50 years of Heavenly: A chronicle of skiers’ dreams and change on the South Shore

Jeremy Evans
Chris Kuraisa, seen here in South Shore's early days, was the biggest reason Heavenly Valley opened for business in 1955. Kuraisa grew up in Oakland and moved to Tahoe with his wife, Dorothy. The two were high school sweethearts.

Editor’s Note: Historical references for this story were extracted from “Heavenly Dreams,” a publication that chronicles the resort’s history and supported by Heavenly Mountain Resort. Most of the information inside “Heavenly Dreams” was from stories originally printed in other publications and written by various authors.

Martin Hollay arrived in San Francisco in 1957, uncertain about his life’s direction. An immigrant from Eastern Europe, Hollay escaped the communist revolution and sought simple dreams in his new country.

An accomplished Nordic skier and glove maker, the Hungarian wanted a job in the United States where he could continue to work his trade. Unable to find work in San Francisco, one was offered to him in Los Angeles.

Skiing as a way of life would have to wait.

Not long after relocating to Los Angeles, Hollay drove to Lake Tahoe for the California cross country championships. The event was held at a new ski area called Heavenly Valley.

In many ways, South Shore was much different then.

Highway 50 was a two-lane road without stoplights. Traffic flow was controlled by one single blinker at the state line. Patagonia was a region in South America, not a clothing company with a retail store now in the Heavenly Village shopping center.

There were casinos, but they were single-storied buildings, not a quartet of high-rises that now symbolize Stateline. Parking garages hadn’t been invented yet, so gamblers parked their cars on the side of the road.

The casinos and Heavenly Valley were owned by pioneers – not publicly-traded corporations – and were run by people who actually lived in the community and cared for it deeply.

In other ways, though, South Shore hasn’t changed much.

Even then it was a magnet for dreamers. It attracted people seeking an alternative way of life, people who wanted to immerse themselves in the glorious surroundings. Earning a living was difficult, but people decided happiness would be their currency.

“After the cross country race, they took us up to the top of the Gunbarrel chair,” Hollay said. “From there, I looked around and (thought) ‘Hey, Martin, what the hell are you doing in Los Angeles?’ I knew right then this was the place I wanted to stay.”

Heavenly develops its roots

In August 1958, Hollay was offered a job at Ski Run Lodge, which was owned by Trudy and Rudy Gersick. The Gersicks were original partners in Heavenly Valley and gave Hollay free room and board and paid him $1.50 an hour. The Gersicks owned 20 percent of the ski area, while Chris and Dorothy Kuraisa were majority owners with a 40 percent stake.

High school sweethearts from Oakland, the Kuraisas had dreamed of owning a sporting goods store in Tahoe since the 1920s. In December of 1953, their dream came true when they opened the Tahoe Sports Center.

As is the case among many here for the long haul, once one dream is realized, another one follows.

Chris Kuraisa met a pilot named Bill Sutherland who was selling his two rope-tow operation known as Bijou Ski Run. Sutherland wanted $1,950 for the ski area and $3,750 for the adjoining property. Even though his original plans didn’t include a ski area, Chris Kuraisa made Sutherland an offer.

“I’ll tell you what, I’ll pay cash for the rope tows and I’ll give you $50 for an option on the property,” said Kuraisa, according to the book “Heavenly Dreams” compiled by Heavenly Mountain Resort. “I called my wife, Dottie, and she started to cry.”

“That’s our eating money,” she told her husband.

“Don’t worry, it’s gonna snow tonight,” he replied.

It snowed two feet that night and the Kuraisas enjoyed a profitable weekend. Dottie sold sandwiches and the couple raked in $483.

Chris Kuraisa, though, was a big dreamer and wasn’t satisfied.

Bijou Ski Run was located on an unpaved stretch of gravel road south of Pioneer Trail and Ski Run Boulevard. Its modest slopes provided decent skiing, but Kuraisa wanted to move the operation higher up the mountain, toward the 10,100-foot summit of Monument Peak.

Kuraisa sketched out a master plan, worked with the U.S. Forest Service and land owner John Keller, then began courting partners to invest in the expansion. Although he was seeking large sums of money, the courtship went smoothly.

Kuraisa attracted both George Canon and Philip “Curly” Musso, who together had owned George’s Gateway Club, a Stateline casino. After selling the business to Bill Harrah, the men were convinced Kuraisa’s idea was sound.

