Squawllywood

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In 75 words or less, here is almost everything you need to know about Squaw Valley USA: KT-22. West Face. Headwall. Granite Chief. Cornice II. Siberia Bowl. Mainline Pocket. The Chimney. Schmidiot's. The Palisades. Broken Arrow.The 1960 Winter Olympic Games. Daydreams. Hot Dog: The Movie. Blizzard of Aahhh's. Breathe. Butter. Greg Beck. Steve McKinney. Scot Schmidt. Tamara McKinney. Shane McConkey. Dean Conway. Jeff McKitterick. Brad Holmes. Jonny Moseley. Kent Kreitler. Shane Anderson. Darian Boyle. Jamie Burge. J.T. Holmes. Chuck Patterson. Robb Gaffney. Scott Gaffney.The Chinese Downhill.

Of course, listing these icons of skiing and Squaw is only the beginning. Squaw Valley has as rich a history as any ski resort in North America, the most talented roster of skiers, and the most raucous scene. No pool of pros and bros is more progressive in thought, style, or attitude. The terrain is legendary: a collection of diverse and disparate peaks, subpeaks, outcroppings, rock islands, terrain gardens, cliffs, gullies, chutes, molehills, bumps, and faces that reap ungodly amounts of Sierra snow and hold it Velcro-like to everything just shy of vertical. The lift system moves skiers quickly around the mountain, so they can rack up massive verts even while traveling from one peak to another in search of the best snow. The steeps are truly steep-hallucinatorily so for a skier accustomed to the boulevards of Vail or Sunday River-but they offer safe runouts and soft, cotton-filled bowls as forgiving as you could want when learning to handle the upper angles.

"There's no better place to be a ski freak," says photographer Hank de Vre. But a radical valley doesn't necessarily equal a happy valley. Far from it. For all the addictiveness of its terrain, Squaw is a wriggling mass of contradictions. The mountain is beautifully, alluringly steep, but its management is by turns autocratic, insensitive, and hostile. The area remains as much of a training and proving ground for up-and-comers as ever, but it has somehow allowed itself to be surpassed in the public eye by upstarts like Crested Butte. And skiing greatness aside, Squaw Valley USA is one giant can of political, environmental, expansionist, rule-breaking, fiercely independent worms. The high-energy, multitalented, complex personalities who live and play in Olympic Valley cringe at the cliché, but no single word better sums up the long-running Squaw soap opera than "Squawllywood."

The label so perfectly characterizes Squaw that even the locals use it. "People come to Squaw for the same reasons they go to Hollywood," says 23-year-old filmmaker Constantine "C.M.P." Papanicolaou. "Fame and fortune."

"Squaw has a competitiveness that makes you charge right from the beginning," adds filmmaker Scott Gaffney. "Some people think that's a negative thing, but I don't; it keeps the adrenaline flowing all day. People feed off one another."

After hitting a plateau a couple years ago, the level of skiing at Squaw has exploded in previously unthinkable ways. Just as Greg Beck blew minds in the 1970s by improbable leaps into the Palisades, Steve McKinney lit up the stage with his speed runs in the late '70s and early '80s, and Scot Schmidt went to extremes with his first descent of Schmidiot's in 1984, so is Gen Next elevating how we perceive skiing.

"Everything seems to have been done at Squaw," says Gaffney. "People have straight-lined everything, hucked everything. Now people are mountain goating-dropping from patch of snow to patch of snow. The day after a storm, you see the most improbable lines. What was rowdy when I got here a few years ago is normal to today's 14-year-olds."

Brash and outspoken, Butter's creator, Papanicolaou couldn't agree more: "For a while, skiing and ski videos were about skiing powder, sunglasses, and a smiling face. But today's kids really want to progress. They don't want to do the same shit as everyone else. Three-sixties in the middle of a line. Toin kickers. Really, really big hits. We're trying to be progressive, to do tricks off bigger cliffs than anyone's ever done.

"Freestyle was the '70s, and that's chapter one. Scot Schmidt came during the '80s, and that's chapter two. Chapter three is now, when we combine the two," Papanicolaou says.

It kinda makes you wonder about chapter four.

