Sugar Bowl, California: How Sweet It Is

Features
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
Features
sb1299f.jpg

Enjoy Your Last Ride on Disney" read the hand-scrawled sign in front of the old double chairlift as I boarded for one final trip back through time. It was near the end of the season, with the Sierra snowpack turning to corn, a handful of skiers basking in the sun, and another chapter in the 60-year history of Sugar Bowl coming to a close.

The first chairlift in California was built just three years after Averell Harriman launched Sun Valley in 1936, and now it was about to be torn down. For $500 you could buy a chair, and for $1,000 you could have it made into a bench. Maybe it would fit into one of those lofts that attract the retro-loving, swing-dancing young cyber crowd of San Francisco.

Old chairlifts should never die. They should be restored and put on display somewhere, just like '56 Chevys and Buddy Holly LPs. Certainly that's a much better fate than the scrap yard. And this particular lift has seen more history than 10 ski areas combined. It has outlasted two wars, endured relentless blizzards, survived power failures and breakdowns and carried four generations of skiers up the 1,000-foot vertical feet to the top of Mt. Disney, including, of course, Walt Disney himself.

In those days, the creator of Mickey Mouse was nearly broke when backers of the new resort asked him for $2,500 to help underwrite the project. He had already spent most of his money on the animated Technicolor feature, Fantasia, so the best he could do was pay his share in four installments. His commitment to the sport was enough to get his name on both a mountain and a chairlift. But, amazingly, his successors in the Disney organization today refuse to have anything to do with Sugar Bowl, the chairlift or the mountain, as the front office suits have informed the resort. Never mind that Goofy and the Bowl were featured in a 1941 Disney cartoon titled The Art of Skiing. That was then and this is now. So much for Walt's legacy.

Ascending that lift for the last time in 30 years of skiing at Sugar Bowl, I glanced back at the Tyrolian facade of the Sugar Bowl Lodge, a rustic, wood-frame building with a rambling sundeck and oversized picture windows. It still looks much as it did when the ski area opened, and it remains the oldest alpine ski lodge in the state. Not much imagination is needed to picture former ski school directors Toni Marth and Alex Brogle, both Austrians, dressed in leiderhosen and stomping around the deck with their weekly song-and-dance routine of yodeling and schuh-plattlen. California money may have built the place, but the Austrians gave it life and character.

This season, as Sugar Bowl commemorates its 60th anniversary, a new high-speed detachable quad has replaced the vintage, slow-moving chair originally constructed by Riblet Tramway of Spokane, Wash. No one had much experience building ski lifts in 1939, so Sugar Bowl's developers turned to a drydock company in the San Francisco Bay Area. Donner Summit had a reputation as the snowiest place in America, and, in order to accommodate successive layers of snow, the designers created a unique feature-an ability to raise the upper and lower terminals. As things turned out, if they hadn't done that, the lift would have been buried more than once.

The Disney lift isn't just a lift; it represents the symbolic start of modern skiing in California. Badger Pass in Yosemite National Park was already operating when Sugar Bowl opened, but it didn't have a chairlift. The Sugar Bowl lift-a single-seater that was converted to a double chair years later-was such a sensation that it attracted not only the corporate and social mavens of San Francisco, but also the Hollywood glitterati. They drove along the narrow, winding road now known as Old Highway 40, or cocktailed on the "snowballer" train that chugged up the steep inclines of Donner Summit.

By far, rail access was the single most important catalyst to the development of the resort. Inspired by Union Pacific Railroad's successful eation of Sun Valley, Idaho, early backers of Sugar Bowl, including Austrian daredevil skier Hannes Schroll, approached Southern Pacific in San Francisco. While SP declined to invest in the company, it did agree to build a heated station between the east- and westbound tracks, inside the snowsheds at Norden, and to operate special ski trains to the Summit. Soon, the snowball express became so popular that winter weekends saw hundreds of skiers boarding at stations in the Bay Area and Sacramento.

One of those early first-class passengers was movie mega-star Errol Flynn, who arrived at Sugar Bowl in the winter of 1941 to learn to ski. Flynn, a constant object of female attention, was always on the run from his manic fans and did everything he could to be evasive. On Flynn's first visit, Norman "Red" Rockholm, who ran construction crews and motorized sleighs at Sugar Bowl, met him at the rail station and drove him to the nearby Soda Springs Hotel, where many skiers went for breakfast or a shot of black coffee in the pre-dawn hours before the ski area opened.

