Squaw Valley: The Lost Olympic Cross-Country Venue

It’s a ghost in the woods, with historical signposts here and there.

There is no stadium, no soaring lodge, no flags waving in the wind.  No fleet of Pisten Bullys stands by.  The waxing facility was a military surplus Quonset hut, gone since the spring of 1960.  The trails that remain are rolling, without the brutal up and down of modern venues.  If you ski or hike out into the woods, you can close your eyes and see knicker-clad athletes gliding across snow on wooden skis.

The 1960 Winter Olympics set many precedents.  Squaw Valley built the first-ever Olympic village that housed all the athletes in one place.  It was the first Olympics to be televised.  IBM provided the first computerized timing.  Squaw Valley saw the first purpose-built machinery to groom cross-country trails, and featured the first modern Olympic biathlon.

After the 1960 Olympics,Squaw Valley became a thriving alpine destination resort.  But of the cross-country trails, nothing remains except signage and a few recently rehabilitated trails.

In 1954,Squaw Valley was “nothing more than a double chairlift, two rope tows and a small lodge in a remote valley inhabited by two year-round families and served by a dirt road.   – from “Snowball’s Chance” by David Antonucci.

The fledgling alpine ski area was the product of the Squaw Valley Development Corporation, a partnership between Alexander Cushing and Wayne Poulsen.  Poulsen first explored the area on skis in the 1930s and subsequently teamed up with Cushing in what became an acrimonious partnership.  Cushing ousted Poulsen from the business some years later.

In 1954, after learning that nearby Reno, NV planned to bid for the 1960 Winter Olympics, Cushing threw Squaw Valley’s hat in the ring.  Although Cushing later averred that he didn’t care whether Squaw Valley won the Olympic bid, he put a lot of work into winning it.  Securing support from California’s governor and legislature, he bested Reno and Anchorage, AK as the U.S. Olympic Committee’s (USOC) choice to hold the ’60 Games.  Cushing won the United States Olympic Committee’s endorsement in early 1955.

But with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Cushing faced an uphill battle.  Deriding Squaw Valley’s bid, IOC  members told him the 1960 Games would surely go to Innsbruck, Austria.

In response, Cushing embarked on an intense public relations campaign.  He printed a proposal brochure in three languages for the IOC.  He built scale model of Squaw Valley, which he brought to Paris (the site of the vote on the venue).  In Paris, he relentlessly lobbied IOC members, extolling the virtues of a valley that received 450 inches of snow each winter.

In a surprise vote, Squaw Valley eked out a narrow victory over Innsbruck.  It’s beyond the scope of this article to cover the monumental task of developing the backwater that was Squaw Valley for the Olympics.  Those who are interested should read “Snowball’s Chance:  the Story of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games,” by David Antonucci, and the California Olympic Commission’s report.

Video from the men’s relay:

In an e-mail, Antonucci wrote that the cross-country and biathlon trails for the 1960 Winter Olympic Games were never intended to be a permanent facility.  Wendall Broomhall later confirmed that.

Lake Placid, NY native Joe Pete Wilson raced the 30 km event at Squaw Valley.  When I asked him if he and his contemporaries had ever thought whether the ski trails should be preserved, he replied,

“No one at the time thought of it.  In fact, I would go so far as to say the competitors were focused on other issues and not maintenance of trails or whatever.  Even though I worked on those trails the year before… I thought it was a park or something.  I never realized that it was privately owned or partially privately owned.  We were there to race.  We weren’t there to talk about national parks or lovely places to ski.”

A 1948 and 1952 Olympian, Broomhall  was a member of the International Ski Federation (FIS) cross-country committee when Squaw won its bid.  FIS asked him to be chief of course for the games.

“When he [Cushing] got the bid, FIS asked me to be chief of competition for cross-country events,” said Broomhall.  “The area that I had picked in Squaw [Valley] crossed over into Alpine Meadows.”

When Broomhall arrived in Squaw Valley, he found that developers were already carving up land he’d planned on for the cross-country events.  “It didn’t take long to figure that there was no way you could do it there,” he said. ” That created a stir with FIS and the California Olympic Committee.”  After much research, Broomhall selected a new location using snow reports and aerial photographs.  Sixteen miles from Squaw Valley, McKinney Creek was on the west shore of Lake Tahoe.