Squaw stands on the edge of its 50th anniversary with incredible promise and a dose of uncertainty. With Intrawest holding an option to buy a large chunk of Squaw's parking lot, the development of a full-blown pedestrian village at the base of the hill has the potential to transform Squaw into a self-contained ski biosphere-a winter-recreation ecosystem that offers something for everyone and finally stands more than a snowball's chance in hell of competing with Disneyland or cruise ships. The Village at Squaw, as currently envisioned, would fulfill all the upwardly mobile demands of today's skier: real estate "opportunities," high-end shopping and dining, plenty of places to stroll with the kiddies, even a climbing wall and mountaineering shop to lend a little Alpine credibility.

It would be a first for the Tahoe area, which, for all its natural beauty and mind-blowing skiing, hasn't boasted a cutting-edge ski resort since the 1960 Olympics. The Village would bring a cohesive, top-shelf attraction back to the region, which saw some of its glamour sneak off in the night to Whistler and Vail. Squaw would have something to offer the upper middle class besides the Resort at Squaw Creek, and the development might even cut down on the gnarly traffic jams that creep from Tahoe City to the valley every Saturday and Sunday morning.

Of course, no development is ever easy in the ski world, and nothing is ever without complications at Squaw. Intrawest is discovering what a number of speculators who've tried and failed to develop the base area already know: Squaw's owners, the Cushings, are legendarily difficult to deal with and that Squaw's long and acrimonious history with Placer County makes the permitting process Sisyphean. After several years of planning, the project is currently plodding through the regulatory process, and it's said that the Intrawestians have become so frustrated with Squaw that they've privately threatened to pull out. It looks like the Village will become reality eventually, but you never know. Squaw Valley has a way of both surpassing expectations and living down to them.

Take the new $20 million funitel lift. The first of its kind in North America, this aerial cableway is designed to ferry skiers up to the Gold Coast area two thirds of the way up the mountain even when the notorious Sierra winds are Maching. It's flashy and bold-a lift to brag about, a lift that could at long last open the door to upper-mountain lodging. But someone miscalculated the height of one of the towers, and instead of reengineering a new tower, Squaw simply dynamited a big portion of cliff and hillside. Considering the near-sacred status of the mountain with the local population, this was not the most politic solution, and the dust still hasn't settled.

The funitel incident was the latest in a long line of controversies that stem from founder Alex Cushing's philosophy of build first, pay the fine later. Long frustrated by bureaucrats ("Officials are programmed to do nothing," he says), Cushing has bulled ahead over the last 50 years to create his vision and let the chips fall where they may.

"I'm a risk taker," he says. "The great thing about Squaw Valley is that I don't have to comment a'tall on what we've done. It's there to see. There it is. I've been involved in every decision. Take a look at it."

Take a look, indeed, and what you'll see is that Alex Cushing has balls the size of California. Squaw wouldn't have been built, couldn't have been built, if it weren't for Cushing, nor would it have the same culture, atmosphere, or competitiveness. Curse him if you will (uh, get in line), but thank him, too. Without Cushing, there would be no Squaw, and without Squaw, the ski world would be a much duller place.

"Skiing as a way of life used to be a very romantic thing," Cushing says. "That's still true, but the big ski areas now, well, the public expects them to be like Disneyland. It expects a controlled environment, which in a place like this just isn't possible.

"But, you know, we didn't do any grooming at all for 20 or 30 years. When Vail started with these bright MBAs, who started grooming like hell, I remember talking to one of these guys, and he said, 'I don't care how much grooming you're doing, it's just not enough.' Well, in those days, we weren't doing any. So it was a little different at Squaw. But it was lots of fun."

Cushing pauses, and then utters words that could be a lesson for the entire sport. "Maybe we had fewer skiers," he says, "but maybe we had better skiers."

At the end of a scratchy April day, stuck somewhere between winter's bounty and spring's harvest, Scott Gaffney is cueing up footage from a fat morning a few months earlier. Sick lines and endless face shots squiggle by on his TV screen.

"Here," he points. "Check it out."

In the flat, gray light of a powder morning, the camera pans past a long, snaking line of skiers-the lineup at KT. The lift hasn't opened, but the queue is halfway to the parking lot, testament to the power of the super-deep snow and joyously steep slopes lying beneath what many think is North America's best chairlift. As the film rolls, arms wave, mouths open in silent shouts, and the whole motley conga line channels its energy into an animalistic "look at me!" Sitting here in April, as spring stretches languidly toward summer and we chill in a skid-country living room filled with the detritus of ski bummery, the buzz on the screen is still infectious.

