How a Turf War and Some Leftover Kegs Prompted a Legendary Spring Skiing Tradition

The history of the spectacular Cushing Crossing pond skim is as rich as it is dubious.

Photo: Tom O'Neill

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Pond skims are a rite of spring in ski areas across the country, but none have as rich a history as the Cushing Crossing at California’s Palisades Tahoe. After a two year Covid hiatus, it’s back and scheduled for April 17 this year.

This is no scooped-out snow trench lined with plastic to encourage a laugh and put a fork in the season. This an 80-foot crossing over frigid, murky water in front of thousands of cheering fans, with equal potential for valor and humiliation. For the past 30 years it has been the area’s most beloved event. But not many know how it actually came to be.

The Bar Fight

The event officially started in 1992, but for Jean Hagan the dream started much earlier. Hagan ran the bars and restaurants on the west side of the Palisades base lodge, including the scruffy Beer Garden and the more upscale Bar One, with its massive sun deck that intercepted skiers at the bottom of the mountain run. Tom O’Neill ran operations on the south side of the lodge, including The Plaza Bar, a few more steps uphill and around the corner from Bar One.

In the mid-Eighties, the resort reconfigured the mountain run into “Home Run,” which delivered skiers directly to Tom’s Plaza Bar. Hagan wanted those après skiers back, and she saw Lake Cushing, situated smack in front of Bar One, as the solution. Inspired by the ski patrollers’ end-of-year pond crossing ritual, she envisioned something bigger that would entertain customers and employees, and be a convenient way to finish off the kegs of Old Milwaukee in the Beer Garden.

Original Cushing Crossing event flyer
Hagan, who operated the resort’s Beer Garden, had Old Milwaukee to get rid of, and so the original Cushing Crossing pond skim was born. (Photo: Courtesy of Edie Thys Morgan)

Hagan’s concept was continually rejected by the safety conscious mountain manager, Jim Mott. “Jimmy was an old ski patroller and he just didn’t like the sound of the thing,” says Hagan. One morning in 1992, she woke up to the news that Mott had departed, and literally chased down the resort’s new sheriff, Hans Burkhardt. The gruff German with decidedly old-world sensibilities regarding personal responsibility said, “Sure,” signing off on the hastily-created proposal with two conditions: everyone wears a floatation device and a helmet, and “don’t kill anybody.”

Organizing the Troops

Hagan and her marketing director, ex-World Cup downhiller (and this writer’s brother) Barry Thys, jumped to it. Hagan devised the scoring system still used today, which worked off a 50-point maximum. Contestants in three divisions—ski, snowboard and “unlimited”—earned 25 points for a clean crossing, then each judge awarded 1-5 points for style. She recruited judges from an event she was hosting the same day, honoring local 1992 Olympians.

Thys booked the band and took over the sound system, teaming up with fellow downhiller Todd Kelly to rally and direct an army of volunteers. They borrowed life preservers, two safety boats and scuba gear and cobbled together a collection of helmets that were not in standard use at the time. Mountain ops prepared the track, ski patrol secured it and, the night before the event, I joined them to test out the track.

On my 1985 first generation Rossignol super-G ski—203cm shapeless yet svelte planks—I tucked from the top of the in-run, leaned back slightly and glided across the pond without incident, though without much speed to spare. It would work, but not for everyone. It was perfect.

Palisades Tahoe Cushing Crossing pond skim
The Cushing Crossing isn’t your regular pond skim. This an 80-foot crossing over frigid, murky water in front of thousands of cheering fans, with equal potential for valor and humiliation  (Photo: Tom O’Neill)

The event was a smashing success, drawing and delighting the mostly local and employee crowd. By best records (which are as murky as the pond), sixteen-year-old Dave Mercer won the ski division, while Olympic speed skier Jimbo Morgan made it across on his Cera F-juiced regular skis, fat skis, and snowboard to win the overall title and earn the nickname “Secretariat.”

Within a few years, the final, critical addition fell into place, when Tahoe’s iconic showgirl Debbie Dutton assumed her lifetime appointment as the event’s “Vanna White,” flashing the 25-point scorecard for a clean crossing. The crowds swelled to hundreds, then thousands. Alex Cushing, the founder of the resort, would emerge from the Blue House on the other side of the pond to watch the spectacle, featuring local legends and celebrities as both judges and, more enthusiastically, participants.

Palisades Tahoe Cushing Crossing pond skim event
Tahoe’s iconic showgirl Debbie Dutton earned a lifetime appointment as the event’s “Vanna White.” (Photo: Tom O’Neill)

As for the promotion, “We never really made any money at it, because it took so much work to put on,” says Hagan, who left the area in 2001. After that, O’Neill inherited the event for a few years until the ski corporation took it over.

The Highlights

The event rewards outrageous costumes or conveyances or, preferably, both. Shane McConkey, patron saint of goofy, ego-crushing events, participated without fail, often inverted. Scott and Robb Gaffney crossed as conjoined twins, with their inside legs strapped together on a monoski.

Palisades Tahoe Cushing Crossing pond skim
Legendary Palisades Tahoe skiers and locals Scott and Robb Gaffney successful skied the Cushing Crossing as conjoined twins. (Photo: Tom O’Neill)

Two hungover friends mounted vintage Fischer C4 220cm downhill skis with two sets of equally vintage Salomon bindings and entered under the name “400 lbs of Smelly Bacon.” Against all laws of physics, they made it across; as did the Yan chairlift mounted on three snowboards, and the tricycle on skis.

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Others, often spectacularly, have not: the flippers, the splitters, the snowboarders who sacrifice a clean crossing to spray an arc of water on the judges, and, so memorably, the woman in the bikini made entirely of resort stickers… that did not really stick.

The prize for the overall winner is significant—this year cash and an Ikon Pass—but the title also carries an outsized status. “There have been 30 Cushing Crossings, but at least 100 people have claimed they won it,” says Hagan.

The undisputed reigning champion, however, is Thys, who still sets up the sound for the event and ties it into his own act. After years of trial and error, which involved tying with a monkey, some epically hard crashes, and a trip to the ER, he nailed the perfect run in 2019. Trails of red white and blue flew from boot-mounted smoke bombs, as “Smoke on the Water” blared from his electric guitar through a 10,000 watt sound system of eight tower-mounted Bose speakers pointed in various directions.

Cushing Crossing pond skim
Barry Thys was crowned 2019 Cushing Crossing champion after successfully crossing the pond while playing the electric guitar and leaving a trail of smoke in his wake. (Photo: Tom O’Neill)

Due to Covid, the event has not been run since.

Hagan returns to this year’s event as a judge, while O’Neill, who has missed only three events in the past 30 years, will be there to watch. “It may or may not be the original,” says O’Neill, “but it’s definitely the granddaddy.”

This year’s Cushing Crossing takes place on Sunday April 17 at 1 pm, as always, weather permitting. Jonny Mosely and Johnny Haines will emcee with Christ Ernst “Uncle E” on hand for finish-line interviews. Thys, now retired from competition, will kick off the event with the national anthem.

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