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Tahoe Ski History Tahoe Snowstorms

TAHOE NUGGET #281: WINTER STORMS & SHOOTING STARS

A powerful cold front is forecast to come barreling through overnight tonight dumping up to 10+ inches of fresh light powder on the upper elevations of the Tahoe Sierra. It’s been a dry December with blocking high pressure entrenched over the eastern Pacific Ocean so the new snow is welcome. (UPDATED 12-20-17.

A powerful cold front is forecast to come barreling through overnight tonight dumping up to 10+ inches of fresh light powder on the upper elevations of the Tahoe Sierra. It’s been a dry December with blocking high pressure entrenched over the eastern Pacific Ocean so the new snow is welcome. (UPDATED 12-20-17. Most resorts received only 3-4 inches of snow.)

Despite the dearth of significant storms so far, Squaw Valley's upper mountain looks pretty good this week. Snow making and grooming crews are also working magic to keep the skiing fresh and are progressively opening new runs and terrain.

In March 1969 Squaw Valley hosted the World Cup races in extremely challenging conditions. Racers had arrived early from all over the world to train on the mountain for the event, but high winds and unrelenting snowfall at the end of February kept everyone cooped up in their hotel rooms. Note snow shovelers on roof.

During the 1969 World Cup preliminary races, athletes endured fierce blizzard conditions. The world’s best skiers could barely see the slalom gates ahead, and deeply carved ruts in the soft snow made the course much more challenging than the icy hard pack downhill racers are used to. Renowned skier, climber, and author Dick Dorworth, who grew up in Glenbrook, Nevada, and raced for the Reno Ski Club, was Chief of Course for the Squaw event. He deployed more than 200 people to boot-pack the runs, but despite their best efforts the volunteers couldn’t keep up with all the new powder and they were forced to cancel the downhill ski event.

Despite the severe conditions, Chief of Race Fraser West, supported by a fleet of snow grooming machines and boot-packing crews, managed to prepare the men’s slalom and giant slalom courses on the steep slopes of KT-22. Luckily for West and everyone else involved in the 1969 effort to host a successful World Cup, the skies cleared on the last day of competition and the racers finally got a chance to see the famed KT-22 terrain they were skiing. Note KT-22 in upper background.

The American contingent at Squaw Valley in 1969 included Tahoe racers like Cheryl Bechdolt, Caryn West, and Lance and Eric Poulsen. Legendary American skiers were there; characters like Billy Kidd (bib #15) and Vladimir “Spider” Sabich. After that season Kidd and Sabich would turn professional and join the newly-formed pro skiing circuit. The dynamic duo with movie star looks helped popularize skiing in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Billy Kidd, who won the slalom at Squaw Valley, went on to enjoy a stellar career and is still one of America’s most recognized skiers. Among his many accomplishments, Kidd was the first American male to win a gold medal in alpine skiing and was the first American male to win an Olympic medal (silver-1964) of any kind in alpine skiing. He was also the first American to win a World Alpine Championship combined gold, the first American male to medal in a World Championship slalom, and the only racer to win both amateur and pro world titles in the same season.

Today, Stetson-wearing Billy Kidd is the official promoter for the resort of Steamboat in Colorado.

Spider Sabich was the suspected inspiration (along with Kidd) for the 1969 film Downhill Racer, starring actors Robert Redford, Gene Hackman and Camilla Sparv.

Vladimir Sabich Jr. was a Tahoe skier, raised at Kyburz, a small hamlet west of Echo Pass on Highway 50. Spider grew up ski racing at Mammoth Mountain and Lake Tahoe and later became a two-time world professional champion and Olympic skier. It was amazing that Sabich raced at all at Squaw Valley in 1969 considering that the 23-year-old speedster had already sustained seven broken legs and nine operations during the short span he was a U.S. Ski Team member. He went on to win World Cup races and a national title in downhill. After turning professional in 1971, the next year he won the World Pro Ski title. Tragically it wouldn’t be leg fractures that ended the charismatic racer’s impressive skiing career.

Spider Sabich’s racing credentials and handsome features earned him lucrative product endorsements – soon he was making more than $100,000 a year. He built a ski chalet at Aspen and purchased an airplane that he piloted to skiing events in North America. In 1972 Sabich met French actress and singer Claudine Longet at a pro-celebrity event at Bear Valley, Calif. At the time, Longet was separated from her husband, famed American crooner Andy Williams. Sabich and Longet lived in Aspen together until March 21, 1976, when she shot him to death after Sabich returned from a day of skiing.

Longet claimed that the gun accidently discharged as Sabich was showing her how it worked. Prosecutors pointed out that an autopsy report indicated that Sabich was bent over and facing away at a six foot distance when he was shot, not likely if he was indeed showing her the gun. Police made several procedural errors, however, and a jury convicted her of only criminally negligent homicide. Claudine Longet was sentenced to 30 days in jail and remanded to pay a small fine. Skiing sensation Spider Sabich was dead at age 31.

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By Mark McLaughlin

Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author, photographer and professional speaker with 7 books and more than 900 articles in print. Mark has lived at Lake Tahoe for 40+ years and is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip guide. Mark has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel, The Weather Channel, the BBC, and in many historical documentaries.

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