By Pete Bansen
(Editor’s Note: Pete Bansen is ghost-writing Hans Burkhart’s autobiography.)
Alex Cushing was the visionary, but Hans Burkhart was the builder — the guy who built Squaw Valley Ski Resort. A fascination with wire rope and cable transportation as a teenager led to lift projects in Europe then North America. Early jobs digging holes for the first lift at Alpine Meadows and shoveling sawdust in the Squaw Valley Meadow led to building the original Squaw Valley gondola in 1963. His nearly 40-year relationship with Squaw Valley Ski Resort founder Alex Cushing was, by turns, harmonious and combative. With a long and successful career in lift construction and ski resort management under his belt, Burkhart has a well-earned reputation in the international lift industry for completing the most difficult, demanding projects safely and on time. Here we talk with “the hardest working man in the ski lift business.”
Hans, let’s talk about our book! What inspired you to write it and when will it be out?
There have been a number of situations during my life where I came very close to being killed. My daughters have all heard one or more of the stories as they were growing up, and as they heard more of them, they told me that I should write a book. We’ve been working on it for two and a half years — it’s been our pandemic project. I think we’ll have the books by September or early October.
You’re originally from Germany. Can you talk a little about your childhood there and how you became interested in lifts and the ski industry?
I’m from Oberammergau in Southern Bavaria. My grandfather on my mother’s side had a store there that our family still operates, and he was a farmer and forest manager as well. I started working with him when I was just a small boy. My dad was a police officer in Oberammergau and was busy with that, but my grandfather always had work on his farm or in the forest that I could help with from a very young age. I loved working with him, and he was a real role model for me.
My mother put me on skis when I was 3 or 4 and I hated it, but as I got older, I loved skiing. I could strap my skis to my bicycle and ride it to Garmisch-Partenkirchen to ski as a teenager and the lift-served skiing there sparked a real fascination with lifts and wire rope that prompted me to find work building lifts when I was in college.
You had a long career at the resort then known as Squaw Valley. What brought you to this area?
I was teaching skiing for Stein Eriksen at Aspen Highlands in 1959/60 and Stein invited me to go with him to the Olympics in Squaw Valley. Stein was a huge celebrity in skiing and knew absolutely everyone, so that was quite a glamorous introduction to the area. I came back the following summer and got a job cleaning up the sawdust that the Navy had used to construct temporary parking lots for the Games in the Squaw Valley Meadow — not quite so glamorous!
Your relationship with Alex Cushing was both lengthy and occasionally combative. What kept bringing you back?
I was fascinated with building lifts and few resort owners were as crazy about building lifts as Alex — the more unique, the better. In 1966, I was going to leave so I could work on a tram being built in Albuquerque, but he talked me into staying by proposing to build a tram in Squaw and allowing me to manage the project. As soon as we started talking about it, he asked what the biggest tram in the world was. I told him it was an 80-passenger, and he said, “Well, let’s build a 100-passenger tram — no, 120!”
He was an unusual character, and he didn’t have much grasp of the practical, which could be both genius and very aggravating, but we complemented one another.
What do you look back on as your most important accomplishments in the ski industry?
Building the world’s largest tram was a big achievement, but the distinction was short-lived as a slightly larger tram was installed in Europe within a year or two. That never stopped Alex from referring to his as the “world’s largest,” but that was just his way of doing things! In the early ’80s, I had seen how well detachable chairlifts worked in Europe, and built Doppelmayr’s first large detachable chairlift in North America as well as Poma’s first detachable outside of Europe, but the Funitel at Squaw was my most challenging project. I worked on it seven days a week and took two days off in the 17 months it took to complete it — but it is still the only one in North America and has been a huge success. All my projects were completed on time and within budget, but the thing I’m most proud of is that in decades of very demanding and frequently dangerous work, we had a great safety record: No one on any of my crews ever had a serious injury.
In terms of my career in the industry, from its opening, Squaw Valley had a reputation for poor customer service, and during my tenure as president, we made dramatic improvements to where we were rated the #2 resort in the country — behind only Vail — by Snow Country magazine. It was a true team effort to achieve that, but it was a team I assembled and led.
Now that you’ve been out of the resort business for almost 20 years, do you want to comment on the state of the ski resorts in North Tahoe and Truckee today?
I’m happy that I got to experience and contribute to what were probably the greatest years of Tahoe skiing — let’s just leave it at that.
People who have worked for you consistently say that you’re something of a workaholic. What do you do for fun?
No…! They say that?? I think I was lucky to have discovered what I love to do early in life and to have been able to spend my life doing it. I just love working with wire rope and heavy equipment and it’s very satisfying to build things that last. When I was younger, I always had two or three jobs at any given time and now I usually have two or three projects going at once.
Building houses has been something that I’ve done for fun. I built a beautiful log house in Verdi, Nevada a few years ago and a very different, but equally beautiful home in Oberammergau. I have been involved with the Squaw Valley Mutual Water Company for many years, and currently I run the Verdi Mutual Water Company. I do like to keep busy – that’s the key to staying mentally and physically capable as you age. Retirement is the leading cause of death!
Any other tidbits that you want to tell us about the book?
It’s going to be a lot of fun to read. There are historical information and stories about Squaw Valley and a lot of unique photographs. I did some interesting consulting projects that we talk about, including work on the San Francisco Cable Car system, a job where I arrived in Hawaii in the morning, hiked down Haleakala, and flew home the same evening, and another about a pre-development assessment of a resort that is now one of the most unique and popular in the country. Then there is a daring escape from the U.S. Border Patrol. …
Look for the book, Above and Beyond – My Life Giving the World a Lift, in stores around the North Tahoe/Olympic Valley/Truckee area this fall.