Film star Claudette Colbert wanted her ski pants ironed…now! She had arrived at Sugar Bowl with her husband and her maid for a weekend in 1949 and refused to go out wrinkled. Though the lodging staff scurried, no ironing board could be found. But since catering to its guests had already become a tradition at the 10-year old resort, a maintenance man was quickly called to make an ironing board. Claudette looked simply marvelous on the slopes.

Sugar Bowl, the doyen of Sierra Nevada ski resorts, continues to age gracefully, catering to a grand assortment of guests. The first major Sierra downhill resort celebrates the start of a new decade not so far removed from its origins 70 years ago

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Hannes Schroll: Red Devil of the Tyrol
Since 1939, the Donner Pass resort has been a stronghold of San Francisco society. Founded by the dynamic Austrian Hannes Schroll, whose unsurpassed skiing ability won him over 100 international titles, Sugar Bowl’s always been a skier’s mountain.
Schroll first burst upon America’s ski scene in 1935 when he captured that year’s first ever U.S. Downhill Championships at Mt. Rainer.

Watching were Yosemite’s Don and Mary Tressider. They were so taken by the 22-year-old’s engaging personality and skiing ability that they invited him to the head the Yosemite Ski School at Badger Pass. He accepted and by the next season the ‘Red Devil of the Tyrol’ was charming and instructing the fashionable skiers of the day at California’s premier resort.By the mid 1930s, ski fever had invaded the West. Bill Klein, one of Sugar Bowl’s founders, remembers what Donner Summit was like in 1936, when he arrived at age 21 from the small town of Traisen Lilienfeld in the Austrian Alps. ‘It was pretty primitive, yet very beautiful,’ Klein said. Bill and his older brother Fred saw the potential for skiing; at just under 10,000 feet in elevation, Donner Summit held snow well into the spring months. With the help of  Dr. Joel Hildebrand, a professor at UC Berkeley and an active member of the Sierra Club, the brothers started Ski School Klein, headquartered out of the recently built Clair Tappaan Lodge in Norden.

Meanwhile, Hannes enjoyed Yosemite, but, restless, envisioned a bigger ski area, a resort modeled after those from his homeland in the Austrian Tyrol.

First Glimpses of Sugar Bowl

It was over the Fourth of July in 1937 that Schroll first traveled to Donner Summit. Accompanied by friends Bill Klein and Dr. Otto Barken (a San Francisco eye surgeon and Yosemite skier), he hiked up Nob Hill and drank in the towering views of Mount Lincoln and its deep remaining snowpack. Schroll discovered ponderosa and juniper-cloaked hills rising to a long plateau ridge of weathered basalt and granite that gave way to steep sided gullies, rolling shoulders and wide-open flats. The ski champion liked what he saw.

‘I showed him Sugar Bowl and he was immediately enthusiastic,’ remembers Klein, 90. ‘We go up the hill a little ways and he’s pointing, looking the place over. He says, ‘There we put the golf course, and I can see lifts running here, and we’ll have cows grazing in the summer.’ His enthusiasm just got carried away. He was hooked.’

As colorful and daring as when on skis, the relentless Schroll had no problem capturing financial backing from among several blue-blood pupils he taught at the Yosemite Ski School.

In 1938, 696 acres were purchased on Donner Summit for $6,750 with the help of investment counselor Wellington S. Henderson, attorney Sherman Chickering, J.D. Zellerbach, chairman of the board of Crown Zellerbach Paper Co., Crocker Bank president W.W Crocker, and Jerome Hill, scion of the Great Northern Railroad founder James Hill. Schroll later married Jerome’s sister, Maude.

Another influential stockholder was Walt Disney, whom Hannes had taught to ski at Badger Pass. One of Sugar’s prominent peaks was dubbed Mount Disney in his honor. Sugar Bowl itself was so christened because Schroll and Klein thought the fine, crystalline snow looked like sugar.

Opening Day December 1939
The resort opened on December 15, 1939 with California’s first chair lift. Designed by mining engineer Henry Howard and built by the Riblet Tramway Company, the lift spanned 3,300 feet with a 1,100-foot vertical lift and featured a design that included the ability to raise the upper and lower terminals simultaneously on sloping tracks as the snow deepened. In addition, two small rope tows were installed at the base of Mount Disney. A four-story lodge housed a small dining room, ski shop, and accommodations ranging from rooms with baths for $3.50 to $5 a night to dormitory beds for $2. Besides skiing, guests could also ice skate on a small rink equipped with floodlights, waltz music and hot-spiced wine.