As Rockholm pulled up in front of the hotel, he noticed that the bar was packed with people, most of them eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of Flynn. The actor quickly ducked into the hotel, where he decided to stay for the night. But the next morning, new arrivals on the train had heard about his presence and were waiting for their idol to make an appearance. Rockholm was there to drive the tractor-pulled sleigh to Sugar Bowl, and Flynn hit upon an idea. "He asked for my jacket and my Dakota Stetson to use as a disguise. Then he had me show him how to operate the Caterpillar tractor," recalls Rockholm. "That morning, wearing my cowboy hat and clothes, he drove a large group of skiers to the mountain. They never caught on to the identity of their driver." After that episode, Rockholm and Flynn became skiing buddies.

Over the years, Sugar Bowl's rich-and-famous roster came to include Robert Stack, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Claudette Colbert, Clint Eastwood, famed broadcaster Lowell Thomas, billionaire Howard Hughes and British pop singer Petula Clark. Sugar Bowl and its environs have even been portrayed in several films, beginning with the early Forties feature, The Two-Faced Woman, starring Greta Garbo and Melvin Douglas. More recently, crews shot snow scenes for Arnold Schwarzenegger's blockbuster True Lies on the Old Highway 40 bridge just up the road from the resort.

It wasn't mere coincidence that so many VIPs found their way to the Donner Summit. From the outset, Sugar Bowl was owned by a corporation of prominent and wealthy San Francisco families, who saw the area as an opportunity to indulge their skiing passion rather than to make gobs of money. Many of them built homes around the Sugar Bowl Lodge, and successive generations have clung to the resort in the face of ski area consolidation. "I've always regarded Sugar Bowl as a special place for the carriage trade of San Francisco," says retired general manager Don Schwartz, who ran the ski area from 1965 until 1985 as a kind of country club with public access.

Today, there are 58 stockholders, among them well-known financiers, commercial real-estate developers, retailers with brand-name identity, and patrons of the arts such as the San Francisco ballet and symphony. They are passionate about skiing and about retaining the Old World flavor of Sugar Bowl. At the same time, they are eager to move ahead with major chairlift upgrades and other improvements, among them the addition of more homes and more hotel rooms. Right now, the Sugar Bowl Lodge has 27 rooms, and the owners would like to see that number doubled or even tripled.

"It would be nice to accommodate 400 to 600 people in our base village, but beyond that we don't have big ambitions," says Warren Hellman, a noted San Francisco investment banker whose family is one of the driving forces behind Sugar Bowl's current expansion. "My hunch is that we may never be a great destination resort, but we can certainly be a great place for families to spend their weekend time. Sugar Bowl has a unique place in California's history, and that's something that we don't want to squander." At a time when medium-sized resorts are being acquired by national ski corporations, Sugar Bowl, adds Hellman, "will not be part of a big ski conglomerate. We want to create a mountain lifestyle, not a mountain theme park."

No one would ever mistake Sugar Bowl for a high-profile mega-resort. To reach it, you drive through a smattering of vintage and well-weathered buildings at Soda Springs, the small community located next to the Interstate 80 freeway. Some of the old inns and hotels were rough-and-tumble places in the Forties, when they used to double as illicit gambling parlors (even Sugar Bowl had slot machines) and, perhaps, houses of ill repute. With a wink and a nod, sympathetic county inspectors usually gave advance notice of their visits so that innkeepers had time to hide any contraband.

As Old Highway 40 meanders up the hill, you see a vast, frequently dry lakebed called Lake Van Norden on your right. Cabins and wood-frame houses, many of them built in the early part of the century, occasionally poke through the snowbanks that can reach 10 to 15 feet high along the roadway. During the winter of 1968, a 45-day blizzard nearly buried the Disney and Lincoln chairlifts, stranded guests in the lodge when the road closed and required the resort to use snowcats to bring in food and other supplies from nearby Truckee. Fortunately, these days the road is constantly plowed and rarely creates an impasse for powder-hungry skiers.

Until a few years ago, just getting from your car to the slopes was something of an adventure. You parked where you could find a spot along the road or in an open lot, took a shuttle bus to a shed housing the Magic Carpet Gondola, then waited in a long line to take the gondola to the Sugar Bowl Lodge and its adjoining lift network. Like the Disney Chairlift, the gondola, which was the first gondola in the United States, is also an historic milestone. But the novelty of riding the Magic Carpet hardly made up for the time that was required just to take your first turns.

In the winter of 1994-95, Sugar Bowl opened a second base area at Mt. Judah, adding new ski terrain, two new lifts and, most important, a new access road and parking lot that, for the first time, enabled skiers to drive directly to the slopes. Last season, the area unveiled an impressive new Main Lodge building with a large restaurant, deck and ski school offices. With two back-to-back winters that brought lengthy seasons, the Judah area, with its huge array of new intermediate trails, has become a phenomenal success. The resort last year tallied its best year ever, with total skier visits reaching 300,000.

