Old-school ski resort | SierraSun.com

Old-school ski resort

Paul RaymoreSierra Sun
Photo by Josh Miller/Sierra SunNorm Sayler at Donner Ski Ranch, a place he has guided for nearly a half-century.
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Editors note: This is the final installment in a series examining the amount of development going on at three representative Tahoe-area ski resorts.In many ways it is a miracle Donner Ski Ranch still exists.Thats because since the first rope tow was installed in 1937, the small ski resort beside old Highway 40 hasnt done a whole lot of changing. While it has been around the longest compared to other resorts in the region, Donner Ski Ranch has done the least in terms of improvements and development, relying instead on cheaper ticket prices, easy access from Interstate 80, and a relaxed atmosphere to attract skiers and snowboarders.Throughout the years the resort has almost been sold a number of times to developers and other parties more interested in the land than in the skiing. But since 1958, one man has been putting his heart and sweat into keeping the chairs turning and the skiers coming every winter Norm Sayler.Though no longer the majority owner of the Ranch, Sayler still works there as an unofficial spokesman, manager, lift operator and jack of all trades. And its Saylers hard work over the years that new owners Marshall and Janet Tuttle claim is responsible for the unique atmosphere Donner Ski Ranch customers have come to expect.Before there were 80 shareholders, but in reality, he was the guy who was the heart and soul of the resort, Marshall Tuttle says. He was here 24/7, making snow or building chairlifts or doing whatever he needed to do. So it really is his place and it always will be because hes the one who put his whole life into it. Thats why Tuttle decided to print Norm Saylers Donner Ski Ranch on all of their new brochures for the resort.

With one triple chairlift and five doubles serving the 731 feet of vertical on 460 acres, skiers and snowboarders at Donner Ski Ranch spend a little more time riding the lifts than at resorts that have invested heavily in high-speed detachable lifts. But thats just part of the allure, says Sayler, and what makes Donner Ski Ranch different from the Sugar Bowls and Northstars of the ski world.None of our slopes are crowded, Sayler says from a table in the resorts one lodge The Ranch Bar. When you get off the top of one of our lifts and start to come down, you arent confronted with [a scenario] that looks like you are in the San Francisco airport looking at a conveyor belt full of people.I dont see a pleasure in that kind of skiing, he says. I think Donner Ski Ranch is fortunate in that it has enough skiing terrain on each of its chairlifts that none of them ever get crowded.In an age where destination resorts feel pressure to continually upgrade their lift systems, Sayler brags about purchasing all of the lifts at Donner Ski Ranch used from other resorts.Everything we have was purchased used and then refurbished, and theyre excellent-running machines, he says. Are they older? Yes. But do they take two people up a hill at a time and give them a good day of skiing? Yes they do.And they fit in with our mode of how many people we want to put to the top of the mountain at any one time, Sayler says.And the old man on the mountain is happy to point out that more time spent resting on the lift means you can ski the older chairs all day without being worn out.

While Sayler is no longer in charge of the purse strings at the resort, the Tuttles hope to keep things running pretty much the same.As the owners of three other businesses with old-school roots, Marshall and Janet Tuttle see an opportunity to capitalize on the history of Donner Ski Ranch while increasing efficiencies and restoring its historic grandeur.The Tuttles currently split their time between Walnut Creek, where they own and manage the historic Benicia Foundry & Iron Works, and Tahoe Vista, where they own two historic lodges the Rustic Cottage Resort & Motel and the Tahoe Vista Lodge & Cabins.At both Tahoe Vista properties, the Tuttles restored decaying facilities into quaint lodges that offer guests a glimpse back into the old-time charm of Lake Tahoe 50 years ago.They hope to do the same with Donner Ski Ranch, and both Tuttles have plans for how they can redecorate the lodge to accentuate its historic character.Were sort of drawn to old, historic properties that need a little care, Janet Tuttle says of why they purchased the resort. It was my husband [behind the decision]. We saw this place nine years ago and saw a lot of potential. It just so happened that all the cards sort of fell right and we were able to acquire it.Marshall Tuttle, who learned to ski at Squaw Valley when he was 11 years old, actually remembers coming to Donner Ski Ranch with his Boy Scout troop as a kid and having Sayler himself help him on the lift.Its that first-hand history with the place that makes Sayler confident that Marshall and Janet will be good keepers of Donner Ski Ranch.Theyre a very nice couple very down to earth, he says. I think theyre going to keep the atmosphere and flavor that Donner Ski Ranch has had through all its years of operation.

