Listen to history: Barney McLean, the humble man from Hot Sulphur Springs
Barney McLean skied his final run in March 2005. He was 88 years old, suffering from a torn ACL and facing a foot of fresh powder, surely enough to dissuade almost anyone else from trying.
But McLean wasn’t anyone else, and he had a streak to keep alive.
He’d never missed a year of skiing since he first strapped in all the way back in 1921, a four-year-old of humble beginnings who just moved to Hot Sulphur Springs from Lander, Wyo., with his parents, George and Laura.
So, with his two grandchildren trailing closely behind him, McLean made it down the Mary Jane Trail, a run he once helped create, one last time.
He passed away just four months later, but his passion for the mountains burned a bright, lasting impression into the ski industry, the Grand County’s history and into the hearts and minds of those looking back on his vast accomplishments.
To most, McLean was a legendary ski racer. To others, a dedicated father and brother, and to others still, simply the “Humble Man From Hot Sulphur Springs.”
“I was lucky to have had him for a father,” said Melissa McLean Jory, McLean’s daughter. “He taught me to really love and appreciate the mountains. It was always more about that than the competitions. It was about appreciating where you are, where we live and what we have.”
Visitors packed the Cozen’s Ranch Museum on Friday night for a presentation on McLean’s life, hosted by the Grand County Historical Association and led by Tim Nicklas, director of the Pioneer History Museum in Hot Sulphur Springs. A brief question and answer session with Nicklas and McLean’s daughter followed the presentation.
Robert Lloyd “Barney” McLean was born in 1917, and grew up in Hot Sulphur Springs in the midst of the ski industry’s renaissance following the town’s inaugural winter carnival. He took to skiing immediately, and showed potential as a jumper. It was there that he came into contact with some of the most influential people in his life: fellow jumper Horace Button, ski manufacturer Thor Groswold and champion ski jumper Alice “Aunt Allie” Throckmorton.
At 13 years old, McLean, still going by Lloyd, won his first regional ski jumping championship. Later that year Button, noticing a resemblance in the bowed legs of McLean and pro ski jumper Barney O’Reilly, nicknamed him Barney. The name stuck, as did McLean’s success.
In 1935, McLean won his first national championship, and was named to the Olympic Ski Team for the 1936 Winter Games in Germany. He was unable to compete in the games, however, due to injury concerns and financial issues.
In 1937, McLean married Margaret Wilson, a waitress and eventual ski model from Hot Springs, Arkansas. Nicklas tells a humorous story about Margaret trying to attract the attention of McLean outside the hotel where she worked as he drove by one day. She succeeded, and McLean drove his father’s truck into a river.
That same year McLean, dragged to Berthoud Pass by Groswold and a German skier, learned how to alpine ski. Just months after learning he was already one of the best in the area, and by 1942 he was the Alpine National Champion in downhill, slalom and combined.
The Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 meant that McLean’s ski racing career would have to be put on hold, however. He joined the Army Air Corps and became a pilot. He never saw combat, but was sent to Canada to train other pilots in arctic survival.
In 1943, the military put on a ski competition at Ski Cooper, where McLean bested the premiere of the 10th Mountain Division. He began skiing seriously again in 1946, but the war stripped him of some of his best years, and stole two opportunities for Olympic glory after the 1940 and 1944 games were cancelled.
Still, he was back to doing what he loved. Later that year he won the first ever Roch Cup in Aspen, and took home another national championship in the combined.
He suffered a serious leg injury in Aspen in 1947, but was able to compete in the 1948 Winter Olympics in Switzerland, and was even chosen as the ski team captain by his teammates. Two weeks before the games he raced in what he later called his personal Olympics, winning the Swiss National Championship. He slid off the course in the Olympics, and failed to medal.
After the games he traveled around Europe and South America, winning the Argentinian National Championship in slalom and downhill.
He lost his amateur status in 1950 after designing a pair of skis for Groswold, and began coaching and course setting. He didn’t return to competition until 1956, when he won the Veteran Downhill title.
Even off the hill, his accolades are somewhat astounding and difficult to name. He is a winner of the Robert Russell Memorial Award, the Halsted Memorial Trophy, the Bass Trophy and Sullivan award nominee among a myriad of others. He was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1959, and into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1975.
In 2012, almost seven years after his death, Winter Park Resort dedicated Barney’s Landing at the top of the Olympia Lift, near where McLean made his final run, a historic site.
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