California’s first chair lift drew its share of inquisitive crowds, most of whom had never ridden an airborne lift. A guest could simply ride up and down for 25 cents or pay $3 if skiing. Travel time was close to seven minutes.

If not winning applause for its amenities, Sugar Bowl immediately gained notice for its terrain, which included some of America’s toughest. In the 1940s, New York Daily News ski reporter Bill Berry wrote, ‘I found that Sugar Bowl had much superior terrain, with good trails on the front of the mountain and some glorious upper runs.’

It also had great snow. No other site in North America has averaged more snowfall over the last 100 years than Donner Summit. As the resort matured, Sugar Bowl expanded its lodge and lift system. In 1950, the Mt. Lincoln Chair was installed, opening up a sizeable chunk of terrain.

West’s First Aerial Tramway 1953
Sugar Bowl rose to greater heights with the installation in 1953 of the first aerial tramway on the West Coast and only the second of its kind in North America. Aptly named ‘The Magic Carpet,’ it was financed solely by stockholder Jerome Hill. Up until 1994, when a new road and parking area were developed, the Magic Carpet remained the only way in and out of the area and helped to preserve Sugar Bowl’s old world charm.

Besides being a classic ski hill, Sugar Bowl ruled as a glamour ski center for the next two decades – a winter sports mecca for Hollywood stars.

John Wiley, Sugar Bowl’s first director of winter sports, recalled the time in 1941 when actor Errol Flynn stayed at the lodge accompanied by his bodyguard.

‘They decided to sit on the porch and enjoy the sunshine,’ remembers Wiley. ‘The girls quickly learned who Errol was, practically passing out as they walked in front of him backwards and forwards taking one big, longing look.’

Disney also visited Sugar Bowl on occasion. Enthusiastic and friendly, Disney didn’t play himself up as a big deal. One evening he was in the bar when the bartender begged to be excused for a short while. Disney agreed to take his place.

‘There was no television in those days so he tended bar almost incognito for two hours,’ recalled Wiley.

Bastion of Ski Racing Culture

From its inception, Sugar Bowl always attracted many of the top skiers and racers in the world. Nothing was more emblematic of this than the Silver Belt Race, run each spring from 1940 to 1975. ‘The Silver Belt was a premier race event,’ explains Don Schwartz, president of Sugar Bowl for 20 years. ‘All the champions and stars of the day participated. One could easily equate it to today’s World Cup.’

In the early 1960s, Sugar Bowl also hosted the first professional ski racing circuit in the United States featuring Stein Eriksen, Anderl Molterer and Christian Pravda.

In 1961, 1,200 hardy souls braved the worst weather of the year to catch a glimpse of the famed racers blasting down Mount Disney. During a short weather postponement, Pravda, leading money winner on the tour, disappeared. Officials became concerned. They found the 32 year-old Austrian in the Belt Room Bar, one hand around the waist of a new romantic interest, the other pushing aside the remains of a double whiskey sour. They steered Pravda in the direction of the race. Amazingly, the former Olympic medalist finished third.

Today, enthusiasts still drop into the Silver Belt for a white-knuckle ride down its narrow gully and Steilhang. The Silver Belt Banzai, one of the world’s most demanding skier-cross races, returns to Sugar Bowl this March 13 and 14 with top skiers from around the globe – including last year’s winner and Sugar Bowl’s own Daron Rahlves – descending upon the resort to race in the downhill free-for-all event.

Sugar Bowl also committed to its racing future in the late 1990s when notable ski industry personality Jim Hudson helped establish the Sugar Bowl Foundation and became executive director and head coach of the Sugar Bowl Ski Team. Under his leadership, Sugar Bowl reestablished itself as one of the better junior race programs in North America. Hudson directs 55 coaches and over 400 athletes. Recent ski team alumni include US Ski Team member Katie Hitchcock.

Major Expansions, Same Vibe
In 1992 Sugar Bowl undertook a $22-million, 10-year expansion. In 1994 trails were cleared, slope side parking built and the Jerome Hill quad installed beneath Mount Judah. The following year the resort finished its 20,000-square-foot Main Lodge at the Mount Judah base area. For its 60th season, Sugar Bowl built a high quad on Mount Disney. More improvements have continued, including a pedestrian village, more off-slope facilities, lodging and even a ski academy prep school. This season, in conjunction with its 70th anniversary, Sugar Bowl installed a new fixed grip quad that drops enthusiasts off just below the Judah summit. Through it all, Sugar Bowl has retained the same charm, friendliness and helpfulness that Claudette Colbert enjoyed years back.

