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.
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 après-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.