What makes a community is the fascinating and memorable characters that call a place home. For the past 50 years, Rocket Bertoli has been one of those people that has made North Tahoe great. (His real name is Ralph Bertoli, but I’ve never heard anyone call him that. He’s like Madonna or Shakira). Bertoli, who just turned 80, is a man of boundless energy, impeccable style, and is famous for having once skied through fire for the movie Children of the Morning, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. But what stands out the most about Bertoli is that he has cultivated a large group of friends who all say something like this: “I’ve got some great Rocket stories, but I can’t tell you most of them.” 

Bertoli grew up in a family of apple farmers in Santa Rosa with four brothers. He found his way to Tahoe in 1967 and became a freestyle skier in the 1970s when skiing with style and flair was what it was all about. Troy Caldwell, of White Wolf in Alpine Meadows, traveled around the country with Bertoli competing in freestyle events, and the pair connected with filmmaker Mike Marvin. Marvin eventually created the 1984 classic Hot Dog…the Movie, but first he made several other ski-related films that pushed the envelope. Marvin’s first film, Earth Rider, included the first reputed ski BASE jump off Yosemite’s El Capitan. Caldwell and Bertoli were stars in the ski scenes in Children of the Morning. In the most notable scene, the pair was set on fire for a ski stunt, and the iconic movie poster of Bertoli aflame was proudly displayed at River Ranch, turning him into a local skiing hero. A photo of the stunt still hangs in the restaurant today; there is also one at Jake’s on the Lake.

ROCKET BERTOLI embodied the hard charging attitude and playful spirit of ’70s freesking.

“We did that scene under Roundhouse [chairlift] at Alpine. We did 11 jumps that night. They wrapped us in burlap sacks and doused us with gasoline, then put us out with a fire extinguisher,” said Bertoli.

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And after all that, the film used that night was accidentally destroyed and they had to shoot the scene all over again. 

“Rocket worked down at River Ranch as a waiter, he was king of the court,” said Caldwell. “He was a good skier. I could see him across the valley and knew it was Rocket. We had a great time on the tour. And he was always the best dressed, getting the latest and greatest equipment.” 

Bertoli never married, and his nephew Justin Bertoli says that his large circle of friends has been his family. “He has a lot of long-term relationships, and people just light up when given the chance to talk about him,” said Justin. 

Former Pete ‘n Peters owner David “Johnny B. Good” Rutter says one key reason for Rocket’s friendships is that he is very good at keeping in touch with people by phone. “One time we went to Mexico and he lost his phone. It was just three or four days without it, but he told me it was the worst thing in the world that could have happened to him,” Rutter shared.

STILL CHARGING: On his 50th birthday, Rocket Bertoli (seated third from right) gathered with friends, including David “Johnny B. Good” Rutter of Pete ’n Peter’s, seated far right. Bertoli recently celebrated his 80th birthday.

Rutter enjoys telling Rocket stories, but “there are a lot of stories that I cannot tell. I’ve known him for 50 years. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with more energy. He can stay up and party all night long, and at 6 a.m. he is on his way to the gym.” And after the gym he would be waterskiing, playing 18 holes of golf, or out for a bike ride. 

He is still active and living in Tahoe City. For his 80th birthday party on June 6, Rocket golfed with 20 friends at Schaffer’s Mill and then kept the party going at Jake’s that night.

While his partying and recovery abilities are legendary, there is also a soft and giving side. Mark Moore has known him for 35 years, much of it working together in the real estate business in Tahoe City. “When I first met him, he came across as bodacious and loud,” Moore said. “Over the years I’ve seen a side of him that not everyone knows. He is a very kindhearted person. I’ve seen him be the first one there if someone needs help.”

SKIING FOR LIFE: Rocket Bertoli (far left) with friends at Squaw Valley (now Palisades Tahoe) in 1999. Bertoli had a reputation as always being the best dressed skier on the mountain.

Local attorney Lou Basile says that Rocket has been like a member of his family for 35 years. “While Rocket is well known for his party animalism back in the day and his athleticism to this day, he may as well be Uncle Rocket as far as my kids are concerned,” Basile said. “He is a great friend and a unique individual. He is not only exuberant, gregarious, witty, and humorous, but also thoughtful, sincere, reliable, compassionate, and resilient. He has all of the tools and exhibits them with all of his friends. He, without a doubt, is one of a kind.”

Moore has always been impressed with Rocket’s tenacity, which was especially evident when Rocket faced cancer in 2020. “He got very, very sick. Thirty days of chemo, and every one of those days he played 18 holes of golf afterwards. He has got more energy than any other people I know.”

During his bout with cancer, Rocket’s weight went from 168 to 134 pounds. He was interviewed for this story as he walked on the treadmill at the gym, proud that he had worked his way back up to 154 pounds. “It’s hard work, but I’m back and healthy,” he said. 

Doing nothing is something that Rocket does not do well. Moore tells a story form a time they were in Mexico and went down to the beach. Rocket could only stand sunbathing for 5 minutes before getting up and going for a bike ride. He was unable to fathom how anyone could just sit there on the beach.

HOT DOGGERS: Rocket Bertoli and Gary “Bullet” Allan ski off of Cornice Two lift at Squaw Valley (now Palisades Tahoe) for a photo shoot in the ’80s.

Aside from his energy, what his friends most note about Rocket is his style. Moore says he’s never seen him ski in the same outfit twice, and they have skied together a lot. 

Rocket says he has 33 ski jackets, with matching pants for each one. “Fashion is my claim to fame,” he said.  

Basile agrees. “He is always the best dressed skier on the mountain, bar none,” he said.

Justin Bertoli has always been impressed with how Uncle Rocket lives his life. “I think he has got it figured out. His attitude towards life is fascinating. He works hard on his fitness. He is never not smiling, he is never not happy. And he has a lot of great friends.” 

Friends that have been his family. It sounds like the makings of a good life.

EURO SKIER: Rocket Bertoli atop a peak in Berchtesgaden, Germany, in 1967.

~ Tim Hauserman is a freelance writer and nearly lifelong North Tahoe resident. His latest book, Going it Alone, is a memoir about solo backpacking misadventures. He loves writing about the interesting people that give Tahoe its personality. 

Author

  • Tim Hauserman

    Tim Hauserman latest book is “Going it Alone: Ramblings and Reflections from the trail” published in 2022. He also wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the 4th edition of which was published in 2020. His other books include “Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children” and "Gertrude's Tahoe Adventures in Time." Tim has lived in Tahoe City since he was a little tyke and continues to be amazed with the beauty of Lake Tahoe. His former English teachers, on the other hand, are probably amazed that he became a writer. Contact Tim at writeonrex@yahoo.com

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