The Face Rats
Tribune staff writer
In the south shore of Lake Tahoe is a steep swath of snow called “The Face,” which spills more than 1,600 feet from a wooden lodge to the lowest point at Heavenly Mountain Resort.
Like a cascade of white falling from nature’s faucet, this run is the only visible semblance that qualifies South Lake Tahoe as a ski town.
To the Face Rats, it is also the only run.
“There’s no fun in going up to the upper mountain,” said Tom Bork, a South Lake Tahoe man who has made the run several times a week for more than 20 years. “We just don’t go up there. It’s too boring, unless there’s powder. Some people just love skiing The Face and we found this lifestyle to be to our liking. It’s kind of hard to describe how it happens.”
It’s a lifestyle that is an almost absurd obsession, essentially confining oneself to a solitary strip of snow on a mountain that has more than 4,800 acres of terrain.
But it’s a distinct brand of ski bum culture unique to South Shore, just as the West Face Boys are to Squaw Valley’s KT-22 or those northern New Mexico skiers who velcro themselves to Al’s Run at Taos Ski Valley. And to judge the rationality of a Face Rat is to misunderstand the reasoning behind their existence, a once-flourishing existence that now appears to be leaning toward endangered species status.
It must have been a comical scene. A column of grown men, some with mullets, all with straight-edge skis, riding snow like a swerving noodle. It was a group of perhaps 10 skiers, all mimicking the person in front of them, threading down the steepest run on Heavenly’s California side, in a single-file line.
This group had not been injected with such confidence and style. It was merely exposed to it a few years earlier in 1970, when Jean Claude Killy won all three events at a World Cup event held at Heavenly.
“For that race they shaved The Face,” said 61-year-old Jerry Goodman, the oldest current Face Rat and member of that original group. “The Face was never cut or anything. It was just these horrendous moguls the size of Volkswagens. Nobody had ever skied The Face like Killy did. He made two turns and was at the midway. That was the first time any of us had ever seen anybody ski it that fast before.
“Then we started going faster and faster, all of us, in a line. We did it together. And that’s when people really started skiing The Face.”
What eventually sprouted from that scene has since become part of Tahoe ski nostalgia. It began as a story of ski bums who were happy with being called just that. But somehow, they became known as ‘Face Rats.’
“We didn’t invent it,” Goodman said. “It just happened. It was just a little cult on the side and everybody is calling us ‘rats.’ I really don’t know for sure how we got named that. There are a lot of different stories. In a way, when we started skiing in that line, we were like a rat pack. I kind of think that’s how we got our name. But the truth is, I just don’t know.”
By the 1970s and into the early 80s, the freestyle scene had overtaken the skiing community. Wild-haired 20-somethings and loose souls migrated to the South Shore, ripping runs and flinging their bodies off jumps. The emergence of the freestyle scene naturally attracted more Face Rats.
Soon, the hottest skiers in town were skiing The Face.
One of these skiers was Bork, a Washington native who moved to Tahoe within a month of graduating from Central Washington University.
“I had the ski bug in Washington. When I was in college, I knew that I wasn’t going to Seattle and getting an office job,” Bork said. “It was in my blood to go ski somewhere. I fell in love with Tahoe the moment I came here. I thought I would go back to Seattle and wear a suit and tie and get a job there. But I’ve never left. That’s the story with most Face Rats and most people in Tahoe.”
Bork, who now owns Sunbasin Landscape and Nursery at the base of Kingsbury Grade, immediately was attracted to The Face. He said it had everything an expert skier could want: bumps, steep, no crowds. In the early 1980s, he recalled more than 100 people who skied it regularly. Now he guesses there are maybe 30 Face Rats left.
There are two reasons why there aren’t many Face Rats remaining.
First, most of the original members have gotten too old and can’t ski such a demanding run anymore, or they have left the basin altogether.
The second reason is that the younger generation – their possible replacements – either snowboard or are skiers more concerned with competing for magazine shots in terrain parks than pounding bumps the size of Volkswagens.
