Lake Tahoe sits on the California Nevada border near Reno in the eastern reaches of the soaring Sierra Nevada. Just west of the lake is a cirquelike valley, called Squaw. To Squaw Valley last week came skiers from 14 countries, including the Soviet Union, mainly to compete in the North American Alpine and Nordic Ski Championships but also to take a good look at this practically unknown area that one year from now will be the site of the Winter Olympics.
Three and a half years ago, when Alec Cushing, owner of the Squaw Valley Lodge, was scuttling back from Paris with the 1960 Winter Olympics tucked under his arm, he was collared in Chicago by Avery Brundage. "Cushing," said Brundage, "you're going to set back the Olympic movement 25 years."
Brundage had a good argument. Cushing had given the International Olympic Committee a fine sales talk, but all he actually had to offer in Squaw Valley along the line of Olympic facilities was one lodge, one double chair lift, one ghastly tram and a horseshoe of mountains that were forever avalanching.
Brundage felt that Cushing had sold a bill of goods and that—taking into consideration the cost of turning Squaw into a suitable Olympic site, the tremendous effort required and the short time available—the whole thing would be a colossal flop.
March 2, 1959
To anyone who sloshed into Cushing's valley last week, it looked as though Brundage's gloomy prophecy would certainly come true. The valley was a mess. A blizzard had dumped 63 inches of avalanche-prone powder in 42 hours. When the snow stopped, the wind started and blew for three days, piling up huge drifts and cornices on the three Olympic hills—Papoose Peak, KT-22 and Squaw Peak. Then the wind stopped and the rain began—two inches of cold winter drizzle. The rain turned the beautiful powder to slush, and turned Squaw Valley's dirt roads into a series of meandering bogs and rivers. When the rain stopped, the snow started again and came down for three more days, nearly 50 inches of it.
While this incredible weather was making the valley floor resemble a scene from the retreat from Moscow, the effect on the mountains and the Olympic ski trails was even more devastating. Each morning six U.S. Forest Service avalanche experts attacked the mountains to cut down avalanche hazards. To a late riser in the valley, the first sign that the avalanche crews were out was the boom-bang of the 75-mm. and 105-mm. recoilless rifles that were used to bring down big cornices and start loose snowfields sliding. Then there was the more remote and sporadic thump of the hand-thrown seismographic powder charges, carried to places the big guns could not reach. At noon or later, the six men would come swinging down out of the snow, soaking wet, exhausted. And as the week wore on, each time they came down, another trail, another slope and finally another mountain was declared unsafe, shut to both recreational skiers and racers.
The first course to be declared unusable was the men's downhill on Squaw Peak. It was closed off on Monday, Feb. 16 and two days later Avalanche Expert Monty Atwater declared that he didn't see how the course could possibly be opened in time for the North Americans. Accordingly, plans were made to transfer the men's downhill to KT-22. But by Wednesday night, there was more bad news. "This KT-22 has just about got us backed into a corner," said Atwater. "It's got a complete overload of snow, and it's been letting go artificially and naturally all day. These aren't just surface slides. There's one on the west side of KT seven feet deep and a thousand feet long. We may have to close KT-22 and run the whole thing on Papoose."
Beyond the atrocious weather there were other troubles. An Army detachment assigned to Squaw to operate and maintain the heavy equipment the Army had loaned for the Olympics piled out of its buses and headed smartly toward its working quarters. Unfortunately, the man who was supposed to prepare the Army offices had the mumps, the building was locked, no one had the key, and when the colonel in charge finally boosted a man through the window he found the offices bare of furniture. Many of the rooms in the Olympic village had no chairs, tables or bureaus, and a few of them had, until late last week, no beds.
That was not the end of Squaw Valley woes. There was no gas station in the valley where tire chains could be put on and parts battered by the rutted roads repaired. Until last week there was no direct telegraph service into the valley. The telephone switchboards serving the valley were overloaded to the point of near collapse. A fire blackened four rooms in one of the brand-new dormitories in the Olympic village. And the ski jump avalanched.
Mr. Brundage at this point appeared to be right. But, oddly and happily—and barring an absolute catastrophe, the 1960 Winter Olympics are going to be a success.
The main reasons for optimism are the clear evidence of the staggering amount of organizational work and actual building that has already been accomplished, and the fact that, despite everything, the North American championships went off beautifully—or nearly so.
The funds were raised—mostly from the California legislature, and the U.S. Congress, with an assist from the state of Nevada—and principally through the efforts of Prentis Hale, president of the Organizing Committee. The work was done, with Willy Schaeffler and the tremendously able mountain men chopping and blasting mile after mile of ski runs and trails through the Squaw Valley wilderness.
