Silver Belt one part of Sugar Bowl’s deep history |

Silver Belt one part of Sugar Bowl’s deep history

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun
Longtime Sugar Bowl Ski School Director Bill Klein catches some air.
Mark McLaughlin | Lake Tahoe Action

This winter Sugar Bowl Resort is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its opening in December 1939. The ski area boasts a long, colorful history based on easy winter access and bomber snowfall.

Sugar Bowl recently invested $20 million in on-mountain improvements and features 13 lifts, including 5 high-speed quads. An expanded snowmaking system further enhances the 42 feet of snow the resort averages each winter.

Sugar Bowl’s state-of-the-art infrastructure may not appear like a venerable “Grand Dame” of skiing in the Tahoe Sierra, but she’s got the pedigree to prove it.

During the 1930s, Donner Summit boasted one of the most extensive concentrations of rope tows, ski clubs and ski trails in the U.S. There were many mom-and-pop rope-tow operations along trans-Sierra Highway 40, but Sugar Bowl Resort raised the level of skill needed and enjoyment of alpine skiing.

The resort opened with California’s first chairlift, and for the first time in the Sierra skiers could take a leisurely ride up the hill, instead of an arm-jerking, glove-shredding pull by rope tow.

The new chairlift accessed the slopes of 8,383-foot Mount Lincoln with its challenging ski runs and vertical drop of 1,500 feet. The resort quickly became the darling of San Francisco socialites and the Hollywood celebrity crowd.

Sugar Bowl is the brainchild of Hannes Schroll, an Austrian-born skiing wunderkind who was ski school director at Badger Pass in Yosemite National Park. In 1938 Schroll quit his position there and organized the San Francisco-based Sugar Bowl Corporation.

Early on the company had money woes until people learned that cartoonist and animator Walt Disney was a principal investor. As the resort developed, one of the prominent peaks was named Mount Disney.

Hannes Schroll wanted to attract the best skiers in the world to his new resort, and in April 1940 Sugar Bowl hosted its first annual “Silver Belt” race, a slalom run that plummeted down steep terrain through gullies, cliffs and bumps. Sugar Bowl’s legendary Silver Belt was one of the most challenging races of its era.

Each year top-ranked skiers competed fiercely, hoping to take home the 3-foot long, silver-studded belt with a silver buckle. Sugar Bowl’s inaugural Silver Belt race was won by Friedl Pfeifer and Gretchen Frazer, two of America’s best skiers at the time.

In 2004 Sugar Bowl revived its historic Silver Belt race, but with a new twist. The Rahlves’ Silver Belt Banzai is the final act in a multiresort tour for ski-cross and snowboard-cross competitors.

Instead of head-to-head events, up to four racers jump into the course at the same time, all trying to out-maneuver and out-run the other to the finish line. Sugar Bowl will host this season’s championship March 14-15.

Today, Sugar Bowl has been expanded and improved in virtually every way. With some of Tahoe’s finest off-piste terrain and deep snow, the area is a Mecca for powder hounds.

Lake Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at Check out Mark’s blog at

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