Sixteenth century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León hoped to find longevity through rejuvenating mineral waters rumored to be on the island of Bimini. Klaus Obermeyer found it on the ski slopes.
Obermeyer, who will celebrate his 100th birthday on Dec. 2, took up the sport at age three in his birthplace of Oberstaufen, Germany, a small, alpine village near the borders of Austria and Liechtenstein.
“Seeing people sliding down on the snow, I thought it looked just fantastic, so I made a pair of skis,” says Obermeyer. “My dad would buy oranges from Italy, which came in crates made of thin chestnut planks. I took two of those boards and nailed my best pair of house shoes on them. I was not much of a carpenter, so the nails were sticking out from the bottom of those boards, but the skis worked beautifully.”
The centenarian got his first pair of factory-made skis for Christmas when he was five years old thanks to his parents being familiar with Marius Eriksen, a Norwegian ski maker whose son Stein won Olympic gold and silver medals in skiing.
Growing up in Bavaria introduced the young Obermeyer not only to skiing, but also to rock climbing, hiking and biking, activities that would later play a role in his career in the outdoor apparel industry.
His father, Fritz Heinrich Obermeyer, an acclaimed Bavarian artist, and his mother, Mina, a homemaker, encouraged the then-teenager to learn a trade. By happenstance, a day on the ski slopes led to him meeting the director of Maybach Motorenbau, one of Germany’s premier automakers, where he was offered an apprenticeship. That experience resulted in an opportunity to take evening classes in Munich, where he studied aeronautical and mechanical engineering for the next three-and-a-half years. Those skills landed him a position at Dornier Flugzeugwerke, an aircraft company, where he was in charge of developing retractable landing gear—a job that kept him from harm’s way during World War II.
Looking for a change from Germany’s post-war climate, he headed to America. In February 1947 Obermeyer left with the legally allowed amount of currency—the equivalent of $10—venturing to New York City hoping to work in the aviation industry. Learning that firms like Boeing were not hiring, his thoughts shifted to skiing.
“I had a friend, Friedl Pfeifer, who I’d skied with in St. Anton, Austria,” explains Obermeyer. “He was running the ski school in Sun Valley, where I figured I could work as an instructor.”
Arriving in Idaho months later, he’d learned that Pfeifer had taken a position as ski school director at a new Colorado resort named Aspen. Not having the money to get there, he set about earning train fare.
“I didn’t have a car, I didn’t even have a bicycle, so I got a job digging ditches,” adds Obermeyer. “I raised enough money to buy a ticket to Glenwood Springs, then I took a taxi to Aspen.”
As a ski instructor, he would only earn the $10 a day fee if students stayed in class. But he was losing them to cold weather, aching feet, sunburn or all three. That led to an epiphany.
“Friedl told me ‘you’ll have a lot of work here teaching, but in your spare time use your skills an airplane technician to figure out how to make skiing safer, more comfortable and more fun’ and that is exactly what I did,” says Obermeyer.
A pioneering inventor, he’s credited with creating numerous industry innovations, including the duo construction ski boot with a plastic outer shell, the turtleneck sweater, nylon wind shirts, waterproof, breathable fabrics, mirrored sunglasses and high-altitude sunscreen. He collaborated with Dr. Bob Smith to develop the first dual lens, fog-free goggles as well. But perhaps his most impactful creation was his first—the down parka.
“Aspen had the world’s longest single chairlift and it was a cold ride to the top,” Obermeyer explains. “We rode up in long, city winter coats, but you couldn't ski in them, so we would send them back down on the chairlift. I had the idea to cut up the down comforter that my mom made me take to America and I made a parka out of it. It looked horrible, but it was nice and warm, and you could ski in it.”
He ended up selling it to one of his students—actor Gary Cooper—and then opened a small shop in town to start making more. Today, Obermeyer products are synonymous with quality, durability, style, functionality and leading-edge technology, attributes that keep the company among the top outdoor apparel manufacturers.
One of the firm’s greatest advantages is being headquartered in Aspen, where employees “test drive” products under development. A key reason the company remains both competitive and successful is its founder’s approach to life.
“I think part of our success is a philosophy of creating win-win situations in business as well as in life,” says Obermeyer. “It’s important to take on challenges positively and not negatively, to really study them because they are also our teachers. Our company is also a family, we have each other and we try to make life as sweet and as wonderful as we can.”
It could be, too, that being born in early December may come into play. Browse the pages of an astrology book and you’ll learn that Sagittarians are jovial and have a propensity for making their optimism rub off on people. During a 60-minute interview, Klaus laughed heartily at least 20 times and, even though he’s reached the century mark, he still has the glint in his eyes of that child growing up in Bavaria.
He attributes his longevity, in part, to a wellness routine that includes riding a mountain bike, walking, lifting weights, push-ups and sit-ups, stretching and an age-appropriate version of aikido, a style of martial arts.
“I swim every day a little more than half a mile, which in one year gets me the distance from Aspen to Denver, and then the next year I swim back,” Obermeyer punctuates with a laugh.
As a younger man—and well into his 80’s—he would windsurf, play tennis, go rock climbing and ski 80 to 100 days a season. How does diet factor in to making it to 100? He does his best not to eat more than what he burns in calories so he doesn't get fat, which accounts for why he weighs today the same as he did 40 years ago.
Hosted at Hotel Jerome, you know his birthday party is going to be as exuberant and joyous as the man himself.
“Since I’m turning 100, I guess it’s going to be a little bit bigger because it’s an even number,” chuckles Obermeyer. “We’ll for sure have apple strudel with whipped cream and berries, and Bavarian music.”
And you can be sure the guests are going to coax a yodel from him.
115 Aspen Airport Business Center
Aspen, CO 81611
Kim D. McHugh, a Lowell Thomas award-winning writer, has been writing about people, travel, food and wine, architecture and golf since 1986. Though he shares the same birthday and affinity for skiing as Klaus Obermeyer, he doesn’t know how to yodel.
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