On the valley floor similar heroic efforts were performed by the Olympic people and their building contractors. By the time the first contestants arrived for the North Americans last week, all the buildings in the Olympic village but the reception center and the athletes' dining hall were finished and ready to house the contestants, if under somewhat Spartan conditions. The ski jump was ready. The speed-skating rink was ready. The administration building was ready. The press building was ready enough. The Olympic ice arena was nothing more than orange girders reaching up out of the snow; but beneath the snow the refrigeration equipment was in, and it was certain that the arena would be completely ready by next fall. So will everything else, including the now sodden, rutted roads which will be paved as soon as the last of the heavy construction equipment moves out.
Two days before the first event, life in Squaw Valley was decidedly better. The sun broke out and burned clear and hot all day. On the valley floor a semblance of order began to replace the soggy chaos of the early week. Phone calls got through, people found other people, the California highway patrol arrived to take control of the hideous traffic snarl, and the ski racers started to gripe—a sure sign that the North Americans were approaching a normal state.
Schaeffler, the irascible perfectionist who at one point seemed to be trying singlehandedly to bludgeon the Alpine events through as scheduled, finally gave in to the rest of the race committee. The ladies' slalom was pulled off lower Papoose and put on next to the men's slalom on lower KT-22, so there would be one less slope to pack. The schedule was changed to start off the meet with the slalom: the giant slalom was moved to Sunday to allow an extra day to work on the long giant slalom trails. Finally, the downhill was postponed until Tuesday.
With their chore a little less impossible, the course chiefs and their assistants began to get the runs under control. Up on the high mountain, Nelson Bennett led struggling, foundering vees of some two dozen foot packers from the peak of KT-22 through hip-deep snow all the way down the 1,800-meter men's giant slalom. Then he took them up on the chair lift and led them down twice more. Next a crew of skiers sidestepped the entire course twice, and finally the ski crew side-slipped it from top to bottom. The same performance was taking place on the ladies' downhill only a few hundred yards away. The ladies' giant slalom course on Papoose was already under control.
Down on the slalom runs, the course setters—Friedl Pfeifer on the ladies' course and Stein Eriksen on the men's—herded their own packers up and down the hill, tossing ammonium chloride into the snow to harden it against the banging and churning of the heavy, sharp-edged slalom skis. By Friday afternoon the slalom poles were in, the courses as ready as they were going to be.
At 9 sharp Saturday morning, the loudspeaker announced that Stein Eriksen was in the starting gate, ready to come down as forerunner on his own course. And down he came, looking as though he had invented not only the course but the entire art of slalom skiing. Right after him came the first racer, Osamu Tada of Japan, light, quick, cutting cleanly through all the 59 gates, flashing across the finish in 67.6 seconds, the first competitor to race over Squaw Valley's official Olympic courses since the major building program got under way.
Tada's time held through the next 10 racers. Then America's best skier, Buddy Werner, came rocketing over the steep pitch at the top of the course. Werner is small, but very powerful. His skis chatter and throw up clouds of snow. He bangs into gates, skates hard for more speed and dives into his turns. Nevertheless, a gatekeeper broke the official order of silence to call out "Doesn't he look beautiful?"
He did—not graceful, not classic, but giving off the same sort of excitement that Mickey Mantle generates even when he takes batting practice along with other fine hitters.
Ten feet from the finish, obviously faster than anyone else, Werner staggered. His skis spread apart, one knee almost buckled, and he started to take one of the last-second spills that have cost him at least half a dozen major international victories. This time, however, he held, pumped once with his poles, then flipped them out ahead of him to break the electric eye timer in 67.1. His second run was even better—66.8—and Buddy Werner became the North American men's slalom champion. That afternoon Linda Meyers made an excellent first run, checked carefully on a conservative second run to hold off Stalina Korzukhina of Russia, for the ladies' title. Squaw Valley had been blooded.
But after his victory, Werner had a few sharp words for the Olympic brass. "They've got a lot to learn here," he said.
They do have a lot to learn but, according to the man who counts, they have learned enough. Friedl Wolfgang, the downhill slalom technical delegate from the Federation Internationale de Ski, looked at the slalom race and pronounced it good. Had he pronounced it bad, Squaw Valley's Alpine facilities might have been in for an agonizing reappraisal.
But Herr Wolfgang was pleased. "You see," he said, "they have three courses here that are very good: both slalom courses and the men's giant slalom. The ladies' downhill and giant slalom are good. The men's downhill on Squaw Peak is—possible. There is the long flat run at the bottom where your skis are doing nothing. It is on the borderline between possible and impossible. But we could say that the other five courses are so good that we could point to Squaw Peak and say, 'Here is where we will race.' "
He continued, "You need next year at least 400 men, well-equipped, good boots and good skis—not workmen—to pack the hills a month before the Games. And you must have alternate dates for the events. You see, in Europe we have alternate courses, so that if there is no snow down low, we can hold the same race up higher. But here you have so much snow, you do not need and do not have alternate courses. So you must have alternate dates.
"Now, that is what I say about Squaw Valley, but at the end I say, a big plus."