Sierra history: Reno-Tahoe skiing pioneer Fraser West | 1918-2015
Special to the Bonanza
TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — Fraser West lived life to the fullest, and when he died Jan. 2, 2015, at nearly 97 years of age, we lost an honorable man and pioneer of Lake Tahoe ski history.
Born March 1, 1918, Fraser Crawford Edwards arrived in Reno as a young boy, along with his mother Marguerite, who was seeking a divorce from her first husband.
Marguerite later married Reno surgeon Dr. Claudius Wilson West, who adopted Fraser as his only son and gave him his last name.
After graduating Reno High School, Fraser passed up an appointment to attend West Point, preferring to focus on agriculture, skiing and rodeo roping.
He enrolled at the University of Nevada as an Agriculture and Animal Husbandry major. He loved horses and was well versed in the cowboy arts of calf and team roping.
While a student at the University of Nevada, West participated in rodeo competitions to stay in shape and earn a little extra money.
It wasn’t long before his friends started calling him “Poke.” A member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, Fraser became good friends with fraternity brother Wayne Poulsen, who taught him the ropes of snow surveying.
Poulsen later went on to purchase Squaw Valley with the intent of developing a world-class ski resort.
FIFTY JUMPS IN ONE DAY
In 1939 Fraser West was a member of the undefeated University of Nevada ski team coached by Wayne Poulsen, who had graduated the year before.
Fraser was a strong four-event skier and a great motivator for the team, as well as a serious intimidator to their competitors.
Lean, mean, and nearly six feet tall, Poke often heckled his opponents during practice runs. He was a tough hombre who became team captain in 1940.
West was among those who helped Poulsen install Nevada’s first rope tow at Galena Creek on the lower slopes of Mt. Rose, where Fraser once made a record 50 jumps in one day.
During the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair held on Treasure Island, West, along with Poulsen and other Reno and Tahoe-based skiers, performed skiing exhibitions on a towering ski jump built by the Auburn Ski Club.
After he graduated from the University of Nevada, Fraser reconsidered the military profession and he signed up for Marine Officer Candidate School.
He completed his officer’s training at Quantico, Va., in February 1941, despite a skiing accident at Stowe, Vt., which left him with several broken vertebrae.
A DECORATED MILITARY MAN
Capt. West soon found himself in the South Pacific and in fierce combat on the island of Guadalcanal. Later, while leading his Marines during the 1944 invasion of Guam, a Japanese bullet shattered the femur in his left leg, but not before West had saved his Company by stepping in front of a tank to direct its fire power.
Over the course of three days, West and his company of men fought off seven Japanese banzai attacks, the most any outfit sustained during the war.
His heroic actions earned him a medal for valor, the Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a nine-month hospital stay.
While recovering in Nevada, West married Teddy in Reno in 1945, a union that would produce four children and last nearly 70 years.
Fraser West’s lifelong career goal was to reach the rank of General, but in 1964 a transfer to Virginia meant moving his family to a segregated school district.
Unwilling to do that, West resigned from the military. During his 24-year career with the Marines, he built five rodeo arenas and organized many competitions among the servicemen.
After he retired, West twice earned the Military Rodeo Cowboys Association’s title of World Champion Team Roper.
While stationed at Honolulu to design and build a rodeo for enlisted men, West had his skis shipped to him.
When conditions were favorable, he climbed 13,697-foot-high Mauna Loa to make powder turns on Hawaii.
AN ALL-AROUND GENTLEMAN
When Squaw Valley opened in November 1949, West headed up the first ski patrols and taught avalanche control on the mountain.
During the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw, he helped organize soldiers to foot pack the slopes due to heavy snowfall just before the start of the Games.
He became the Executive Director of the Far West Ski Association and in 1968 the Mountain Manager for Squaw Valley, where he chaired the 1969 World Cup races.
He helped develop Boreal Ridge ski area and reluctantly gave up competitive skiing at age 75. He finally hung up the boards for good at 84.
Fraser West was a longtime member of the U.S. Ski Association and the International Ski Federation, and was a recipient of the Hans Georg Award for long-term positive impact on the sport of skiing.
Among his many accomplishments, in 1994 he received the USSA’s highest honor, the Julius Blegen Award, for prolonged and outstanding service to the sport.
With the passing of Fraser West, we lost a talented leader, military hero, and all-around gentleman.
A rare breed indeed.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Mark’s new blog at tahoenuggets.com.
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