This season, the Bowl is still on a roll. The new Disney quad lift dramatically improves traffic flow on the main mountain, and though it shares the same general alignment as the old chair, it has a new base terminal that is closer to the Village Lodge and a top terminal that is on the true summit of Mt. Disney. Also, five new runs and a new beginner quad chair have been added to the Judah side (bringing the total lift count to three).

Now that mountain upgrades are on schedule, general manager Robert Kautz and the owners want to establish a racing program to nurture future Olympians. Last summer they tapped into Austrian know-how again by appointing Fritz Vallant head coach of the Sugar Bowl Ski Team. A native of Salzburg, Vallant coached at the Stratton Mountain Academy from the mid-Seventies through the mid-Eighties, when Stratton was producing one sterling competitor after another. In 1989, Vallant joined the U.S. Ski Team as women's head technical coach. His wife, two-time Olympian Kristin Krone Vallant, is also joining the Sugar Bowl staff this season, as is Jim Hudson, a former coach for the Squaw r be a great destination resort, but we can certainly be a great place for families to spend their weekend time. Sugar Bowl has a unique place in California's history, and that's something that we don't want to squander." At a time when medium-sized resorts are being acquired by national ski corporations, Sugar Bowl, adds Hellman, "will not be part of a big ski conglomerate. We want to create a mountain lifestyle, not a mountain theme park."

No one would ever mistake Sugar Bowl for a high-profile mega-resort. To reach it, you drive through a smattering of vintage and well-weathered buildings at Soda Springs, the small community located next to the Interstate 80 freeway. Some of the old inns and hotels were rough-and-tumble places in the Forties, when they used to double as illicit gambling parlors (even Sugar Bowl had slot machines) and, perhaps, houses of ill repute. With a wink and a nod, sympathetic county inspectors usually gave advance notice of their visits so that innkeepers had time to hide any contraband.

As Old Highway 40 meanders up the hill, you see a vast, frequently dry lakebed called Lake Van Norden on your right. Cabins and wood-frame houses, many of them built in the early part of the century, occasionally poke through the snowbanks that can reach 10 to 15 feet high along the roadway. During the winter of 1968, a 45-day blizzard nearly buried the Disney and Lincoln chairlifts, stranded guests in the lodge when the road closed and required the resort to use snowcats to bring in food and other supplies from nearby Truckee. Fortunately, these days the road is constantly plowed and rarely creates an impasse for powder-hungry skiers.

Until a few years ago, just getting from your car to the slopes was something of an adventure. You parked where you could find a spot along the road or in an open lot, took a shuttle bus to a shed housing the Magic Carpet Gondola, then waited in a long line to take the gondola to the Sugar Bowl Lodge and its adjoining lift network. Like the Disney Chairlift, the gondola, which was the first gondola in the United States, is also an historic milestone. But the novelty of riding the Magic Carpet hardly made up for the time that was required just to take your first turns.

In the winter of 1994-95, Sugar Bowl opened a second base area at Mt. Judah, adding new ski terrain, two new lifts and, most important, a new access road and parking lot that, for the first time, enabled skiers to drive directly to the slopes. Last season, the area unveiled an impressive new Main Lodge building with a large restaurant, deck and ski school offices. With two back-to-back winters that brought lengthy seasons, the Judah area, with its huge array of new intermediate trails, has become a phenomenal success. The resort last year tallied its best year ever, with total skier visits reaching 300,000.

This season, the Bowl is still on a roll. The new Disney quad lift dramatically improves traffic flow on the main mountain, and though it shares the same general alignment as the old chair, it has a new base terminal that is closer to the Village Lodge and a top terminal that is on the true summit of Mt. Disney. Also, five new runs and a new beginner quad chair have been added to the Judah side (bringing the total lift count to three).

Now that mountain upgrades are on schedule, general manager Robert Kautz and the owners want to establish a racing program to nurture future Olympians. Last summer they tapped into Austrian know-how again by appointing Fritz Vallant head coach of the Sugar Bowl Ski Team. A native of Salzburg, Vallant coached at the Stratton Mountain Academy from the mid-Seventies through the mid-Eighties, when Stratton was producing one sterling competitor after another. In 1989, Vallant joined the U.S. Ski Team as women's head technical coach. His wife, two-time Olympian Kristin Krone Vallant, is also joining the Sugar Bowl staff this season, as is Jim Hudson, a former coach for the Squaw Valley Ski Team and former member of the U.S. Development Team, who will serve as executive director of the Sugar Bowl team. With this group, skiing is a life-long obsession, and age is never a barrier.

