Sugar Bowl’s Silver Belt Race an era of challenge |

Sugar Bowl’s Silver Belt Race an era of challenge

Mark McLaughlin

Photo courtesy Bill Klein Collection

Seventy years ago this season, the Sugar Bowl ski area opened for business. Northern California’s first true alpine resort, Sugar Bowl was notably larger than any other nearby operations and its chairlift, the first in the Sierra, enabled a skier to sit down for a leisurely ride up the ski hill. The chairlift accessed the slopes of 8,383-foot Mount Lincoln with its challenging ski runs and vertical drop of 1,500 feet.

A 1939 press release boasted: “With a ski school under the supervision of [Austrian] Hannes Schroll and featuring the [parallel] Arlberg Technique, and with an open-air ice rink in front of the Lodge among its other new facilities, the Sugar Bowl takes its place this winter among this country’s and Europe’s most complete and modern winter resorts.”

Today, Sugar Bowl has been expanded and improved in virtually every way. The resort now encompasses four major mountain peaks served by high-speed chair lifts. The spectacular terrain provides skiers and snowboarders with an endless variety of challenges: “From heart-pumping chutes, endless bumps and jumps, to corduroy cruisers, gentle rollers, and terrain parks.” With some of Tahoe’s finest off-piste terrain and deep snow, the area is a Mecca for powder hounds.

Hannes Schroll was a natural at drawing publicity and he wanted something to rival Sun Valley’s famous Harriman Cup that had started in 1937. In April 1940, Sugar Bowl hosted its first annual “Silver Belt” race, a giant slalom run that began near the top of Mt. Lincoln at 8,383 feet and then plummeted 1,300 vertical feet down the steepest terrain at Sugar Bowl, through gullies, cliffs and bumps. Before the formation of the international World Cup ski competition, Sugar Bowl’s legendary Silver Belt was considered one of the most challenging races of its era. Each year, many of the champions and top-ranked skiers of the day competed, hoping to take home the 3-foot long silver-studded belt with a silver buckle. The trophy was based on an award given to “Cornish Bob” Oliver who had won the first official longboard championship race in 1867 at La Porte, Calif., when he took home a silver belt prize worth $75.

Sugar Bowl’s inaugural Silver Belt race was won by Friedl Pfeifer and Gretchen Frazer, two of America’s best skiers at the time. Frazer went on to make two U.S. Olympic ski teams and became the first American to win an Olympic alpine medal when she earned a silver in 1948 at St. Moritz, Switzerland. Pfeifer, who started his own ski school in Sun Valley, Idaho, won the U.S. national title in the slalom in 1940. Both Friedl Pfeifer and Gretchen Frazer are honored members of the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame.

Over the years, the winners of the original Silver Belt race series (1940 to 1975) read like a who’s who of champions, including Ski Hall of Fame members Alf Engen, Buddy Werner, and Jean Saubert. The winner’s list also includes notable Tahoe skiers like Dodie Post who won in 1949, Babette Haueisen (1955), Starr Walton (1957 and 1960), and Eric Poulsen (1969 and 1970).

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In 2004, Sugar Bowl revived the historic Silver Belt race, but with a modern twist. Called the Silver Belt Banzai, the race has no slalom gates, but is a ski-cross where a half dozen skiers and snowboarders jump into the course at the same time, all trying to out-maneuver and out-run the other. Racers compete in men’s and women’s divisions for $10,000 worth of total prize money. The contest has few rules, but skiers/riders must stay on course and finish in the top three to advance. Ski-cross competition made its debut in the Vancouver Winter Olympics. This year’s Silver Belt Banzai is scheduled for March 13-14, 2010.

– Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin’s new book, “Longboards to Olympics: A Century of Tahoe Winter Sports” is now available at local stores or at Mark can be reached at