Gaffney pauses the tape, points at the frame, and with the slightest whiff of satisfaction, says, "He won a gold medal, but he's still on the 300th chair." Way back in the line, lost in sloppy-seconds territory, is the flash of white teeth and telegenic good looks of America's (and Squaw's) golden boy, Jonny Moseley.

The raw footage rolls on, now to the mad rush for the steep slots of the Fingers. Gaffney's housemate Shane McConkey and trickster J.T. Holmes race for the lead, huge billows of snow in their wake. The first course of an all-day feast is under way. Off camera, Moseley still stands in line.

You could read a lot into this little slice of Squaw Valley winter. For starters, you could easily come to the conclusion that Shane is more core and Jonny is a come-lately slacker. Or that Gaffney should know better than to film on a flat-light powder morning. Or even that Squaw could do a better job of moving its skiers up the mountain on a powder day.

But while there may be truth in all these, the most important lesson-and greatest symbolism-is what it says about Squaw Valley. Despite all the transgressions and the fractious relationships, the skiers keep coming back, willingly, joyfully, to stand in line and take their turn playing on that steeply tilted palette of white. The rich and the poor, the famous and the infamous, the well-known and the unknown-all endure whatever they must for the chance to feast at the banquet that is Squaw Valley. It's proof that the mountain is bigger, better, radder, and richer than any one person could ever hope to be. And proof that even in the rockiest relationship, there's room to share the spotlight.get in line), but thank him, too. Without Cushing, there would be no Squaw, and without Squaw, the ski world would be a much duller place.

"Skiing as a way of life used to be a very romantic thing," Cushing says. "That's still true, but the big ski areas now, well, the public expects them to be like Disneyland. It expects a controlled environment, which in a place like this just isn't possible.

"But, you know, we didn't do any grooming at all for 20 or 30 years. When Vail started with these bright MBAs, who started grooming like hell, I remember talking to one of these guys, and he said, 'I don't care how much grooming you're doing, it's just not enough.' Well, in those days, we weren't doing any. So it was a little different at Squaw. But it was lots of fun."

Cushing pauses, and then utters words that could be a lesson for the entire sport. "Maybe we had fewer skiers," he says, "but maybe we had better skiers."

At the end of a scratchy April day, stuck somewhere between winter's bounty and spring's harvest, Scott Gaffney is cueing up footage from a fat morning a few months earlier. Sick lines and endless face shots squiggle by on his TV screen.

"Here," he points. "Check it out."

In the flat, gray light of a powder morning, the camera pans past a long, snaking line of skiers-the lineup at KT. The lift hasn't opened, but the queue is halfway to the parking lot, testament to the power of the super-deep snow and joyously steep slopes lying beneath what many think is North America's best chairlift. As the film rolls, arms wave, mouths open in silent shouts, and the whole motley conga line channels its energy into an animalistic "look at me!" Sitting here in April, as spring stretches languidly toward summer and we chill in a skid-country living room filled with the detritus of ski bummery, the buzz on the screen is still infectious.

Gaffney pauses the tape, points at the frame, and with the slightest whiff of satisfaction, says, "He won a gold medal, but he's still on the 300th chair." Way back in the line, lost in sloppy-seconds territory, is the flash of white teeth and telegenic good looks of America's (and Squaw's) golden boy, Jonny Moseley.

The raw footage rolls on, now to the mad rush for the steep slots of the Fingers. Gaffney's housemate Shane McConkey and trickster J.T. Holmes race for the lead, huge billows of snow in their wake. The first course of an all-day feast is under way. Off camera, Moseley still stands in line.

You could read a lot into this little slice of Squaw Valley winter. For starters, you could easily come to the conclusion that Shane is more core and Jonny is a come-lately slacker. Or that Gaffney should know better than to film on a flat-light powder morning. Or even that Squaw could do a better job of moving its skiers up the mountain on a powder day.

But while there may be truth in all these, the most important lesson-and greatest symbolism-is what it says about Squaw Valley. Despite all the transgressions and the fractious relationships, the skiers keep coming back, willingly, joyfully, to stand in line and take their turn playing on that steeply tilted palette of white. The rich and the poor, the famous and the infamous, the well-known and the unknown-all endure whatever they must for the chance to feast at the banquet that is Squaw Valley. It's proof that the mountain is bigger, better, radder, and richer than any one person could ever hope to be. And proof that even in the rockiest relationship, there's room to share the spotlight.

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