Losing the lodge?
August 12, 2005
The Sierra Club’s flagship lodge on Donner Summit is on the chopping block.
Clair Tappaan Lodge, set on 50 acres in Norden, has been a financial failure for several years, and now the Sierra Club board, which owns the building, is considering selling the lodge if it continues to lose money.
In recent years Clair Tappaan has lost approximately $100,000 annually, according to the Sierra Club. And the Sierra Club board, which in years past had been willing pump money into its only lodge and backcountry hut system, gave their members an ultimatum in November: Raise $100,000 by Sept. 30 to support the lodge and find a way to make the building break even or the board would investigate selling the property.
“The Sierra Club was traditionally willing to subsidize the lodge, but that is now changing,” said Clair Tappaan manager Peter Lemkuhl.
What is at stake is the Sierra Club’s only true lodge and hut system in the Sierra Nevada, Lemkuhl said. The lodge ” which serves three meals a day, rents cross country skis and grooms cross country trails ” is also the center of a unique backcountry hut system that sees as many as 2,000 visitors each winter.
“Clair Tappaan is really in a class of its own,” Lemkuhl said. “It is unique to the Sierra Club.”
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Built by volunteer work parties in 1934, the lodge has a chunk of history behind it. Rumors around the lodge purport that famed photographer and naturalist Ansel Adams once stayed amongst the building’s rough-hewn timbers and creaky wooden floors. And, according to the story, like all other guests he helped out with houskeeping.
“He was said to have taken his turn on chores, cleaning dishes for the lodge” said Lemkuhl.
Now the visitors are much more pedestrian, but nonetheless eclectic. Pacific Crest Trail hikers, backcountry skiers and high school athletes pack the lodge depending on the season.
Clair Tappaan’s financial struggle is the familiar fate shared by many businesses on Donner Summit. The summer and winter months may bring in good money, but the seasons in between can sink a business.
The lodge, which has been turned over to a private management company to help it break even, is looking at bringing in school groups and holding retreats during the slow season to boost business.
If that strategy works, the Sierra Club board will be willing to keep operating the lodge, Lemkuhl said.
“Once we don’t require a subsidy by the national club, they are not going to have any questions why they are spending money on this program,” said Lemkuhl.
If Clair Tappaan closes, it is very possible that the four backcountry huts, popular with locals and visitors during the winter, will also be endangered.
Dick Simpson, who has organized work parties to maintain the Peter Grubb, Benson, Bradley and Ludlow huts for years, said he hopes the huts will continue to be open to the public no matter what happens to the lodge.
“Whether it is a small positive [cash balance] or a small negative, the huts are not tipping the scales very much,” said Simpson.
Simpson met his wife on a trip to one of the huts 20 years ago. He said people that have been using the Sierra Club-run system are incredulous that they may be closed.
“Most of them are distressed,” Simpson said.
The four huts, which run from north of Interstate 80 to near the south side of Lake Tahoe, were all erected as memorials to deceased Sierra Club members, Simpson said.
“They were all sort of spontaneous expressions of feelings over the death of a friend or colleague,” he said.
While everyone agrees that the possibility that Clair Tappaan may close is very real, things are looking good heading into the Sept. 30 deadline.
So far different groups have raised nearly $70,000 of the $100,000 identified to save the lodge. And with two fundraisers coming up, the goal seems achievable.