Chapter One
Men Who Love Mountains

Wayne Poulsen

The dirt road from Truckee to Tahoe City at the north end of Lake Tahoe lay covered with snow in the winter of 1931, when Wayne Poulsen, a young ski competitor from Reno, made his way along the Truckee River to a ski meet on Olympic Hill, overlooking Lake Tahoe in Tahoe City. Before the canyon narrowed, he stopped to look west at the mountains rising above what appeared to be a great valley, and he wondered what lay beyond.

Having fashioned his first pair of seven-foot-long skis from Oregon pine when he was eleven and having thoroughly explored the mountains around Lake Tahoe—first as a Boy Scout and later as an assistant to James Church on their annual snow surveys around the lake—Poulsen was an accomplished skier and an experienced outdoorsman by the time he was sixteen.

Wendell Robie founded the Auburn Ski Club in 1929, providing the impetus for recreational and competitive skiing in the Northern Sierra. The club organized jumping and cross-country ski meets throughout the 1930s at Hirschdale, close to the railroad tracks near Truckee, and on a scaffold jump at Hilltop by the Truckee River. Poulsen often traveled by train from Reno (the only way to get there in winter) to jump at these meets with his friend and teammate Marti Arrougé.

When he told Marti about the mountains west of the road between Truckee and Lake Tahoe, Marti told him that his parents, who were Basque, brought hundreds of sheep to graze in a meadow there at the foot of the mountains. He described a campsite and creek where they spent every summer since he was a small child, and he promised to show Poulsen the valley.

In the summer of 1931, Arrougé took Poulsen into the valley to fish in a stream that meandered through the meadow. It was called Squaw Valley, so named for the many Washoe women found in the valley during the summer months while their men were up in the mountains hunting.

The following summer, Poulsen returned for another look at the granite peaks rising at the far end of the meadow, but before he could plot a route into those mountains, he was turned back by a gun-toting cowboy from the Smith Ranch whose family had been in the valley since 1862. Undeterred, Poulsen retreated along the creek, catching his limit of twenty-five trout on the way. The next day, he returned, took a different route up into the mountains, got a better look and caught another limit. Squaw Valley was in his heart and on his mind.

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Poulsen and His Valley

In 1943, Poulsen purchased 640 acres from Southern Pacific at the head of the valley—the place he and Sandy and their growing family headed whenever he was on leave. They camped there by a rushing stream that leaped over granite boulders in a series of falls and pools from the mountains above.

In 1947, the Poulsens built their home on Squaw Valley Road, completing it in time for Christmas dinner, which was cooked in the fireplace with snow blowing through glassless windows. They had no running water, no electricity and no plumbing, but they were home, surrounded by the land and the mountains they loved.

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Reily and His Valley

On a warm summer day in August 1957, John McClintic Reily rode out from the Squaw Valley stables with his twenty-one-year-old son John Jr. across the meadow and up a steep, rocky trail, letting their horses pick their way to the top of KT-22. They stopped in the shade of a grove of pines and looked back at the meadow, the empty parking lot and the small lodge at the head of the valley. Empty chairs hung motionless in a windless sky. “Come see this,” Reily said to his son. Holding his reins in one hand, he pointed in the opposite direction, to the southwest, where a pristine valley fell away below a protective ridge of high peaks.

A few splotches of green hinted of aspen groves and small meadows fed by alpine springs and a creek that carried melting snow from the cirques high in the mountains down the valley and out of sight. “I think that could be a good ski area,” he said. “With all of the activity going on in Squaw—the Olympics and all the stuff they are going to build—I’ll bet this valley would be a good place to ski.”

On the way back down the mountain, Reily told his son that skiing in California would be forever changed by the Olympics—better roads, more accommodations, more people living year around in the North Tahoe area—not to mention all the publicity. He described his vision of a ski area that would eschew the glitz and glamour of Squaw. Instead, it would be “a skier’s ski area—just fine skiing without a lot of development, planned by skiers with an emphasis on families.”

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Alex Cushing and His Ski Area

Squaw Valley’s grand opening was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day 1949. Alex and Justine Cushing greeted their guests in front of the fireplace in Bar One of the almost completed lodge. Wearing his customary turtleneck under a tweed jacket and a slightly lopsided grin (caused by a partial paralysis when, as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, he collapsed after a sixty-hour mission with no sleep), he told no one that union workers had stopped construction on the lodge just days before the opening, resulting in his having to hire strikebreakers to finish the job. Nor did he tell them that he had to repair the plumbing himself, that only one toilet was working and that there was no running water. Years later, in an interview with Time magazine, Cushing revealed additional horrors. “That night, everything went wrong,” he said. “There was no dinner until 10 p.m.” One of their daughters broke her leg, and the family dog was run over.

Undaunted and underfinanced, Cushing pressed on. The fifty-room lodge reopened for the Christmas holidays, and Chair One, “the world’s largest ski lift,” carried skiers up Squaw Peak.

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Why not Squaw?

During its first five years of operation, avalanches plagued the valley. Floods closed the lodge twice; and on four occasions, washed out bridges and the dirt road, isolating the ski area from public access, and in 1955, the lodge burned to the ground.

In spite of these setbacks (or because of them), Cushing did not give up. He needed some positive press. In 1954, he read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that Reno, Nevada, was being considered as a site for the 1960 Olympics, and he wondered, “Why not Squaw?” Although it was highly unlikely Squaw could qualify with such limited facilities, at least it would get Squaw’s name in the paper associated with something other than floods, fires and avalanches.

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Chapter 13
Nightmare to Olympic Dream February 1960

Four days before the Olympics were scheduled to begin, a warm Pacific storm blew over the Sierra, lashing the valley with rain and sleet. Alpine competitors, eager to run the downhill, couldn’t inspect the course, and course setters worried that the five courses they had so carefully prepared would dissolve in the deluge. Wind gusted over 100 mph. Trees fell, taking power lines with them. Rock debris skimmed across the practice rinks. Organizers and officials huddled to discuss alternate plans. Legions of boot packers waited for commands, and snow safety patrolmen and women prepared for early morning treks to the highest peaks and ridges.

Wayne Poulsen looked with dismay at the parking lot on his land in the western end of the meadow. Months ago, when he learned that the planning committee was going to pave 130 acres for a parking lot, he convinced them that a better solution would be to compact the snow and mix in a layer of sawdust on top—a great idea, as long as the ground was frozen. Now, the day before thousands of cars would arrive for the opening ceremonies, the parking lot was thawing into 130 acres of mud.

On February 17, the night before the opening ceremonies, temperatures dropped, and the parking lot froze. Rain turned to snow and covered the race courses, swirled in gusts through the valley and obliterated the road. U.S. Vice-president and Mrs. Nixon, unable to arrive by helicopter as planned, crept along with the masses in a stop-and-go slog of cars making their way into the valley to Blyth Arena, where they joined hundreds of hooded spectators groping their way through the blizzard to their seats in the ice arena.

At 1 pm, just one hour behind schedule, the athletes followed their flag-bearers into the arena and stood in groups under the vast ceiling, as snow flew by outside.

While Vice President Nixon declared the games open; all eyes looked up to Papoose Peak. The snow had stopped; the sky cleared, fireworks exploded, and thousands of balloons and pigeons (doves of peace) rose up into a blue sky.