What matters most about Sugar Bowl is precisely what has changed the least over time.

It’s when the day smells clean and sharp and snow dusts your face and massages the senses with cold sensual fingers. Plummeting down a slope you carve back and forth through lightly tufted snow that curls mid-calf. Clumps explode off skis down wild shots and sweat-induced plunges. All your attention is focused on sustaining the pulse, sustaining the rhythm; the motion and flow until the waltz down carpeted slopes become all a blur

‘None of our recent changes have altered Sugar Bowl’s most important asset: great snow and terrain,’ says Sugar Bowl President Rob Kautz. ‘That alones preserves Hannes Schroll’s dream. He spent a long time seeking the ideal ski terrain for a resort, and he chose this place. After 70 years, Hannes’ dream is very much alive.’


Sugar Bowl Resort Celebrates 70 Years  
Opening for business on December 15, 1939 with a light layer of snow and the first chairlift in California, Sugar Bowl Resort is celebrating 70 years atop Donner Summit. Lift tickets that first season were 25 cents to ride up and down, or $2 if you were skiing Mount Disney. Today Sugarbowl has 13 lifts servicing four peaks, 95 trails across 1,500 acres, three terrain parks, and a base-area lodge.

To celebrate, the resort will host a weekend of festivities January 29 to 31, including special lift ticket rates, prize giveaways, après music, on-mountain trivia challenges, and an official opening ceremony for the new Summit Chair. Local band Truckee Tribe will play the Judah Lodge on Saturday afternoon, and Sugar Bowl’s own Daron Rahlves will race toward SkierX gold at the X Games in Aspen with special viewing parties at the Judah Lodge.

To kick things off, Friday January 29 is a CORE Appreciation day with lift tickets just $39 for Daily CORE members. Anyone can join the CORE by simply visiting sugarbowl.com. Skier X qualifying runs will be showing in the Judah Lodge from 11:00am–12:30pm with special prizes tied to Daron’s results.

On Saturday, January 30th Sugar Bowl officially recognizes the opening of the new Summit Chair, a fixed grip quad accessing the frontside Judah Bowl and ample sidecountry terrain off the backside of the resort. An official ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Summit Chair will occur at 10 a.m. The new Backcountry Adventure Center, operated by IFMGA-certified Bela Vadasz and his guides at Alpine Skills International, will offer professionally-guided powder tours, avalanche safety educational seminars and guided ‘Lake Runs’ from Sugar Bowl to Donner Lake below. Truckee Tribe will play at Judah Lodge from 1 to 5 p.m. in the village while local singer songwriter Daron Talbot entertains in the Lodge.

With ample history, legend and lore at the ready, Sugar Bowl presents an on-mountain trivia challenge on Sunday January 31. Skiers and riders will receive trivia challenge sheets at both base areas, needing to tap into their expertise on all things Sugar Bowl in order to answer the vast and varied trivia questions, with answers ultimately pointing them to secret stash areas of the mountain where prizes await. Info: Sugar Bowl, 629 Sugar Bowl Rd, Norden, 530-426-9000, sugarbowl.com

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  • Robert Frohlich

    Former writer

    1955 – 2010

    “If Lake Tahoe ain’t heaven, then heaven can wait.”
    ~ Fro fighting for his life

    “The next morning I arose early to watch the setting moon. The sun hadn’t quite broken out of the dreamy foliage of morning, and all was still: the blanketed dells, ridges, and granite domes. No sound. Something almost creepy hovered over the motionless surroundings. The landscape had a fierceness that made the Alps look tame.

    “There is a small stone fortress built in the 1920s that guards the actual point lookout. I noticed the fellow who’d bragged about skating the 11 miles in two hours. He was probably doing yoga, but he looked more like he was praying. Maybe he was praying not for his deliverance alone, but for mine, too, for our mutual enlightenment. Maybe he embodied the form that transcendent figures assume these days. I felt unaccountably cheered that this guy was a sort of postmodern angel, complete with a caption for people too dense like me to know a vision when they see one. How could it be otherwise? Many people wilt when their lives have been gutted. I’d refused to wilt. I’d been given a second life. In my first life I tried to do everything expected of me and had failed somewhat. Now in my second life I’d try to attempt things not expected of me.”

    ~ “Seeking Mojo at Glacier Point,” published in Moonshine Ink, March 8, 2010

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