Though the Tuttles have no plans to build any more condominiums at Donner Ski Ranch there are already 36, 700-square-foot-or-less units on the mountain above the lodge they are looking to upgrade the resorts grooming capabilities with the purchase of a new grooming cat.Rebuilding the resorts six lifts will take place this summer in order to ensure that everything is working smoothly for next season, but replacing the aging lifts is not in the plans, according to Marshall Tuttle.The Tuttles will also continue to exploit the cross marketing potential of Donner Ski Ranch and the loyal clientele they have built up with the Rustic Cottages and Tahoe Vista Lodge & Cabins.It all goes back to our success with the cottages, Marshall Tuttle says. Any of the people who stay with us at the cottages could stay at a Motel 6 or a condo or something else. But its like old Tahoe and its nostalgic and its the way it was. So this [resort] is the way it was and its still going to be the way it was.According to Janet Tuttle, a lot of people are looking for the old historic thing, because all the other resorts are starting to look alike.As a lower-priced alternative to the big-name resorts in the Lake Tahoe region, Donner Ski Ranch has always attracted families and individuals looking for a less expensive day of skiing. But Sayler says the Ranch has also had its fair share of well-heeled tourists looking for something different. Do we have people who come here who have wealth status? he asks. Most certainly. Once in a while youll see somebody walking around and youll find out that the guy can afford to buy all of California maybe. And thats the same as every other place.Do we have people who come here because its all they can afford? Most certainly.Some people come here not knowing what theyre going to get and find that it fits their needs, Sayler says. And other ones come and it doesnt fit their needs at all they need to go to those other places.

But while the ski industry has certainly undergone dramatic changes over the past 30 years many of which have taken root at Donner Ski Ranch as well Sayler is quick to point out all of the other factors that are drawing skiers away from the slopes these days.Soccer is one of the things that has hurt skiing more than anything, Sayler says, blaming activities like competitive gymnastics, cheerleading, baseball and all the rest for occupying time families used to spend skiing.Traffic and the long commute times from Sacramento and the Bay Area have also hurt Tahoe ski resorts, Sayler says, even as better snow clearing and four-wheel-drive vehicles have made getting around in snow country easier. A thing that has helped skiing as much as anything is snowboarding, Sayler says.He is convinced that he sold the first lift ticket to a snowboarder among Tahoe resorts at a time when everyone else was wary of the emerging sport.As for how he feels about the idea of destination ski resorts, Sayler bemoans the whole concept.I think the major change in skiing came back in the early 1980s when it was said that, You people who are running ski resorts need to remember that you are in the entertainment business. And I commented at that time that No I wasnt in the entertainment business, I was in the ski business.

While other Tahoe area resorts like Northstar and Squaw Valley invest in high-tech infrastructure and new slope-side villages, Sayler and the Tuttles are happy trying to hold on to what theyve already got. Im starting to see some trends start to happen, Sayler says, and I honestly feel that the smaller ski resort is going to come back to life, because I think a lot of people are getting fed up with the high intensity that goes along with living in a high-speed development.I really feel that were going to have a little reversal and places like Donner Ski Ranch, Dodge Ridge and Mount Shasta Ski Park are going to come back and survive quite well, he says. Lincoln Kauffman, the new general manager of Donner Ski Ranch, put it another way.You go to Squaw Valley on a powder day and the place is skied out in 15, 20 minutes to an hour the powders gone, he says. And you could come back here two or three days later on the backside and be skiing through the trees putting down some fresh tracks.Part of the reason for those fresh tracks three days after a storm is that Donner Ski Ranch isnt attracting anywhere near the number of skiers, even proportionate to its size, as a Northstar or a Sugar Bowl. But the low cost structure and simplicity of the operation mean they can get by with less.And in the minds of Janet and Marshall Tuttle, less can very often be more.