For the past 15 years the center of gravity of U.S. skiing has been shifting away from the bustling, middle-aged resorts of New England to the tall mountains of the West. Towns like Aspen, Colo., until 1946 no more than ghostly mining camps, are now among the richest and most urbane of winter resorts. As for pure skiing, most well-traveled winter tourists agree that the best powder in the country is to be found at Alta, Utah (see cover), where less than four feet of cover by Thanksgiving is considered an alarmingly poor start for the season.
Now, as the winter of 1959-60 gets under way, there is strong evidence that a further and perhaps ultimate shift has taken place and that the heartland of American skiing may well be among the ragged peaks and vast bowls of California's High Sierras. Until mid-century these peaks—barely pitted by the gold seekers, the lumbermen and the highway builders—stood aloof, one of the last great wildernesses in the whole domesticated portion of North America. Then came the ski fever of the 1950s, climaxed by the award of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games to a once-deserted Sierra meadow called Squaw Valley. Today these mountains are stuffed with Pomalifts and sewage systems, stretch pants and parking lots. The very map (above) bears witness to the triumph of civilization as the Poker Flats and Rattlesnake Peaks of yesterday find themselves flanked by the likes of the Sugar Bowl resort's Mount Disney—named for Walt, a stockholder. At least a score of other resorts have sprung up in the area, with a new one opening every year or so. All have certain physical similarities: rugged if rarely spectacular peaks mantled with ponderosa pine and fir; high valley floors making long downhill runs a rarity; plenty of California sun to make good spring corn snow; and snow, tons of snow from November to July or August.
Sierra storms can last for days, even weeks, and when they rage human locomotion ceases. Most of the ski resorts are within a few miles of the Donner Pass, named for the trapped emigrant party which turned cannibal after a blizzard no worse than the usual. Not many years ago the valetudinarian passengers on a streamliner were blocked and suffered there for several days. In 1952 10 feet of snow came down on the parking lot at Squaw Valley. Plows navigating blind through the drifts demolished many cars and reaped a harvest of lawsuits.
Actually, these mountains saw the true birth of American skiing. Long before the first tows were in operation in New England, a power-driven endless chain on a Truckee, Calif. hillside would pull up any skier who hitched his pole to it. Generations before that, the Scandinavian-born miners and loggers of Plumas and Lassen counties were traveling on homemade 15-foot "long boards" and holding races—straight downhill ones, because with a single braking pole it was impractical to turn. Bill Berry, the Reno divorce correspondent of the New York Daily News who doubles as the historian of western skiing, claims that these races antedate any recorded competitions in Norway, which would make California the birthplace of all ski racing; and he leads pilgrimages to the grave of Snowshoe Thomson, who carried the U.S. mail from Hangtown to Genoa when all other communication failed in the 1850s.
November 23, 1959
The oldtimers had the slopes pretty much to themselves until the mid-1980s, when the modern era began in Yosemite National Park. Don Tresidder, later president of Stanford University, was then working for his father-in-law's Yosemite Park and Curry Co., which runs most of the facilities in the park. The facilities were open only in the summer, and Tresidder reasoned that if they were kept open in the winter they might improve the year-round figures, even if there was very little business. He had to brave the disapproval of the orange growers, who thought it might ruin California to have the word snow associated with it, but he went ahead and chose his slopes. The ski slopes were 15 miles from park headquarters, at Badger Pass, and to the western skiers of that epoch they looked high enough, though they have shrunk since. The necessary trails were cut under the watchful eyes of the Department of the Interior, which is said to know every tree in the park by a pet name. A double-sled arrangement known as the Queen Mary was attached to a rope to take up 20 or so skiers at a time. This has grown to three T bars, with vertical rises of between 300 and 650 feet, and a rope tow.
In the valley are accommodations for every purse: cabins, bungalows, fairly cheap rooms in the new Yosemite Lodge, fairly expensive ones in the Ahwahnee Hotel. The Ahwahnee was built for $1.5 million in 1927, the last of the old-style hotels put up in this region for the patriarchs of San Francisco society and their families. The dining room, modeled after a Plantagenet castle, is 60-odd feet high; public rooms and recreation rooms, movie rooms and ping-pong rooms open their rich incrustations one to the other like so many Carlsbad Caverns; and, unlike those of any other ski resort in the area, the walls are thick enough so that you do not have to share the secrets of your neighbors' bedroom and the bitterness of their apr√®s-ski conversations: "You disgraced me on the slopes today.... Perhaps if you'd kept your eyes on the hill instead of on that creature in her yellow stretch pants.... So go ahead and burn your skis, they only cost me 200 bucks...."