“If next week, there aren’t any new people, so be it,” Goodman said. “What the Face Rats are is whoever skis The Face all the time. In other words, you don’t come once a month. You come four, five, six days a week and ski The Face and pound the bumps. Not a lot of people want to do that. What can I say? People change.”
While there may have been changes in numbers, the feeling associated with skiing The Face hasn’t changed for those who love it most. It still never gets old for Dave Sannazzaro, a meat cutter at Raley’s who’s been a Face Rat for more than two decades.
“It makes your life good,” Sannazzaro said. “People always ask me if I ever get sick of skiing the same run every day. I don’t because every run is different. Skiing is what keeps me going on those times when I’m really burned out at work. It changes my attitude. It’s also a great social thing. I never go to the mountain with anybody, but I never ski alone. And I always leave with a smile.”
Sannazzaro, 51, believes the continuation of Face Rats is contingent on attracting new members. However, there aren’t sign-up sheets. The club headquarters are on the mountain. Be there by 2 p.m. – that’s when conditions are typically best – pound the bumps, and you’re in.
That’s the only way. But he realizes the dynamic of the sport has changed and people just aren’t into that style of skiing anymore.
“We really did have a good little resurgence when the ski passes came down in price, but no women really and nobody new,” Sannazzaro said. “If we are just an era, then that’s OK. It doesn’t bum me out. I’m just here to make it last as long as I can. People are always doing new things. It’s my thing. It’s our thing.”
The original Face Rats from the 1970s are slipping quietly into senior citizen status or have left the Lake Tahoe Basin altogether. Now the bulk of Face Rats are between 45-55 years old, which is the usual age for parents.
But most Face Rats don’t have children, and coupled with the effect of skiing’s current trend, most members are skeptical about their longevity.
So will the South Shore ski legacy continue or fade away? Well, it appears that the pressure of breeding new Face Rats is now falling squarely on the ski poles of those with offspring.
“We were just talking the other day in the bar about how there aren’t any new Face Rats,” said Kenny Curtzwiler, 48. “I’m ecstatic that my kids are Face Rats. When they were younger, I always hated seeing my buddies fly by me on The Face. Now both kids are amazing skiers. They’re way beyond me.”
The baby Face Rats are 12-year-old Hannah and 11-year-old Marshall. Both are members of the mogul team for the Heavenly Ski Foundation and are coached by Jere Crawford, another Face Rat.
“Jere knows my kids are Face Rats,” Kenny Curtzwiler said. “There are a lot of kids who ski The Face, but they don’t do it every day like we do. Even when they shave half of The Face in the spring, my kids will still go over and pound the bumps. They will fight to get the very last chair. They love The Face.”
After a day of skiing, most Face Rats relax in the bar at the Heavenly’s California Base Lodge. Most of the time they drink beer, socialize, and reminisce. Marshall and Hannah Curtzwiler sit beside the elder Face Rats, sipping Shirley Temples and eating pretzels.
“I wish there was more of that, but the problem is a lot of us Face Rats don’t have children,” Kenny Curtzwiler said. “A lot of them are single and have jobs that allow them to take the winter off, like contracting jobs or whatever. They never found time to have kids. I turned my kids onto skiing when they could barely walk. Fortunately, I have the most beautiful and understanding wife of 23 years. “
Along with the Curtzwilers, there could soon be another injection into the baby Face Rats scene. Mike Belik and his wife have a 5-year-old daughter who they are still waiting to take up Gunbarrel Express. Dave Sannazzaro has two teenage daughters but neither embraced skiing The Face.
There are varying opinions on the exact number of Face Rats remaining or how many there ever actually were. But nearly all Face Rats agree that the prospect of the underground club thriving again looks bleak.
“I thought we were going to get a lot more in the 90s because there were some young 20-somethings that skied The Face,” Sannazzaro said. “But that was 10 years ago and now they’re all gone. They either got married and moved away because they thought they needed a real job. It’s still the core group from the 70s.”
Curtzwiler, though, hopes his offspring can keep the legacy going.
“I hope they continue with it because it’s a great way of life,” Kenny Curtzwiler said. “A lot of the kids are into snowboarding and the terrain park, which is fine. But my kids love skiing The Face and they know what being a Face Rat is all about.”