Among Sugar Bowl's many old-timers is Ellie Sharp, a spry 93-year-old, who skied Mt. Disney-scaling the slopes in old bear trap skins-long before it was part of the ski area. Ten years ago, at the age of 83, she was invited to forerun the historic Silver Belt race course for Sugar Bowl's 50th anniversary celebration. She skis every year and has no intention of hanging it up any time soon.

Bill Klein, a dapper 82, also shows up once in a while. Klein spent a half-century at Sugar Bowl, first as ski school director in 1946, then as owner/operator of Klein's Ski Shop until he sold it in 1992. Now living in Incline Village on the east shore of Lake Tahoe, he has enough memories to fill several books. In fact, he's a walking encyclopedia.

"When I first started teaching, we didn't have grooming machines," he recalls. "I'd wake up the instructors at 7:30 in the morning and have them sidestep down Mt. Disney a couple of times to ski-pack the snow. After big storms, when we'd get four or five feet of new snow, we'd offer free lift tickets to some of the guests if they would help us. It would take a couple of hours to do this before we could open the ski school." In the early Fifties, the resort tried some jerry-rigged contraptions to replace the foot-stomping. "We'd drag old bed springs and chains behind a Caterpillar tractor, but this system didn't work too well."

Sometimes, Sugar Bowl had too much of a good thing. "I think the biggest snow year was in 1952, when it snowed for two weeks straight," says Klein. "We had 30 feet of snow next to the lodge, and the only way we could leave was to walk out from the balcony. The road was closed and the railroad tracks were shut down because a train had derailed, so we were completely isolated. The guests who were stuck in the lodge spent a lot of time in the bar-or playing Canasta. They got cabin fever, but they handled it pretty well."

Klein knows all of the founding families at Sugar Bowl. "I've witnessed four generations," he says. Though there have been more changes at the resort in the past four years than in the previous 40, Klein says the essence of the place is still intact. "Around the lodge it still has the feel of an Austrian village, with the same charming atmosphere that I remembered in the early days."

This winter I'll get on the new Disney lift, and I'll probably miss the rickety old double chair and its spindly towers. I'll think of smiling Walt and that $2,500 he contributed back in 1939 to help make a dream come true, something he was good at doing. Heck, even Goofy would be proud.

Sugar Bowl, California: Mountain Tour

Sugar Bowl, California: Almanacuaw Valley Ski Team and former member of the U.S. Development Team, who will serve as executive director of the Sugar Bowl team. With this group, skiing is a life-long obsession, and age is never a barrier. Among Sugar Bowl's many old-timers is Ellie Sharp, a spry 93-year-old, who skied Mt. Disney-scaling the slopes in old bear trap skins-long before it was part of the ski area. Ten years ago, at the age of 83, she was invited to forerun the historic Silver Belt race course for Sugar Bowl's 50th anniversary celebration. She skis every year and has no intention of hanging it up any time soon.Bill Klein, a dapper 82, also shows up once in a while. Klein spent a half-century at Sugar Bowl, first as ski school director in 1946, then as owner/operator of Klein's Ski Shop until he sold it in 1992. Now living in Incline Village on the east shore of Lake Tahoe, he has enough memories to fill several books. In fact, he's a walking encyclopedia."When I first started teaching, we didn't have groominng machines," he recalls. "I'd wake up the instructors at 7:30 in the morning and have them sidestep down Mt. Disney a couple of times to ski-pack the snow. After big storms, when we'd get four or five feet of new snow, we'd offer free lift tickets to some of the guests if they would help us. It would take a couple of hours to do this before we could open the ski school." In the early Fifties, the resort tried some jerry-rigged contraptions to replace the foot-stomping. "We'd drag old bed springs and chains behind a Caterpillar tractor, but this system didn't work too well."Sometimes, Sugar Bowl had too much of a good thing. "I think the biggest snow year was in 1952, when it snowed for two weeks straight," says Klein. "We had 30 feet of snow next to the lodge, and the only way we could leave was to walk out from the balcony. The road was closed and the railroad tracks were shut down because a train had derailed, so we were completely isolated. The guests who were stuck in the lodge spent a lot of time in the bar-or playing Canasta. They got cabin fever, but they handled it pretty well."Klein knows all of the founding families at Sugar Bowl. "I've witnessed four generations," he says. Though there have been more changes at the resort in the past four years than in the previous 40, Klein says the essence of the place is still intact. "Around the lodge it still has the feel of an Austrian village, with the same charming atmosphere that I remembered in the early days."This winter I'll get on the new Disney lift, and I'll probably miss the rickety old double chair and its spindly towers. I'll think of smiling Walt and that $2,500 he contributed back in 1939 to help make a dream come true, something he was good at doing. Heck, even Goofy would be proud.

Sugar Bowl, California: Mountain Tour

Sugar Bowl, California: Almanac