Once Upon a Ski Lift

Daring rescue at Squaw Valley on a first-day ski

BEFORE THE INCIDENT: A picture showing five of the six who were in the group that fateful day. From left to right: Lois, Eric, the author, Fran, and Linda, who later dangled from the chair at Palisades Tahoe. The father, Al, took this picture at what the author and his skiing group believe to be Dodge Ridge where they all learned to ski. Despite this traumatic event, Linda later became a ski instructor. Courtesy photo

Just before Covid-19 put a dent in our social schedules, my wife and I were sharing a Thanksgiving dinner with good friends Tom and Pam Hobday. Many years before me, Tom was a ski instructor at Squaw Valley (now Palisades Tahoe), and I recalled his story about attending the winter Olympic Games in February 1960. Given his longtime connection to our famous resort, I decided that he might enjoy a story of my first day skiing at Squaw Valley in December 1960 —the same year as, but the season following, the Olympics.

I first learned to ski in the mid 1950s at Dodge Ridge, two hours east of the Bay Area. Thanks to the family of my girlfriend who had a small cabin at Twain Harte, we would drive up for a weekend getaway from our homes in Oakland. Seeking a bigger experience one day, six of us loaded in a car — my girlfriend, Lois; her 11-year-old younger sister, Linda; their parents, Fran and Al Graves; plus me and a buddy, Eric Ring — and headed out for a one-day ski trip to the “big leagues” at Tahoe.

When we arrived at Squaw Valley it was a cold and blustery day, so we decided to ski the Squaw One lift but cautiously unload at a station about two thirds up the mountain rather than exposing ourselves to the wind and weather at the top. The parents, leading the way, unloaded at the mid-station and skied down the steep ramp. The station was a tall wooden structure built high off the ground where you could unload or load the chairs.


Lois and Linda were next, but as the two girls started to ski down the ramp it became apparent that Linda was going up rather than down. Her parka had snagged on a bolt, and as the empty chair went up the hill, she was dangling below it. Linda kicked and struggled to get loose. She was eventually successful, but by that point, she was 40 feet above the rocks below. Too far off the ground to safely drop, she gripped the side bar of the chair with all the power she could muster.

My buddy and I were next in line to unload, but the lift operator hit the stop button when we were 10 feet from the platform. All we could do was watch helplessly. We yelled for the operator to back up the chair but were told it was not possible. How was this going to end for little 11-year-old Linda?

It was then that we all noticed two skiers standing on the platform preparing to load the empty chair behind us for a ride to the top of the hill. These two young men, sensing the emergency, took off their skis, ran down the ramp to the lift tower at the base, climbed the angle iron structure to the top, worked their way out to the wheels, grabbed the cable, and went hand over hand for more than 30 feet.

Miraculously, they dropped down into the chair and pulled Linda up to safety. With all three safely on the chair, the lift restarted, the chair went up the hill around the bull wheel and returned, stopping at the platform where it all started. Despite this incredibly frightful experience, we all skied the rest of the day.

As I’m telling this story to Tom Hobday, the growing smile on his face made it clear to me that he was aware — perhaps more than just aware — of this event. He said that he was on the chair immediately in front Al and Fran, and by turning around he watched in amazement at this potentially catastrophic incident. He confirmed my accurate description of the event.

Tom then asked me if I knew the brave rescuers, and I said, “No.” At that time, Tom was president of the UC Berkeley Ski Club, and the two guys were club members, John Austin and Gary Rogers. John and Gary were also members of the Cal Crew Team which, obviously, gave them the hand and arm strength to accomplish this incredible feat.

Years later Gary and his friend, Rick Cronk, purchased a small ice cream store across from my junior high school on College Ave in Oakland where I would often eat lunch. In 2003 they sold a major portion of their Dryer’s Ice Cream to Nestlé, but only after building the brand to national recognition.

After many more years of skiing at Squaw Valley, Gary passed away, but his son, Andy Rogers, is still a longtime passholder and locker room member at Palisades Tahoe. He also confirms this incredible story claiming it to be a fascinating part of their family lore.

~ Dale Chamblin moved to Tahoe 22 years ago.


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