By Eddy Starr Ancinas
When skiers and visitors drive up the road into Olympic Valley, the first vision they have is the great wide meadow. Then they look up to the mountains, perhaps planning which lift and which runs they will take. From 1960 until 1983, the next thing they would have noticed was Blyth Memorial Arena at the foot of Papoose Peak, where Andrea Mead Lawrence skied down carrying the Olympic torch to light the flame for the opening ceremony of the 1960 Winter Olympics.
The imposing arena still dwells in the hearts of many locals and visitors; but the reason it is no longer there — and the creative thinking of one man who saved lives — is equally important to remember.
Built in 1959 for 8,500 people, the arena held more than 10,000 people standing-room only to cheer for the U.S. Hockey Team when they defeated the Soviet Union and went on to win the gold medal match at the 1960 Olympics. Carol Heiss and David Jenkins made history with gold medal performances in figure skating.
With no inside supports to obstruct the view on the south side, spectators could watch speed skaters on the outdoor rinks, look up at the 70- and 90-meter ski jumps, and admire skiers swooping down Red Dog run. The 300-square-foot roof span sloped up as high as an eight-story building.
After the Olympics, the bleachers on the south side of the arena were folded back in, and the huge indoor rink echoed with the whack of hockey pucks, as amateurs and pros scurried across the ice in practice sessions, summer camps, and serious competitions. Jimmy Grogan, 1960 bronze medal Olympian, and his wife, Barbara Wagner, Canadian pairs gold medalist, ran a figure skating program for local children and adults. Nightly broom hockey games were hard fought between teams from ski areas, volunteer fire departments, and other local groups.
The U.S. Forest Service closed the ice arena for the winter of 1981 to 1982. Still responsible for its maintenance, they employed inmates from the California Youth Authority to shovel the one-acre roof — a task that could take up to 10 days.
The roof was not designed to carry a heavy load. Supported by suspension cables strung from 16 columns, each 90-feet high, it was actually two separate structures designed to flex about 20 inches up or down, depending on the snow load and the temperature. When heat from the ice-chilling equipment traveled up to the ceiling, it was supposed to melt the bottom layer of snow on the galvanized metal roof, causing the snow to slide off into snowmelt pits, which were also heated. This ingenious system broke down some time in the 1970s, perhaps after the outdoor speed skating rinks were removed in 1963 and the refrigeration method was modified. When the Forest Service began receiving complaints that the roof leaked, instead of replacing the caulking where the wire rope cables from the columns were attached to the roof beams — a fairly simple and inexpensive repair where the leaks occurred — they accepted a proposal from a roofing company to cover the entire roof with a tar and aggregate mixture. Snow would never slide from that roof again.
When Pete Bansen, assistant manager of Blyth Arena for the U.S. Olympic Training Center during their tenancy in 1978, learned about the new roof, he wrote in his diary, which he shared with the author, “the acceptance of this proposal indicated a simple lack of understanding of the active nature of the snow load management system of the building and effectively doomed Blyth Arena.”
After winning a bid for Blyth Arena at an auction in 1982, Squaw Valley Ski Corporation hired Bansen to manage the building and its skating programs. With assistance from local skier/skaters Dave and Peter Onorato, who were also familiar with the building, they purchased rental skates and a used Zamboni to clear the ice, repaired the refrigeration system, and reinstated popular programs from Tiny Tots in the morning to broom-ball battles at night. During daily open skating sessions, hundreds of skiers, skaters, locals, and tourists returned to stumble or glide around the ice under the cavernous ceiling, where the Olympic scoreboard remained fixed at: “USA 3-2 USSR.”
During another heavy winter in 1982/ 1983, Bansen and the ski corporation watched the snow pile higher and higher on the roof of the arena and wondered if and how it should be removed. Perhaps they could plow it off with grooming machines. After some careful calculations, they determined that the weight and ground pressure per square foot of the machines were well within the roof’s capabilities, and they sent a snowcat to plow the roof. The distribution of the snow looked to be pretty even when viewed from the ground, but in some areas there were 4 feet of snow and in others as much as 8.
As the winter wore on with snow or rain falling nearly every day, Bansen reported good attendance and excellent finances at the arena. A movie company was using a number of rooms while making Hot Dog … The Movie with local skiers.
On March 23, Bansen went to the building at 6 a.m. to pick up the cash from the previous day and take it over to the ski corporation offices. When he returned, an unexplainable instinct caused him to look up at the ceiling. As his gaze followed the conduits that were fastened to the side of a beam in parallel stacks, he saw something that didn’t look right. “Instead of being in a neat, vertical stack, the upper conduits in the stack were bowed out, away from the beam,” he wrote in his diary.
On further inspection of the beams, he found more alarming signs. In need of a second opinion, he brought Jim Mott, assistant manager, to the scene, and together they looked up at the giant roof above them. Mott said that he couldn’t see anything amiss and told Bansen to do what he thought best.
Bansen decided to close and clear the building. The thought that, “Maybe nothing would happen, and I’d look like an idiot for thinking anything was wrong,” as he wrote in his diary, prompted Bansen not to tell people why he was closing the building. To discourage the movie crew from working that day, he turned off the power and told them there was a power failure. To ensure that none of his staff, who had keys to the building, would enter, he changed all the padlocks on the doors.
Then he went outside and walked around the building. “To my horror,” Bansen recorded in his diary, “the lower cables supporting the two beams that were deflecting were starting to fail. I could see several broken wires hanging out of the cables already, and periodically another would break with a chilling, flat ‘twang.’”
Now more convinced than ever that something bad was happening, Bansen returned to Mott, searching for a solution. Once again, Mott replied, “Do what you think best.”
Bansen walked back across the parking lot. He described what happened next in his diary: “As I got about halfway across the lot there was a resounding boom and the center section of the east side of the roof collapsed. A huge cloud of dust rose out of the arena, and I remember seeing the west side roof bouncing up and down as it rebounded. Around me in the parking lot, I could see people turning toward the source of the sound and screaming. I was horrified, but my immediate emotion was one of relief; the waiting was over.”
Bansen returned to Mott’s office to tell him “Blyth Arena just collapsed.” Then he paged the fire department and returned to the back gate to meet them.
Relieved to find Bansen on the outside and not under the rubble, the fire chief asked him, “How many people do you think are in there, Pete?”
He replied: “There was no one in the building. It was closed and locked up when the collapse occurred.”
The building was removed in 1983. Pete Bansen became fire chief of Olympic Valley Fire Department, then known as Squaw Valley Fire Department, in 1993 and retired in 2017.
~ Ski historian and author Eddy Starr Ancinas, descendent of a California ski and mountaineering family, has skied in the Sierra since the 1940s. As a guide for the International Olympic Committee at the 1960 Olympics, she met her husband, a member of the Argentine Olympic Team. Ancinas’s book, Squaw Valley & Alpine Meadows: Tales from Two Valleys, is available in bookstores and just released on Audible. Vice president of the SNOW Museum board of directors, she is determined to preserve the Sierra and Olympic history in the future SNOW Museum.