While McKinney Creek and General Creek had superior terrain, but much of the land that interested Broomhall  was private property.  Broomhall recounted frequent visits to one Nellie Noonchester, the owner, with colleague Al Merrill.

“We were roaming around there, we’d always stop in and talk to her.  She’d come out, she was quite old, as I recall in her 70s, and we’d go in and talk to her.  We always had tea and crumpets with her.  She’d say no, she wouldn’t give us permission [to use her land].  One day, I got a call from the Olympic office in San Francisco.…They said, ‘You won’t believe it.  The little old lady came in here today, she said that a couple of nice young guys from New England had stopped in to talk to me on occasion and they want to use my land to run some cross-country trails, and I’m gonna let ‘em have it.’   That’s how we got McKinney Creek.” – Wendall Broomhall

The change in venue caused a minor uproar.  The Scandinavian nations protested, complaining about McKinney Creek’s altitude and distance from the Olympic Village.  The pre-Olympic races in 1959 assuaged competitors’ concerns about  the quality of McKinney Creek.

“The USOC was trying to cooperate with Squaw to build those trails because of the controversy about having them in McKinney Creek.  There was quite a tug of war there.  The USOC offered to let the top racers at that time go to Squaw Valley and work and they would house them or maintain them.  That would allow them also to train and be in the North American championships.” – Joe Pete Wilson

Wilson was one of the Olympic hopefuls who took up USOC’s offer to go out to California to work on the ski trails.  With a backgound in logging, he operated heavy equipment to help clear land for the ski trails.  Wilson and other athletes lodged in the Olympic village and traveled to McKinney Creek, clearing 65 km of trails for the cross-country and biathlon events.

DESIGNING THE TRAILS

Broomhall sited the stadium on land where a subdivision had been planned.  Although it hadn’t been developed,  he again had to chase down property owners and secure permission before he could build the stadium.  The lodge, timing, ski storage and wax buildings were all temporary structures.

[Broomhall and Merrill] “made sure that we had plenty of ski time,” said Wilson.  “They were very sensitive to our needs.  We worked hard, but we didn’t care.  We were having the time of our lives.”

Before 1960, race timing was done by hand.  IBM who provided computerized timing and scoring,  “came into the valley and they ran electric lines down to McKinney Creek.  The army ran underground wires to the [four biathlon] ranges.”  In case the electronic system might fail, Broomhall assembled a crew to time the events by hand, and they competed against the electric eye to gauge accuracy of the two methods.

Video of the men’s 50 k.  Gotta love the soundtrack.

Men’s 50 km Race, Squaw Valley 1960

[Ed. note: I apologize; this video just didn’t want to embed!]

Perhaps most important, Broomhall conceived the precursor of the modern snow tiller to cope with the challenging conditions at Squaw Valley.  In prior winter games, tracks were skied in, or were boot-packed.  This wouldn’t suffice at Squaw Valley.

In addition to abundant snow, Broomhall discovered that Tahoe’s weather featured extreme temperature changes.  From around freezing during the day, “at night it would get so cold it would freeze up solid.  It created a huge problem.  In Europe they used the military [to bootpack ski courses].  But they didn’t have the same problem that I had in California.   How could we set good tracks?”

Based on Broomhall’s specifications, a Concord, NH farm implement dealer modified a grain flailer.  The prototype was mounted on wooden runners, with a Ski-Doo snowmobile motor powering four-inch tines to work the snow.  Due to shipping delays, the grooming tool made to Squaw Valley after the 1959 pre-Olympic meets.

Broomhall spent six weeks working with the implement, and it “beat that snow right up fine.”  Back east, the NH fabricator built two more groomers with modifications, and shipped them to McKinney Creek.

“Following the tiller, we had 6 skiers that skied in the tracks.  The next morning, there were solid tracks.  They’d never seen tracks like that anywhere, ever.  That’s how we solved the snow problem.  To my knowledge, that’s the first time any snow was tilled, alpine or cross-country.” – Wendall Broomhall

He towed it with a Tucker Snow Cat.  With six skiers following behind him, Broomhall said “It beat that snow up right fine.”  Fifty years later, Broomhall said, “I looked back after that and wondered why I didn’t think about the next step, developing mechanical molds to set the track.  That didn’t come along until 1968.”