Canon, who was president of the chamber of commerce, agreed to 30 percent ownership, and Musso, 10 percent. With the money committed and a partnership formed, the Kuraisas, Gersicks, Canon and Musso each gave up a half percent to San Francisco attorney Hugh Killebrew, who drew up the papers. The deal was struck.

On Dec. 15, 1955, Heavenly Valley opened for business, with two rope tows, the second double chairlift in the country (Chair One, Gunbarrel) and the Pioneer Warming Hut.

Olympic exposure

Lake Tahoe exploded onto the ski scene in anticipation of the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. That same year, the first commercial flight landed at the new Lake Tahoe Airport near Meyers. The number of homes and hotels in South Shore multiplied in the years surrounding the games.

From then on, Tahoe was no longer a one-season summer destination. Other Tahoe ski resorts benefited from the Olympic exposure, and so did Hollay, the Hungarian glovemaker. He helped build the cross country and biathlon courses for the Olympics. The money he earned allowed him to buy his first home, a cabin in Tahoe Valley for $9,000.

“It was a little place – one bedroom, kitchen, bathroom; that was it,” Hollay said. “Fortunately, it had a little area for my shop, which I used for cutting gloves.”

Hollay then began a five-year stint working as a valet at Harveys casino. In 1961, he met his wife, Priscilla, a Harveys cashier. In 1962, he began work as a ski patroller at Heavenly Valley to earn his season pass.

Three years later, the couple built a bigger house across from the resort’s parking lot. It cost them $20,000. Hollay was hired for year-round employment at the resort. After nearly 30 years of service, Hollay retired in 1990, becoming the first resort employee to ever receive a retirement fund, courtesy of the Killebrew family.

Heavenly matures

It was around the mid-1960s when the resort’s ownership changed hands. It’s also when a dreamer named Austin Angell began his search for powder.

By October of 1964, attorney Hugh Killebrew owned more than 60 percent of the resort after buying out both the Kuraisas and Gersicks. Killebrew wasn’t much of a skier, but Angell, a Cal Poly graduate and avid surfer, didn’t care.

Chair Four (Sky Chair) was installed that year, high on the shoulder of Monument Peak, something the initial investor Chris Kuraisa always envisioned. Angell, Jim Gianotti and Jim Palmer became Heavenly Valley’s original powder hounds.

They used Chair Four to traverse toward the Carson Valley and experienced the steep and deep for 5,000 feet to the base of Kingsbury Grade. They also used Chair Four to ski Fire Break, a 3,000-foot line that ends at the casinos. Angell became the person Killebrew referred to as “Heavenly’s Angel.”

“Most of the people I know who are still in this town and I was ski bumming with, were college graduates,” Angell said. “We were smart about things. We knew where the secret stashes were. It was a great time in our lives. There are still parts of the mountain that people don’t ski.”

Heavenly’s tentacles grow longer

While Angell, Gianotti and Palmer ventured out of bounds, Killebrew was a visionary who wanted to expand the resort into Nevada. Chair Four allowed it to happen.

In the fall of 1967, Angell was part of a group that worked through storms and strung cable for two new lifts in Nevada. Then on New Year’s Day, 1968, Boulder and Dipper chairs started running. Angell’s efforts helped turn Heavenly Valley into America’s largest ski area.

The moniker was certainly true, but there wasn’t enough time to cut runs before the grand opening. So the first season in Nevada was all tree skiing. That changed over the next few years.

In the off season, Hollay, Sam Huber and Stan Hansen carried chain saws into the forest and cut ski runs. Once they were cut, the Forest Service wanted them to thin the diseased trees paralleling the runs.

It’s been said that Heavenly has the best tree skiing in the world. Hollay is one of the reasons why.

Angell and others may have been drawn to Heavenly’s powder stashes and trees, but ski racing was the sport’s biggest attraction. Heavenly hosted 14 World Cup events between 1967 and 1985.

The events were nationally televised and ski superstar Jean-Claude Killy won several medals. Always a promoter, Killebrew was thrilled to have Heavenly Valley in the spotlight.

