Kirkwood: A story of raw adventure and perseverance (slideshow)
One summer in the 1860s, Zachary Kirkwood secured a land claim in a remote, high mountain valley near the Sierra Nevada crest. All indications led him to believe that he had just stumbled upon nirvana. The 7,800-foot valley was ringed by soaring mountain peaks, odd rock formations and forested hillsides. It certainly made for a picturesque spot to graze sheep and raise cattle, but he assumed other duties a few years later when he began operating a waystation that’s now site of the Kirkwood Inn. Almost 150 years later, the valley Kirkwood cultivated now has a ski resort named in his honor. And Kirkwood Mountain Resort, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this season, has its own history.
Thirty-five miles from South Lake Tahoe, Kirkwood is at the confluence of three counties, all of them among California’s least populated. The resort is reached by driving on three different highways and over two mountain passes, the more notable of which is Carson Pass – the highest year-round pass on the Sierra Nevada crest (8,573 feet).
During major snow storms, Carson Pass can close for hours – if not days. In addition to skis and boots, a sleeping bag is not a silly piece of gear to bring along. There have been numerous stories from Kirkwood visitors who’ve slept in the lodge while waiting for Carson Pass to re-open.
So it always comes back to stories. Stories of epic dumps, white-knuckle commutes and ice-covered roads.
“Kirkwood is my mountain monastery,” said one resort employee who didn’t want to be identified. “The altitude, the terrain, the snow … everything about this place is special.”
For the resort’s original founders, their story of developing a ski area was littered with the same obstacles the current owners face.
“This place has tremendous challenges and they all revolve around weather,” said Dave Myers, Kirkwood’s vice president of mountain operations and a resort employee for 34 of the past 35 seasons. “During our two big drought years in the 70s, nobody came because there was a lack of snow. Then during big snow years, nobody could get here because the roads were always closed.
“To begin a ski resort way out here in the middle of nowhere, along a road that had never been plowed before, people thought the original owners were crazy.”
Unlike most other Lake Tahoe ski resorts, Kirkwood’s heritage isn’t rooted in Sacramento or San Francisco – Northern California’s largest metropolitan areas. Its linkage is with a group of flatlanders from the central valley city of Stockton.
About 100 miles from the meadow Zachary Kirkwood made claim to, Stockton was where businessman Bud Klein gathered the interest to fund an outlandish venture.
In the mid-1960s, he and a group of the city’s other prominent entrepreneurs outlined a plan for a ski resort and formed Kirkwood Meadows, Inc.
The first step was getting its plans approved by the U.S. Forest Service, which happened in 1968. Then it had to make sure people could reach Kirkwood.
Highway 88 wasn’t plowed during the winters until KMI posted a $700,000 cash bond in 1971, and then signed a cooperative agreement with the state of California for it to build two maintenance stations between Carson Pass and Peddler Hill.
The next step was for KMI to create basic services because Kirkwood was – and still is – literally “off the grid.” At that time, there weren’t any power, water or sewer lines to tap into.
KMI installed sewer lines before it opened in 1972, but even today the resort needs diesel generators to supply power to the valley.
Bob Weber, who hitchhiked from Los Angeles to Stateline in 1970, remembers a sort of backwardness about the place. He was tipped off by longtime South Lake Tahoe local Tom Royce about a job in the race department, moved out there that first winter, and has never lived anywhere else.
Weber, 57, bought a house for $37,000 in the valley’s first planned subdivision, a collection of homes tucked away in the pines off Kirkwood Meadows Drive.
He’s worked a variety of jobs to sustain himself, but none proved more profitable than working as a chain installer “before there was a four-wheel drive.”
“There was more people living here back in 1976 than there are now,” said Weber, who estimates there are between 25-30 full-time residents, a figure that doesn’t include part-time residents and seasonal work employees. “I’ve been to a lot of ski resorts around the world – Austria, Canada, Colorado, Utah, Sweden – but it’s always nice to come back to Kirkwood. It always has the best snow. I’ve never turned on my ignition and thought ‘I want to go somewhere else.'”
Weber seems pretty together now, but he’s not without his share of mischief. After all, entertainment takes on a different meaning when your house is an hour from the nearest stoplight.
