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Tahoe Ski History

#289: SKIING IN SAN FRANCISCO & BERKELEY, CALIF.

Tahoe Sierra ski resorts closed early for the 2020 season due to Coronavirus. But nobody told the Storm King and a prolonged cool and unsettled weather pattern has continued in the West, with appreciable snow still falling in the mountains on occasion. More snow is expected this weekend with 2 feet or more on the slopes. It’s only early April in the high country; normally a great month for winter sports with warmer, sunny days, granular corn snow and diminished avalanche danger in the backcountry. Despite a light winter with only about 65 percent of average precipitation so far, a substantial snowpack still covers the ground.

This spring, people who want to go downhill skiing or snowboarding will have to climb for it. Just like it was before rope tows and ski lifts were invented in the 1930s. Back in the day, everyone earned their turns with sweat and grit. The 1930s were the breakout decade for alpine skiing in the United States. The marketing and promotion of the sport focused on San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Los Angeles. It rarely snows in those locations, but that’s where the people who were willing to indulge in winter sports lived — so the marketing came to them.

The following was excerpted from my book: Longboards to Olympics: A Century of Tahoe Winter Sports.

Before the invention of uphill conveyances like rope tows and chairlifts, the most popular form of skiing was jumping. You could build a jump in the dead of winter and then pack a lot of paying spectators into an unused football or baseball stadium. Most importantly from a sporting perspective, jumpers were judged and scored by form and distance. There were clear winners and losers. In the late 1920’s, locals in Truckee, California, were the first in the West to build a wooden scaffold jump, on the town’s winter sports grounds appropriately called Hilltop.

Note the motion picture camera box on a tripod. Truckee jumpers were often filmed for intermission clips in movie theaters in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Southern Pacific Railroad pitched snowbound Truckee for Hollywood film producers looking for winter scenery. SP also ran “Snowball Specials” from San Francisco to Truckee for weekend excursions.

The Auburn Ski Club had a lot of muscle in the Far West. One of the club’s founders was Wendell Robie (right), an avid outdoorsman, equestrian, businessman, and also mayor of Auburn, CA. Bill Berry (left) was a ski journalist who moved to Reno in 1928. Bill lived into his 90s and I knew him well. Besides covering ski races and meets, he worked as a stringer for a New York newspaper writing about the colorful Reno Divorce Era in the 1930s and 40s. Bill was also a rare reporter trusted by Frank Sinatra. This photo was taken during the dedication of a monument to the legendary skiing mailman, John “Snowshoe” Thompson at Boreal Mountain Resort. The skis they are holding were 100 years old.

Before 1932, California did not plow mountain roads during winter months. If you wanted to cross the Tahoe Sierra in your automobile, it was loaded onto a railroad flatcar in Sacramento and then unloaded in Reno, Nevada. Or vice versa. In January 1931 the Auburn Ski Club successfully petitioned the California State Assembly to fund highway snow removal. The ski club argued that by opening Interstate 40 (precursor to Interstate 80), it would spur the development of ski resorts along the highway that would generate money for the state’s coffers. Keeping the road clear is a monumental task: Placer County — which includes North Lake Tahoe — has the highest average annual snowfall of any county in the lower 48 states.

Once California began plowing Interstate 40 over the Central Sierra, skiers’ dreams came to pass and the 40 miles of snowbelt from Cisco to Soda Springs blossomed with Mom and Pop rope tow ski operations, restaurants and lodges. And the automobile replaced the train as the mode of travel to or through snow country.

In January 1934, the Auburn Ski Club hosted a ski jumping tournament on the U.C. Berkeley campus. 43,000 cubic feet of snow were hauled in by train. Jumpers landed on a narrow stretch of straw bedding covered with 6 inches of snow. Nearly 50,000 spectators showed up.

The first Berkeley event was so successful that another tournament was held in 1935. Volunteers erected a scaffold jump 85-feet high with a 170-foot long slide angled at a steep pitch. Skiers were traveling 60 mph when they hit the launch point. The best jumpers in America showed up, but it was Auburn Ski Club’s own U.S. ski champion Roy Mikkelsen (shown here) who won with a 139-foot leap. For the second year in a row, the Berkeley ski jumping tournament ended with a huge, free-for-all snowball fight.

In February 1939, the Auburn Ski Club organized a grand finale tournament over several weekends on Treasure Island in San Francisco. The city was hosting the Golden Gate International Exposition, a world’s fair that among other things celebrated the opening of San Francisco’s two major bridges. The S.F.-Oakland bay bridge opened in 1936 and the iconic Golden Gate the following year. For the ski jumps, a massive tower was engineered with portable steel sections 186-feet high. Man-made snow was used this time: 500 tons of ice were ground to particles and blown on the jump and straw-cushioned landing area.

Jumper’s view down the ramp. Warm temperatures made the snow thick and slushy on Treasure Island and several skiers suffered twists, sprains and fractures. At times blustery winds hampered jumping distances and one skier was blown off course, landing in the reserved seat section. Luckily, Al Henry, Jr. of Tahoe City was only “slightly shaken” from his mishap.

One weekend an intercollegiate ski jumping contest was held, sponsored by the University of Nevada – Reno ski team. Blustery winds were again a problem, but the biggest distraction for the young men was Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, a performance which featured women wearing cowboy hats, gun belts, boots, and little else. From the jump tower, the college athletes had a birds-eye view of the provocative attraction. Sally’s burlesque entertainment was only one of several “flesh shows” in the Treasure Island Amusement Zone, also known as the “Gayway.”

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