When Yosemite, with its predominantly family-style carriage trade, became too confining to the bright young skiers of the '30s, a new resort with the West's first chair lift was opened at the Sugar Bowl, in Norden, a few miles west of the Donner Summit. The founders were country-club people from Burlingame and other centers of West Coast wealth, and to this day the place bears an upper-class cachet.
Besides the main lodge there are about 30 private houses in the valley, serviced by the lodge staff. The Bowl is several hundred yards from Highway 40 and is reached by the Magic Carpet, a grandiose aerial tramway built by Jerome Hill, of the railroad Hills, at his personal expense shortly after World War II.
There are two mountains at the Bowl: Lincoln, with a double chair lift rising 1,600 feet in 1½ miles, and Mount Disney, with a 1,200-foot vertical rise in¾ mile. Four or five trails sweep down from each peak, ranging from vertical-looking gullies to a long, slow beginners' run from the top of Disney. Facing northwest where the storms come from, the Sugar Bowl claims it can guarantee more snow than any of the neighboring resorts, and sometimes gets more than enough, as in the winter of 1957-58 when avalanches destroyed five of the concrete towers holding up the Mount Lincoln lift.
Financially solid, with a conservative and steady clientele and a good ski school headed by Junior Bounous, formerly an instructor at Alta, the Sugar Bowl has about reached the limits of its growth and, unlike its ambitious neighbors, has no vast expansion plans.
The example set by the Sugar Bowl was speedily followed, and a tight complex of ambitious new resorts has blossomed up and down the sides of U.S. Highways 40 and 50, the main highways leading out of San Francisco.
The one with a head start, of course, is Squaw Valley, 10 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe and named for the rock formations atop Squaw Peak, which in certain lights and seasons look like the face and breasts of a recumbent woman. This area was marked out as ideal ski territory by Wayne Poulsen, a Reno ski instructor, when he was doing snow surveying in the late '30s. His ambition was to build it into a quiet Alpine community, and he invited an Easterner, Alec Cushing of New York, to form a ski development corporation. Cushing's friends supplied the money. In 1949 the first lift went up, and when Joe Marillac, the Chamonix guide who is now head of the ski school, came for the first time in 1951 he was staggered by the peaceful beauty, the glorious slopes, the meadows and placid cows, the wild flowers.
It was not that way long. Cushing and Poulsen split over Cushing's desire to make the place into a St. Moritz. In the ensuing battle Poulsen was forced out of the corporation. However, he retained much of the private land in the valley. As for Cushing, the world knows of his exploits: how he talked the International Olympic Committee into putting their Winter Games for 1960 into what Avery Brundage called a hole in the mountains; and how he simultaneously hypnotized (the word again is Brundage's) the governor of California into promising to pick up the tab. The tab, as it turned out, was $15 million, of which California has managed to carry $7,990,000. The Federal Government chipped in $4,400,000, and Nevada gave $393,000. The remainder, hopefully, will come from the receipts of the Olympic Games.
Squaw Valley, meanwhile, has become typical California boom country, bulldozed, subdivided, overbuilt. Besides the Olympic structures and Cushing's Lodge, there are 260 or so private homes, motels, a shopping center—all going up on land sold by Poulsen's Squaw Valley Land & Livestock Company. The Livestock is a herd of cows that comes in the summer, but if the sawdust used for snow compaction at the Olympic parking lot on the meadow floor kills the grass they will have to go elsewhere.
Cushing's original lifts went up to the head wall below Squaw Peak—not an ideal skiing arrangement. The headwall at the top is both steep and challenging, but the lower stretches are long, mild slopes, known contemptuously as the "golf course." In preparation for the Olympics, however, a network of new lifts has been built on the neighboring heights—KT-22, Papoose Peak, and the saddle above Siberia Bowl—so that now Squaw Valley offers a tremendous variety of first-class runs. The crisscrossing ravines which point in all directions insure good snow almost every day of the winter. When the north slopes freeze, the south ones are soft; slush on the south means powder on the north. Even when the Sierra winds blow their hardest and the threat of avalanches closes Squaw and KT, Papoose is protected. Indeed, there is really bad skiing only when it rains, and then, if you don't mind getting soaked on the lower part of the lift, you will find snow on the upper slopes.