A world traveler, Killebrew and his wife, Ellie (one of the original Doublemint Gum television commercial twins), would send post cards from the countries they were visiting. Instead of a ZIP code, Killebrew would scribble “Heavenly” as the address. Miraculously, the cards always ended up in Lake Tahoe. That’s how known Heavenly had become. But by the late 1960s, a new brand of skiing was poised to make Heavenly even bigger.

It was a type of skiing without shackles and one that encouraged style and flare. With it came an unsavory scene of widespread drug use and unruliness, things that posed a serious threat to the ski establishment.

The Hot Doggin’ days

Wild Bill O’Leary grew up in the Bay Area and moved to Lake Tahoe in the 1960s. He bought a house for $29,000 on Thanksgiving Day, 1969. Famous for his ballet style on short skis, O’Leary became a four-time amateur freestyle ski champion after picking up the sport in 1972.

Heavenly Valley was his training ground, just as it was for other freestyle stars such as Wayne Wong and John Clendenin. And The Face, a steep fall line of 1,600 feet that remains one of the best mogul runs in the country, was a natural venue.

Large jumps were built at the resort for skiers who would attempt back flips and double back flips. People watched from chairlifts in amazement. A small competition was held in 1971 and the U.S. Freestyle Championships came during the 1975-76 season.

Crowds of 5,000 attended these events, but ski racers weren’t enthused. Ski school directors were ex-racers and geared their instruction toward racing. Suddenly these loose souls came along and wanted nothing to do with gates.

“Ski racers didn’t particularly like us, but I didn’t have anything against ski racers,” said O’Leary, now 60. “I didn’t want to go around a bunch of sticks. I was too busy enjoying myself and doing what I was doing. We were kind of like rock stars.”

From 1972 to 1984, Austin Angell was a chef and ran the kitchen at the Christiana Inn, located across from the resort’s parking lot. One of the busboys at the Christiana was Clendenin, the national freestyle champion. After skiing all day, Clendenin and the boys would knock back beers and cause a good ruckus at the Christiana.

Another Heavenly Hot Dogger was Malcolm Tibbetts, who left New Hampshire and planned to stay for a single winter in Lake Tahoe. He was hired by Hollay in 1972 on the ski patrol and never left.

“I did come here to be a ski bum, but I didn’t really fit the image of a ski bum because I had grown up in a ski town,” said the 57-year-old Tibbetts, who retired three years ago as Heavenly’s Vice President of Mountain Operations. “Hot Dogging was a really big deal, but there were a lot of drugs. I remember seeing guys doing a back flip, then taking a hit off a joint. It just got crazy. People were doing drugs and using them while doing dangerous things on the mountain.”

A handful of skiers became paraplegics from Hot Dog skiing. The era officially ended in 1980 when insurance companies banned resorts from allowing freestyle events. Now skiers have to be certified to do back flips.

With Hot Dog skiing dead, O’Leary had to find work. For the past 25 years, he’s driven equipment trucks for rock ‘n’ roll bands, touring with the likes of the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin and most recently, NSYNC.

Tragedy in the Heavenly family

On Aug. 27, 1977, about three years before freestyle skiing died, Hugh Killebrew and three other resort employees were killed in a plane crash near Echo Summit.

Killebrew’s son, Bill Killebrew, a then-recent business school graduate of the University of California, was one of the first civilians on the scene. He saw the wreckage off Highway 50 and immediately recognized his dad’s plane.

Hugh Killebrew had a reputation being tough and hard, but he was widely respected. His death touched the entire South Shore.

“He was one of the mainstays of the community who could be an egotistical jerk sometimes, but I liked him a lot,” Angell said. “A lot of people had mixed emotions about Hugh, but they were all devastated when he was killed. It’s like the president. Whether you like somebody or not, you’re upset.”

At 23, Bill Killebrew assumed control of the resort. A former youth ski racer with the Heavenly Blue Angels, he learned a lot from his dad. But the resort was experiencing two consecutive drought years and was millions of dollars in debt.

Bill Killebrew began focusing on snowmaking capabilities. Tibbetts and others tinkered with different systems and, by the early 1980s, Heavenly Valley had 65 percent snowmaking coverage.

With a stroke of good luck and several wet winters, Bill Killebrew had the resort out of debt in 1987, 10 years after bankruptcy was a possibility. It was now time to sell.

“We were much more successful than I ever dreamed we could be,” Bill Killebrew said in the “Heavenly Dreams” publication. “But the effort took a lot of my youth.”

