TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif.— EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series.
Last week Squaw Valley hosted the 2014 U.S. Alpine Championships that combined top-flight racing with a celebration for world-class Olympians returning home to Tahoe from the recent Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Hundreds of competitive skiers and snowboarders poured into Squaw Valley for the Nationals to compete against the best and to see Olympians like Julia Mancuso, Travis Ganong, and Marco Sullivan at their home mountain. A large crowd basking in warm temperatures and under bluebird skies cheered their favorite racers going for the National title. The only sobering facet of the festivities was the obvious lack of snow on the mountains, an unsettling sight in mid-March.
Forty-five years ago, on Feb. 28 and March 1, 1969, Squaw Valley hosted the Alpine Skiing World Cup races in much different snow and weather conditions. Racers had arrived a few days early from all over the world to train on the mountain for the World Cup event, but high winds and unrelenting snowfall at the end of February kept everyone cooped up in their hotel rooms.
The winter of 1969 was a stormy one, and the bad weather plaguing this third season of World Cup competition was simply a continuation of the preceding months. A series of cold fronts in December 1968 had blessed Squaw Valley with 105 inches.
The Storm King worked more magic throughout January and February.
Snowfall totals soared to nearly 300 percent of normal as a powerful jet stream drove storm after storm into the mountains. A juicy impulse that hit on Jan. 13 hammered Donner Pass with 45 inches; 10 days later more than 70 inches fell in 48 hours. That second system piled 75 inches of fresh snow on the Mount Rose Ski Resort, setting Nevada’s all-time single-storm record. At Donner Pass, snow fell continuously for 11 days and added another 13.5 feet to the pack.
During the 1969 World Cup preliminary races a powerful winter storm raged, and the thickly falling snow rarely let up. The world’s best skiers could barely see the slalom gates ahead, and deep, carved ruts in the soft snow made the course more challenging than the hard pack on which downhill racers usually competed.
Dick Dorworth, who grew up in Glenbrook, Nev., and raced for the Reno Ski Club, was Chief of Course for the Squaw event. He deployed more than 200 people to boot-pack the runs, but despite their best efforts the volunteers couldn’t keep up with the six feet of new powder. Ultimately, the overwhelming snowfall forced race officials to cancel the downhill event, the last scheduled World Cup downhill of the 1969 season. It was a politically charged decision vigorously opposed by several European coaches, but there was nothing anyone could do.
Despite the severe conditions, Chief of Race Fraser West, supported by Squaw Valley’s fleet of snow-packing machinery and troops of boot-packing crews, managed to prepare both slalom and giant slalom courses on the steep slopes of KT-22. West had cut his teeth racing for the University of Nevada, Reno ski team under coach Wayne Poulsen.
Fraser and Wayne were childhood buddies and West is still a close friend of the Poulsen family. After Wayne Poulsen bought Squaw Valley during World War II with plans to develop a ski area, Fraser West was hired to head up the first ski patrols when the resort opened in 1949. Luckily for West, Dorworth, and other officials struggling to host a successful World Cup, the skies cleared on the last day of competition and the skiers finally got a chance to see the famed KT-22 terrain.
MOVIE STAR GOOD LOOKS
Legendary American skiers were there, characters like Billy Kidd and Vladimir “Spider” Sabich. After the Squaw Valley event Kidd and Sabich turned professional and joined the newly formed pro skiing circuit. The dynamic duo with movie star looks helped popularize skiing in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s; Spider was the suspected inspiration (along with Kidd) for the 1969 film Downhill Racer, starring actor Robert Redford.
Billy Kidd won the slalom at Squaw Valley in 1969, went on to enjoy a stellar career and is still one of America’s most recognized skiers. Among his many accomplishments, Kidd was the first American male to win a gold medal in alpine skiing and was the first American male to win an Olympic medal (silver-1964) of any kind in alpine skiing. He was also the first American to win a World Alpine Championship combined gold, the first American male to medal in a World Championship slalom, and the only racer to win both amateur and pro world titles in the same season. Today the Stetson hat wearing ski god is the official promoter for the resort of Steamboat, Colo..
Stay tuned for Part 2.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog: www.tahoenuggets.com.