Accommodations on the valley floor have not kept pace with the lift facilities. The main lodge is designed for a small, high-class crowd and is overrun each weekend by hot-dog-munching herds. The sleeping quarters are converted barracks from a nearby air base—not designed for human comfort. The man who told Cushing he was soundproofing the rooms at great expense was not telling the truth. There are, in short, many things wrong with Squaw Valley, but the skiing is so good that its future as a resort is assured. How happy that future will be depends largely on who gets his paws on the state-built facilities when the Olympics are over. Brooding morosely over it all will be the great turquoise-and-brown elephant, the ice rink, which will cost someone a fortune to keep iced up in the bright, hot afternoons of late winter, when the skiing is glorious on the high mountain but everything on the valley floor is pure slush.
Across Lake Tahoe from Squaw is another ambitious development-Heavenly Valley. It was named, they say, by Mark Twain, though the only celestial sounds you hear these days are those of the dice and the roulette wheels at Harrah's Club and the Wagon Wheel, two large gambling establishments just over the Nevada state line a couple of hundred yards down the road. The ski area itself lies just off the southeastern tip of the lake and at first consisted of nothing but a bunny tow below, a chair lift up the basewall of Monument Mountain and a couple of rope tows at the head of the lift.
The basewall is for expert skiers only. In fact, it is enough to give the beginner constriction of the heart to go up the lift and look straight into the scoured, icy gully pitted with boulders and stumps. By judicious sale of real estate, however, Owner Chris Kuraisa and his partners have got enough money to build more lifts from the top of their first lift into Heavenly Valley proper, which forms a large and well-protected bowl.
The future plans do not lack for grandeur. A vast lodge, big enough for conventions, with 350 motel-style units and a private lift just to connect with the parking lot, will be built next door by a group of San Francisco investors. So will a parcel of private houses, part of the great Tahoe real estate boom which is expected to give this unproductive corner of the wilderness a population of 250,000 in a decade. In addition to these sweeping plans Heavenly Valley has some particular psychological advantages, of which the most notable is the proximity of the gambling palaces. These provide not only a chance to lose your money in scenes of oriental opulence, but also high-class entertainment for nominal prices and, in the case of Harrah's Club, they provide free transportation to and from San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton.
As the ski business grows, resorts are springing up far from the regular routes over the mountains. The two newest, both among the biggest, are hundreds of miles north and south of the Highway 40-50 complex.
To the north, a small lift area on Mount Lassen has been supplemented by a brand-new giant ski bowl on Mount Shasta. It is largely the creation of Chapman Wentworth, a Dartmouth skier and industrial engineer turned small-town publisher, who discovered when he had bought his paper that nobody in the logging communities of Siskiyou County paid any bills when the logging stopped between February and April. His efforts got the communities of Dunsmuir, Mount Shasta City and Weed together. Everybody and his sister bought shares of stock at $10, and the county did its bit by paving a road to the bowl, which now has a double chair lift and a huge rectangular lodge-with-solarium-and-view.
Shasta has three principal handicaps as a ski resort. One is the distance from big cities—it is a six-hour drive from the Bay area. Another is a lack of nearby accommodations. Except for those who get one of the 20 rooms at the area's lodge, people have to drive up and down every day and go for their good times to the pleasant but limited facilities of the Black Butte Inn in Mount Shasta City or the Dunsmuir Hotel. A third handicap is the weather; on any winter day the mountain may be smothered in clouds.
On the other hand, the people running Shasta—Manager Joe Futch and Ski School Head Buck Martin—are young, enthusiastic and determined to give everybody a good time. The ski area itself is one enormous bowl, half a mile wide at its narrowest point; some skiers say that this vast expanse and the lack of landmarks tends to give them vertigo. Nevertheless, the bowl makes an ideal arrangement for families, where every member can watch everyone else showing off above or creeping down below.
In addition to having Klamath Indian medicine men on hand as snow makers, Mount Shasta can claim to be holy ground to no less than two California religions, the Rosicrucian (AMORC) and I AM movements. The Rosicrucians hold that the mysterious lights and bell-like sounds sometimes encountered on Shasta are indications of the continued existence of the holy city of Yaktayria, an abode of the Lemurians who survived the sinking of their continent into what is now the Pacific Ocean. The Lemurians are tall, shy, radioactive, extrasensorily perceptive and have knoblike excrescences on their brows. Their thoughts are mostly profound, but they take an impish delight in tripping up skiers unawares.