Heavenly becomes a big business

In 1990, Bill Killebrew and his partners sold Heavenly Valley to the Kamori Kanko Company of Japan. The resort was renamed Heavenly. The resort changed hands again in 1997, when Les Otten’s American Skiing Company was expanding from its East Coast headquarters.

Within years, American Skiing Company was millions of dollars in debt and, in 2002, Heavenly was acquired by Vail Resorts, Inc. for $102 million, a steal by industry standards. Both ski corporations started off being traded on the New York Stock Exchange, marking a new age for ski resorts.

By the turn of the century, Stateline’s biggest casinos were multi-storied and Highway 50 was a four-lane road. A gondola began operating in 2000 and a $250 million village sprouted up around it.

On the surface, South Shore and Heavenly have indeed changed in the past five decades. But infrastructure has done little to dampen the spirit of Hollay and others who make up Heavenly’s soul.

In 1997, the year Heavenly became a traded commodity, Hollay woke up with an idea. Ever since Hugh Killebrew died in 1977, his skis had been leaning on Hollay’s fence.

“I thought ‘They have Killebrew Canyon and I have Killebrew’s skis out here,'” Hollay recalled. “On top of Killebrew Canyon is a huge rock. I thought his skis belonged on the rock.”

Hollay packed a ladder, batteries and a drill, then ventured over to Killebrew Canyon, one of Heavenly’s two expert areas. He was only able to get a fraction of inch into the huge rock before a ski patrolman said “Martin, what the hell are you doing over there?”

“I want to drill a hole in this rock, but it’s too hard,” Hollay responded.

Two days later, the ski patrolman brought Hollay back to the rock. He had drilled two deep holes in the rock for Hollay, who then placed Hugh Killebrew’s skis in the holes, in a cross formation.

Hollay then told Tibbetts to call Bill Killebrew. He had a surprise for him. Tibbetts met Bill Killebrew on top of Sky Chair, then traversed with him across Milky Way Bowl and stopped at the large rock guarding Killebrew Canyon. Hollay was already waiting for them.

“They came over and saw the skis and Bill Killebrew started crying,” Hollay said. “Then I started crying.”

Heavenly Timeline

1954 – Chris Kuraisa buys Bijou Ski Run, a ski area with two rope tows, for $5,700.

1955 – Chris Kuraisa forms partnership with George Canon, Philip “Curly” Musso and Rudy and Trudy Gersick and, on Dec. 15, Heavenly Valley opens for business.

1956 – Two-time Olympic gold medalist and world-renowned skier Stein Eriksen directs the ski school.

1961-62 – Twenty-five passenger Aerial Tramway is constructed, opening the mountain to year-round sightseeing.

1964-65 – The Kurasias sell their 40 percent interest to a partnership led by San Francisco attorney Hugh Killebrew.

1967-68 – Nevada side opens with Boulder and Dipper chairs and Boulder Base. Resort also hosts its first World Cup event.

1972 – On March 2, Terry Neumann, 28, dies in an avalanche, the only avalanche death ever at Heavenly Valley. Dale Elser, Austin Angell, Tim Holman and Jerry Staley survive.

1974-75 – Chevrolet Freestyle Championships are held at Heavenly Valley, confirming the resort as a mecca for Hot Dog skiing.

1977 – Hugh Killebrew and three resort employees die in a plane crash near Echo Summit. Hugh’s son, 23-year-old Bill Killebrew, assumes control of the resort.

1978-79 – East Peak, Boulder and Stagecoach lodges built on Nevada side.

1988-89 – Heavenly’s first express chair, Comet, installed on Nevada side.

1990-91 – Bill Killebrew sells resort to Kamori Kanko Company of Japan. The resort is now called “Heavenly.”

1997 – Heavenly is acquired by Les Otten of American Skiing Company.

1998 – On Jan. 5, entertainer and Congressman Sonny Bono dies after hitting a tree on the Nevada side. He was 62.

2000 – The Gondola at Heavenly begins operation.

2001 – Ground breaks on the Heavenly Village.

2002 – Vail Resorts, Inc., acquires Heavenly from financially strapped American Skiing Company.

Source: “Heavenly Dreams”

Then and now: Heavenly full-day adult lift ticket

1955: $4

2005: $70

Note: Early season, holiday season and late season prices vary.

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