker and knew the peo­ple in Syd­ney who had the money and they did it. But I said to Tony, “OK, you start the re­sort and I’ll start the ski res­cue.”

And that’s pretty well how it played out.

Yes. Tony and Charles got a syn­di­cate to­gether and Tony started to build in 1956. The Crack­en­back Club was the first build­ing. I got in touch with Charles An­ton and said, “Charles, I’d like to start a pa­trol,” and he said go ahead.

I got Danny Col­man, who I was work­ing with on the Snowy to come in with me. He was a damn good skier and Aus­tralian cham­pion for three years. We had prob­lems get­ting enough peo­ple to do it. I got a few peo­ple from the Snowy just to start off. 1958 was the first of­fi­cial year – the long week­end. We had the new lift and we were the first two, we had about eight peo­ple by July. So, I was the founder of the first of­fi­cial pa­trol in Aus­tralia. There was a group at Mount Buller, but they were am­bu­lance men – it wasn’t an or­gan­ised pa­trol.

Here in Thredbo we did it by the book, just what moun­tain res­cue did back in Italy. Then we started the na­tional ski pa­trol – two reps from Thredbo, two from Per­isher, two from Buller, two from Falls, two from Hotham and one from Sel­wyn. That’s when we started ASPA – the na­tional ski pa­trol. That’s when we had Ge­orge Freuden – he did a lot of work. He used to do more work with the pa­trol than with his own busi­ness. He was a great man – pa­trol was his first love.

Tell me about the Golden Ea­gle, the speed race they used to hold on the Mona Range. You went in a few of those.

The Golden Ea­gle – the first was in 1953. That was out at Ku­nama Hut, they had a small lit­tle rope town on Lady North­cote. Be­tween Mount Lee and Mount Clarke. That’s where we did the Golden Ea­gle – straight down, very steep. It was Charles An­ton’s idea. He said to Tony Sponar, why don’t we go up on the Main Range and set a speed record. Tony asked me and we were the first three to do it. In those days the Na­tional Parks didn’t have a say, so we used the old over-snow ve­hi­cle from the chalet and a trailer to bring peo­ple up to watch. From then on they did it ev­ery year – up un­til the Na­tional Parks said no more, I think there were 17 Golden Ea­gles.

It’s pretty amaz­ing that you’re still ski­ing, that’ll you’ll be up here ski­ing when you turn 90 this win­ter. Most peo­ple stop well be­fore that.

Well, I’ve looked af­ter my­self. Al­though I’ve slowed down a lit­tle since I had my heart oper­a­tion – I had a new valve put in. But I can ski bet­ter than I can walk (laughs). Maybe not speed­ing like I used to, but I can still han­dle the skis.

The moun­tains are still a pretty spe­cial place for you.

Oh yes. I come up here in sum­mer and have my walk. I love the place; I love the moun­tain.

And what about the ski­ing?

I won’t give up, I love it. If I give up, then that’s it. I can’t sit down for an hour on the lounge. I can go on the com­puter for half an hour but then I must go out. If I start just sit­ting around that’d be the end of it. You just get sick and be­come a bur­den on some­one else. No, as long as I die on a pair of skis, I’ll be happy (laughs). Die on the moun­tain, would be great.

Left to right: Tommy, 89 and still rip­ping; with his wife Joyce in Char­lottes Pass in the mid-50s; styling in the ‘50s.

Left to right: rac­ing in Italy in 1948; nearly 60 years since he founded ski pa­trol in Aus­tralia (Wie­man); Tommy on the job in the ‘70s

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