 

REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST

“The trails to me weren’t much different than trails that had been skied in [boot-packed],” said Olavi Hirvonen.  “They weren’t hard-packed like today’s trails.”  Now the proprietor of New York’s Lapland Lake ski center, Hirvonen raced the 15 km and 50 km events at Squaw Valley.

Breaking a ski early in the 50 km, he scootered on the remaining ski for more than two kilometers.  At the top of a climb, a spectator gave Hirvonen one of his own skis.  Despite the broken ski, Hirvonen had the second-best U.S. result in the 50 km.

However, “There was no question” that Broomhall’s tiller was a breakthrough in grooming, Wilson recalled.

“Although there was a tremendous amount of snow, there was a lot of moisture.  As soon as the temperature dropped below 32 degrees, it would stiffen up.  And I can remember going out some mornings it was so hard and fast it was scary.  With wooden cross-country skis at that time, you were at the mercy of the degree of the slope you were on!”  – Joe Pete Wilson

While not as demanding as modern world cup race courses,  Wilson recalled the trails as “spectacular.”

When asked about the effect of McKinney Creek’s altitude – at 6300 feet, it was above today’s legal altitude limit for Olympic races –   Hirvonen replied, “It may have been for me.”  Unable to attend training camps out west, when Hirvonen arrived in Steamboat Springs, CO for the Olympic trials, it took him six days to become acclimated to the elevation.

BIATHLON

In 1960, a single, 20 km biathlon race was added to the Winter Olympic calendar.  While the biathlon world championships featured a relay then, none was scheduled for the Olympics.

Held on one large loop in the MacKinney Creek trail system, the race was an interval start variant of the military ski patrol.  Unlike today’s biathlon with its single 50-meter range, competitors shot at various distances over the course.  At km 6.5 was a 200-meter range; km 9.5 had a 250-meter range; km 12.5 had a 150-meter range, and km 15 had a 100-meter range.    At the first three ranges, biathletes shot prone; with the final shooting done standing.   Competitors used 7.62mm caliber rifles.  A missed shot meant a two-minute penalty.

At each shooting range, volunteers phoned competitors’ results to the stadium.

[Ed. note:  sources conflict on when military patrol was first introduced to the Olympics.  Some say that is was a demonstration sport starting in 1928, others say it was an “official” – I infer that to mean a medal event – in 1924.]

CONCLUSION

After the Games were over, Broomhall worked until June, dismantling the cross-country stadium.  He believes one of his tillers may have been shipped to Europe following the Olympics.  The trails slowly reverted to forest.  Years later, some of the privately owned land was donated to the state of California.

David Antonucci noticed remnants of trail corridors while building a house in a subdivision.  His curiosity about the old trails led to research, and he identified them as segments of the old McKinney Creek trail system.  Ultimately he led a movement to restore some of McKinney Creek’s trails.  Curious skiers can find them in Sugar Pine Point State Park.

First-hand interviews with many of the principal players from 1960 are no longer possible.  We may never know whether Cushing’s bid was inspired by the Olympic ideal, or if was it a publicity stunt that unexpectedly succeeded.

 

 

6 comments for “Squaw Valley: The Lost Olympic Cross-Country Venue

  1. Andrey Revyakin
    March 9, 2012 at 11:57 PM

    yep, I know the area – my wife and I kayaked to “Meeks Bay” from Tahoe City. Sugarpoint nearby is a State Park

  2. Andrey Revyakin
    March 9, 2012 at 11:51 PM

    nice Russian video, Peter! I need to check this place out

  3. March 8, 2012 at 11:49 AM

    Fascinating history, thanks!

  4. Paul Bazanchuk
    March 7, 2012 at 7:34 PM

    Pete
    Really enjoyed the post. Thanks for the history.
    PS do you know the number of shots at each range back in 1960?

    • March 7, 2012 at 9:03 PM

      Paul, Thank you for your inquiry. I don’t know how many shots they were allowed back then. If I can find this info, I’ll add it to the web site.

    • March 9, 2012 at 6:50 AM

      Paul, athletes were assessed a time penalty for each missed target in Squaw Valley. According to Tanja Ohlson of the International Biathlon Union, there were no spare shots allowed. So… five shots at each range.

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