As for I AM, its gospel was revealed to the late Guy Warren Ballard on the slopes of the mountain in August 1930 in interviews with a supernatural communicant, identified as Saint Germain and accompanied by a panther.
Far to the south a new area, potentially the biggest of all, has opened up on the slopes of Mammoth Mountain, a rugged and picturesque site about 320 miles from Los Angeles. The six-hour drive is nothing to the Los Angeles skiers fleeing from the overcrowded thin-snowed peaks available to them in the south. Mammoth has enormous quantities of snow. It was reconnoitered and recognized as prime ski country by Dave McCoy, a racing champ and also hydrographer for the city of Los Angeles. His studies of snowfall led him to Mammoth, and in 1948 he installed his first rope tow there. Year by year the operation has expanded with the profits of the year before and whatever McCoy could borrow from the local bank. Besides the beginner's T bar there are two chair lifts, with a vertical rise of 1,000 feet, starting at points about a mile apart but coming together at the top. The newest chair lift starts at these terminals and rises another 1,000 feet to the 10,700-foot level.
Last year a group of rich Angelenos, headed by Lawyer Andrew J. Hurley, erected the Mammoth Mountain Inn, the most expensive structure the mountains have seen in a generation. It is a handsome, modernistic-Alpine building, with a steep-pitched roof and an artful design that manages to look both luxurious and warmly ski-lodgy. It can sleep 300 people at high prices—$5 for a dormitory bed to $40 for a two-level corner suite with sun balcony.
The inn has been crushingly popular from the start, but it has hardly made money. Its opening season was a catalog of all the mistakes that can be made in getting a resort under way. The manager, a skier himself, filled the huge establishment with a staff of eager sportsmen, some of whom were only dimly aware of the big-business demands of a 100-room lodge. "What do you know about running a hotel?" cried one of the chambermaids to Hurley when he announced the imminent departure of the manager. "You can't even ski." Out went the manager, and a new one came in who dresses in business suits of electric blue and keeps strict books. With this firm new hand on the wheel everything should be under control for the 1960 season, including the new outdoor ice rink.
A new competitor will be going full blast by that time, at China Peak near Huntington Lake across the mountains from Mammoth, with a 5,800-foot-long chair lift and possibilities of great expansion when the roads to the area are improved. All over the Sierra, in fact, keen eyes are searching the remaining white wastes. For it is generally believed that the western ski boom has only begun.
It is not yet a guaranteed road to fortune. Besides the vagaries of the weather, avalanches, blocked roads and the like, there is another kind of competition. The best season for Sierra skiing is generally in the spring, when the long sunny days and the cold nights produce acres of glorious corn snow. But the California sportsman, when he sees the wild flowers blooming by the roadside, tends to get out his boat and head for the water; so that though races can be held through the Fourth of July the season is generally dead after Easter. Another danger hangs over the heads of the operators: the increasing litigiousness of the injured skier who in the old days might get his leg crunched in a rope tow without a whimper but now has a tendency to bring suit at the crack of a bone. Insurance against personal injury claims is now the second-highest item on the operators' budget, after labor, and the premiums grow every year. Sometimes the injured parties have a grievance, as did the couple that was left dangling on the Squaw Valley lift when the man at the controls shut it down for the night.
Despite the hazards, the prognostication for the region is continued growth. As the standard of skiing improves, as the hordes of children getting free instruction grow up to bronze-beaked skimeisters, the demand is ever for new, longer, harder slopes. In response to this demand, wider roads are being cut, more grandiose ski lodges are being built and bigger lifts strung to higher peaks. If no one resort will ever reach the class of Zermatt, the whole complex of resorts in easy reach of each other will give an unrivaled combination of the variables in skiing—sun, wind, snow, slopes, clear and timbered terrain, powder and piste. Except when nature awakens and roars out one of her old-fashioned storms, this great wilderness will have settled down to being a winter playground.
MT. SHASTA SKI BOWL
RENO SKI BOWL 6
SUGAR BOWL 1 2 3 4 5
SQUAW VALLEY 7 8 9
LAKE TAHIE 10
SKIER'S GUIDE TO THE SIERRA
Smaller lift areas near Squaw Valley are indicated by following numbers:
1 RAINBOW TAVERN
3 SODA SPRINGS
4 DONNER SKI RANCH
5 HILLTOP LODGE
6 MOUNT ROSE SKI BOWL
8 POWDER BOWL
10 ECHO SUMMIT
11 SIERRA SKI RANCH