One night when the power was out, he dressed up in a gorilla costume and carried a chainsaw into Kirkwood Inn. As frightened customers huddled around a dim candle light, Weber popped in and out of the frame, violently swinging his chainsaw around in the process.
Although Weber recalls a hunter dragging a buck carcass into the Kirkwood Inn – and someone driving a snowmobile through its front door – the most eventful night, in his opinion, was when patrons beat up the owner for taking away the pinball machine.
“We took the legs of the machine and beat that owner to a pulp,” Weber said only half-jokingly. “I tell you that Kirkwood Inn is haunted.”
There is, however, a tamer side to Kirkwood’s past.
When Carolyn Reuter-Cooper, daughter of Dick Reuter, one of the original co-founders with Bud Klein, moved to Kirkwood in 1972, there was a dirt road leading into the valley and a handful of houses.
The first day they visited, the Reuter family camped overnight at the base of Chair No. 4. That night, her parents told the family was moving from Squaw Valley to Kirkwood.
“I remember crying a lot, thinking ‘there is nothing here,'” said Reuter-Cooper, whose first job at Kirkwood was as a 14-year-old weekend bus girl at Red Cliffs Lodge cafeteria, and now works as the resort’s retail buying manager. “The first few years were crazy. We got power for Christmas Eve, but it constantly went out. Going to school in a trailer, with my two brothers and sister and I as half the classroom – and my mom as the teacher – was interesting.”
The Reuter family came from Squaw Valley, where Dick met his wife during the 1960 Winter Olympics. Reuter helped cut many of the runs at Squaw, and he went on to cut most of Kirkwood’s runs.
Chair No. 11 “The Reut” is named after him, the least the resort could do since he essentially installed the entire lift himself.
“He is the heart of Kirkwood,” Weber said of Reuter, a World War II veteran and a neighbor of Weber’s. “He was a trapper, a hunter … that guy is a mountain’s man mountain man.”
For the most part, Weber’s childish days are behind him, but prolonged adolescence isn’t completely lost on the 57-year-old. He skied 154 days out of a possible 154 days last season – one of the driest in two decades. And he only missed three possible days of skiing the previous season.
But as good as the skiing is at Kirkwood, these days a ski resort can’t survive on just skiing. With the help of new investors in the mid-1990s, the modern version of the resort began to take shape when plans were conceptualized for a village complete with restaurant, condos and shops.
The early stages of its village have already taken shape. But in another 35 years, it’s likely Kirkwood will have followed through with its original master plans, which entails developing all the remaining private property in the valley.
The valley, though, is basically already built out. Other than replacing existing structures, there’s not much private property left to develop.
So when Kirkwood celebrates its 70th anniversary during the 2042-43 season, the elements that define the place – the weather, the terrain, the “Rare Earth” as the resort’s marketing department has called itself – those will still be there.
“You look at the population of California,” said Tim Cohee, former general manager and president of Kirkwood Mountain Resort recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Name all the places that in 2020 will remain pretty much the way they are. This will be a special place and get more so with time.”
1960s – Bud Klein and a group of Stockton businessmen create Kirkwood Meadows, Inc., and the group creates plans for a ski area.
1968 – Two master plans are approved by the U.S. Forest Service.
1971 – U.S. Forest Service issues KMI a permit to build a resort on public land, and California State Highway 88 becomes an all-weather road.
1972 – With Bud Klein as the largest shareholder, Kirkwood opens for business with four chairlifts.
1973 – Chairs 5 and 6, Solitude and Cornice, open up the front side of Thimble Peak.
1984 – Chair 10, Wagon Wheel, opens and takes people to the top of “The Wall,” servicing 700 acres of expert terrain.
1986 – Chair 11, The Reut, opens up several hundred more acres of advanced and expert terrain.
1995 – The Telluride Group purchases a significant interest in the resort, but Klein remains a major investor.
1997 – The first phase of Kirkwood Mountain Village is completed, including The Lodge at Kirkwood, a sporting goods store and 19 condo units.
2000 – Chair 6, Cornice, is upgraded to a high-speed quad, the resort’s first – and only – express lift.
2006 – Farewell party for Timber Creek Day Lodge, which was built in 1976.
Nov. 25, 2007 – Kirkwood opens for its 35th season of operation.