Steeped in Sierra history, iconic Sugar Bowl ski resort embarks on 75th season
NORDEN, Calif. — It may just be the sweetest year yet for Sugar Bowl Resort as it readies to celebrate its 75th anniversary this season. The Donner Summit resort — one of the few family owned, independently operated ski areas left in the country — has a long enduring history with a continued emphasis on skiing. Since opening Dec. 15, 1939, Sugar Bowl has seen many changes, although the most important thing that has remained consistent is its culture, said John Monson, the marketing director for the resort. "The culture here is all about the skiing," he said. "Our mantra is authentic alpine adventure." Reminiscent of a small Austrian village, the Sugar Bowl Village Lodge and homes that surround it are similar to the alpine town Austrian ski racer Hannes Schroll — the founder of the resort — grew up in as a child. Schroll, a yodeler and daredevil skier, was the driving force behind Sugar Bowl's inception, according to historical accounts. He, along with a few visionaries, saw the possibilities of the mountain. When Schroll laid eyes on Mt. Lincoln back in 1937, he knew the mountain would be the perfect place for a resort. He garnered the support of investors, the most famous being Walt Disney, to purchase the land that is now Sugar Bowl. But it was Schroll's yodeling that was said to have sealed the deal with Disney to invest. In the Disney cartoon, "Goofy Goes Skiing," Schroll's yodeling opens the episode and features Goofy at the Sugar Bowl Lodge. Many celebrities and stars also have graced Sugar Bowl over the years, including Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn, Janet Leigh, Claudette Colbert and, of course, Mr. Disney. BACK IN THE DAY There have been many improvements to the resort over the years, but to hear someone speak about early days of skiing in the Sierra brings a true sense of nostalgia. Dick Brooding first skied at Sugar Bowl in the 40s. It's where he met his wife Connie. "We met skiing and have been married for the last 54 years. We raised all of our kids skiing at Sugar Bowl," Brooding said in a recent interview. He remembers back when there were no grooming machines on the slopes, an era when the skiers packed down the snow. "They didn't have the gondola back then. There was a chair that took us over to the village," Brooding reminisced. "If you didn't want to wait, you could get towed over by tractor with a 50-foot rope that had large knots for us to hold on to. It would drag in 30 of us who didn't want to wait for the chair." "This is the first mountain I skied and probably the last mountain I'll ski," he added. It's this kind of devotion to which Sugar Bowl owes it success, said Nancy Bechtle, chairwoman of the board of the Sugar Bowl Corporation, who started skiing at the resort in 1945 when she was 7 years old. Since, she's witnessed the evolution of skiing in the Sierra. "Sugar Bowl is about being committed to the great outdoors. There's no shopping and no movie theaters," Bechtle said. "You can't drive your car in the village, and at 5 p.m. when the mountain closes and the day skiers have gone home, kids play in the snow and people come out to sled. It's an authentic experience." She remembers when the only chairlift was on Mt. Disney. It was the first lift to be built in California, and at that time, you could pay 25 cents to ride the lift, or ski for $2 a day. Toward the end of the very first season at Sugar Bowl in April 1940, Schroll held the resort's inaugural Silver Belt race; the event became an institution at Sugar Bowl until 1975. Bechtle recalls participating in one of the early Silver Belt Races. "You had to climb Mt. Lincoln, side stepping up to get to the starting point," she said. "There were no groomers back then; the skiers had to tamp down the course. At one point I was a forerunner for the race. I'd go down the slope first and run it before the racers to check on the gates." After a long hiatus, Sugar Bowl ambassador and former World cup alpine racer and freestyle skier Daron Rahlves revived the race in 2009. This season, the Rahvles' Banzai Tour kicks off Feb. 21-22 at Alpine Meadows, before concluding March 14-15 at Sugar Bowl. EVOLVING OVER THE YEARS It was Jerome Hill who was convinced there was easier access to the Village Lodge, and in 1953, with his own money, he built the first gondola on the West Coast, which was only the second of its kind in North America. This changed the face of Sugar Bowl, as more skiers were afforded access to the mountain in a matter of minutes, and the resort was catapulted into the upper echelon of American ski areas. Rob Kautz, a surfer from Southern California, started skiing at Sugar Bowl at 19. He fell in love with the sport. Initially hired to work as a ski patroller after college, he never looked back. Over the years, he's been the director of Sugar Bowl's ski patrol team and mountain manager, and he currently serves as CEO, a title he's held since 1987. During his 30-plus years at Sugar Bowl, Kautz has seen many transformations. When he took over in the 80s, the resort was struggling financially. "It was during this time we needed to re-position ourselves in the market," Kautz recalled. The company built Mt. Judah Lodge to expand services to the day skiers. "This offered more intermediate terrain and opened up the mountain to all levels of skier," Kautz explained. The Mt. Judah Lodge and other big investments have paid off. Since 1998, Sugar Bowl has invested more than $60 million in upgrades and amenities. The resort spins 13 chairlifts these days, the most recent being the Crow's Peak lift, which opened last year, adding an additional 1,000 feet top to bottom to ski, and giving access to more backcountry areas, for which the resort is renowned. "We're the closet major resort coming from the west; 85 percent of Sugar Bowl skiers are from the Sacramento and Bay area," Kautz said. Recently, the resort invested $1.5 million in snow making equipment this past summer alone. "It's all about state of the art awesome skiing," Kautz said. LOOKING AHEAD Despite improvements over the years, the current drought has impacted and stressed out many of Tahoe-Truckee's ski resorts. But Kautz believes it will change. He studied the records kept by the Central Pacific Railroad since 1870 and sees that over 140 years, there have been other periods of drought. He thinks of himself as a glass-half-full kind of guy. Along with offering a unique skiing experience, education is important to the owners of Sugar Bowl. Currently, there are 450 youths on the Sugar Bowl Ski Team, and the Sugar Bowl Academy is renowned for not only its education, but also its coaching. Alpine Adventures operates out of the resort and offers avalanche safety courses, backcountry adventures and wilderness first aid, in addition to many other educational programs. Forging new relationships has been a plus for Sugar Bowl as well. These days, buying a ski pass at the resort offers you access to Sun Valley, Grand Targhee and Squaw Valley. And with the acquisition of Royal Gorge in 2011, Sugar Bowl continues to grow and partner to offer a full alpine experience for all outdoor enthusiasts. As the 2014-15 season beckons, Sugar Bowl has added a state of the art aquatics center, training gym and yoga studio to provide not only outstanding service to its homeowners and guests, but to provide excellent training grounds for its ski team. For Kautz the goal is to remain independent and financially viable. Sugar Bowl's niche, he says, is all about the mountain and outdoor recreation. Priya Hutner is a freelance writer living in Truckee. She may be reached at email@example.com.