Sierra history: The legacy of Donner Ski Ranch, an 80-year-old resort rebel
This story has been updated from a previous version to display the correct spelling of former Ranch owner Norm Sayler's name. Norm Sayler is the correct spelling; the Sun regrets the error.
Donner Ski Ranch had originally planned to open this weekend, Dec. 10-11, according to the resort. However, due to recent rainy weather, officials urge residents to stay tuned to the DSR Facebook page — www.facebook.com/donnerskiranch — for updates. You can also visit www.donnerskiranch.com to learn more about the resort.
NORDEN, Calif. — In an era when the ski industry is dominated by enormous corporations controlling multiple mountains, while charging well over $100 a day to access the lifts, Donner Ski Ranch remains the small-scale family favorite place it has been since 1937.
When the ski area up at Donner Summit opens for the 2016-17 season, it will embark on its 80th year.
Looking back, the story of the resort is in many ways the story of the history of winter sports in the Sierra.
What would become Donner Ski Ranch began with the installation of a rope tow on the site of the Ranch, 19320 Donner Pass Road in Norden, in 1937 by Jerry Ellis.
The fledgling area floundered during World War II, but when Stanley Walton came home from his service in WWII looking for an occupation, he and his wife Madeline built the T-bar and lodge and came up with the name Donner Ski Ranch.
Their daughter, Starr Walton, remembers, “I started going to school in Norden next to the railroad tracks, then moved to the schoolhouse in Kingvale. I won my first trophy at six. It was all about the families skiing together.”
Starr’s father had learned how to knit in the army, now he taught her mom how to do it, and “she knitted all the sweaters for the ski school. We skied with leather boots, wooden skis and long thong bindings,” said Walton, who still skis and owns a home on Donner Summit.
THE SAYLER — AND SNOWBOARD — ERA
A new ownership took over the property from the Waltons in the early 1950s, mostly composed of people from Sacramento, including Anthony Kennedy Sr., the father of the current U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Norm Sayler began working for Donner Ski Ranch at that time, helping to build the ski area’s first chairlift. Sayler took over the management of the resort in 1958, and ran it for the next 46 years, while slowly acquiring most of the ownership.
“I was a scrounger because I had no money,” said Sayler.
As other ski areas expanded, he took their old lifts and brought them to Donner Ski Ranch. He bought a lift from Vail, cut it into two pieces and turned it into two chairlifts.
He then got a lift from Boreal, and one from Mt. Shasta. The Triple Chair was installed as new, but all the other lifts at the resort were acquired from other resorts.
“So many people helped us, Jimmy King at Squaw Valley would give us parts,” Sayler says. “Kirkwood helped us with Thikol parts. We did all kinds of things to keep that place going.”
One way Sayler said he kept the resort going was by being the first ski area in the country to embrace snowboarding, back in the 1970s.
He sold the first ticket to a snowboarder when all other ski areas didn’t allow snowboards.
“If you wanted to buy a lift ticket, I would sell you one,” Sayler says. “As far as I was concerned, you could have a snowboard in one arm if you had a $10 bill in the other.”
Donner Ski Ranch soon became a hotbed for snowboarders, and some of the nation’s best got their start at the Ranch.
Sayler also let skiers jump and do tricks that the other ski areas in the region prohibited at the time.
“We built jumps, we had a guy doing a double flip over the train tracks. They were telling people not to have fun skiing. We saved the goddamn ski industry,” Sayler says. “The industry was killing themselves. I think Donner Ski Ranch should be noted as a place you could be yourself. We let you have fun on the snow.”
ENTERING A NEW, MODERN ERA
Marshall and Janet Tuttle, who also own the Rustic Cottages and Tahoe Vista Lodge and Cabins in Tahoe Vista, took over ownership of the resort in 2004.
Just two months ago, they hired a new General Manager, Tessa McHenry. Tessa’s father, George McHenry, fell in love with the place in the early 1970s, and went on to become mountain manager of Donner Ski Ranch for Norm Saylor during the 1970s and ‘80s.
“I skied there every day of my young life, it has always been a very special place for me.” McHenry says.
In fact, when she was 12, she thought to herself she would love to run Donner Ski Ranch some day. She has been away from Tahoe for over a decade, working as a marketing expert for several different companies, but is pretty excited to have been able to return to this special place with the skill set to make the ski area even better.
“It’s this really special place, it always has been,” she says. “It’s this tiny resort, that has pretty great terrain, yet is totally devoid of pretense. I think it is like everyone’s favorite dive bar.”
What makes Donner Ski Ranch special is that so many families come back every year. It is much less expensive then the bigger, more crowded resorts, and many people enjoy the rustic vibe.
And, while McHenry is new at the job, she is already working on several important goals. First, is making sure to have the best employees with a culture of being loyal and passionate.
Second, is a focus on safety, and finally, she would like to make the area a year round business with concerts every weekend in the summer and a mountain biking operation.
But above all else, she wants to keep that special relaxed and fun feeling that Donner Ski Ranch has always been known for.
Tim Hauserman, a nearly lifelong resident of Tahoe City, is a freelance author and cross-country ski instructor. He may be reached at email@example.com.