Then and Now
The Lake Tahoe Ski Scene
Lake Tahoe and skiing are synonymous. Since 1856 when John A “Snowshoe” Thompson carried 60 pounds of mail across the Sierra on 9-foot long skis, rescuing wayward travelers as he went, skiing in the area has had a steady foundation in both adventure and hospitality.
The first ski area opened back in 1910. The Truckee Ski Hill was quickly followed by Olympic Hill, today called Granlibakken. The name is Norwegian for “a hillside sheltered by fir trees.” The site would become the U.S. Olympic trials location, kicking off a deep and proud Olympic heritage at Lake Tahoe that ripples around the lake today.
In 1937, with little convincing from his ski instructor, Walt Disney invested $2,500 and in turn his name was stamped on the peak that would become home to the first chairlift in California. The Disney chairlift and Sugar Bowl Resort opened in the winter of 1939.
Less than ten years later, in 1946, Sierra-at-Tahoe began as Sierra Ski Ranch by longtime local Vern Sprock. In the 1850s through late 1870s, loggers clear cut trees to supply lumber to nearby mines. They did not cut down any of the mighty Red Fir trees. Sprock’s vision saw the left-behind Red Firs created a paradise of old growth tree skiing, some of the best in the country to this day.
Around the lake, the buzz of ski area creation filled the air. In 1947, Lee and Daisy Miller operated the 1,000 foot long rope tow at the place guests now know and love as Heavenly Mountain Resort. Two years later, a former University of Nevada star skier named Wayne Poulsen, who competed back in the Olympic Trials at Granlibakken, opened Squaw Valley with Alex Cushing in 1949.
The ‘60s saw a boom in Lake Tahoe. Squaw Valley hosted the first televised Winter Olympic Games in 1960. Jean-Claude Killy, the legendary French ski racer, battled with the young Willie Bogner down Mountain Run. The attention and allure gave rise to expansion in the region—Kirkwood and Mt. Rose opened, Heavenly installed a tram, and Sierra-at-Tahoe re-located.
The worldwide attention on the Tahoe Basin after the Olympics gave rise to a prominent ‘70s freestyle ski movement, also called Hot Dog skiing. The predecessor to today’s freestyle skiing movement, Hot Doggin’ took an unconventional approach to traditional skiing, infusing it with exuberant and creative tricks like The Worm Turn and Slow Dog Noodle. Hot Doggin’s youthful energy was reflected in the culture of that era, making the ‘70s and early ‘80s a time to ski hard and party harder. Some of the original hotdoggers, like Wayne Wong, live here today.
In fact, many of the skiers who migrated to the area in this time are still here. And their children? They choose to continue to put down their roots here, beginning another generation of skiers and snowboarders.
But don’t think Lake Tahoe is all ski. Snowboarding roots are deeply buried in the snow drift of history. The first snowboard halfpipe was hand carved in Tahoe City in 1979. Snowboarder Tom Sims recalls being blindfolded when shown the location of the historic pipe. Word spread and top snowboarders and skateboarders made pilgrimage to the site of what would become snowboarding’s future.
The ‘90s and 2000s gave rise to the extreme era of skiing and snowboarding. Skiers Scot Schmidt and Glen Plake represented the region in films like The Blizzard of Ahhhhs while Shaun Palmer, one the most decorated professional snowboarders in history, sat firmly atop the snowboard world in multiple disciplines. A young skier named Shane McConkey migrated from Colorado. He would blow minds with crazy on-camera antics in the Matchstick Productions ski films, but would also reinvent the way people slide down mountains. To this day, our local skiers and riders stand atop podiums at the biggest competitions in the world.
TThe Lake Tahoe ski scene is diverse and eclectic, and quite frankly we’re proud of it. If you’ve been here, you know what we’re talking about. It’s all under one sky and around one beautiful blue lake. Skiing and riding at Lake Tahoe is an authentic, unique experience the likes that is not found anywhere else.