Pg. 030 Tommy Tomasi
A Ski Legend’s Legacy
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.
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