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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.