Squaw Free takes flight at Granlibakken [VIDEO] | SierraSun.com

Squaw Free takes flight at Granlibakken [VIDEO]

The slopes at Granlibakken Resort in Tahoe City have long been hallowed ground for skiers with its roots in ski jumping dating back to the 1920s. Later the site, at the time Tahoe Tavern's winter facility, was considered for the 1932 Winter Olympics, and while that honor went to Lake Placid, N.Y., the area which was dubbed Olympic Hill still attracted the nation's top skiers as host of the 1932 U.S. Ski Championships later in the year.

Though much has changed since those early days of ski jumping in Tahoe City, Granlibakken still serves as a place for sending skiers high into the Sierra air through the work of the nonprofit youth foundation, Olympic Valley Freestyle / Freeride Team or Squaw Free, as the squad is also known.

Now, a narrow strip of green, artificial snow tiles drape a section of hillside near the resort's Treetop Adventure Park, leading Squaw Free members down a path toward a wooden ramp, and then skyward, before landing safely on an airbag.

Squaw Free opened its summer training at Granlibakken, on Saturday, July 29, as a handful of skiers from the roughly 150-member team took off for the first jumps of the year.

"It's a little scary the first time," Squaw Free member Michelle Tam said. "It's really steep and the material is a little bit different than snow. But it helps out a lot because you can try out a bunch of tricks that you're not really comfortable with on snow yet. It's nice getting comfortable with a bunch of tricks and trying new things."

Tam's brother, Ryan said he was jumping on to an airbag for the first time in two years, but wasted little time once he got used to the ramp, as he looked to perfect a rodeo 720 — a combination of flipping and spinning.

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"I was there," said Tam of nearly completing the rotation on the trick. "I already had those tricks, I just didn't do a rodeo (720), so they were like, 'You should do a rodeo (720).' So I was like, 'OK.'"



With little consequence for coming down in an awkward position, the youngsters are able to attempt inverted tricks, continuing to practice them on the airbag until they are ready to take the move to the snow.

"It's huge," Head Coach Jimeel Ferris said. "You can just huck (a trick) and land on your head, and huck it and huck it and huck it, until you've got it every time. Then you take it to snow and boom!"

Squaw Free team member Ryan Chen jumped onto the air bag for his first time on Saturday, and after getting accustomed to the takeoff said the ramp provides an advantage not normally afforded to Tahoe area skiers.

"It helps quite a bit," Chen said. "Because you get to practice when you wouldn't normally."

The ability to practice during summer is crucial in today's freestyle skiing, according to Ferris, where younger and younger riders continue to push the boundaries of what's possible in the sport.

"The game has changed. Now they're doing triples and a lot of other things and these jumps are huge. It's not like it used to be. You've got to be on top of it," Ferris said.

"In this day and age, everybody's all in or they're gone. That's just kind of how the world is becoming — at 12 years old you're focused on the Olympics. If you don't provide them with some sort of facility, you lose interest and you lose kids. This area in Tahoe is a ski area, and it needs a support system for kids to keep them focused."

The ramp was originally set up on Granlibakken's Ski and Sledding Hill as a temporary fixture for the team to train on during the summer. This year the team moved to an area just to the west of the ski hill, where Ferris hopes to have a permanent summertime training location for the squad.

"We originally had this set up on their ski hill, and originally the ramp was a smaller ramp and made to come in, in the summer time, and then come out," Ferris said. "We wanted to try and get something a little more consistent, that we could just have our little spot."

Ferris and his team of workers began construction on the ramp last year. Unfortunately, this winter's heavy snowfall ended up crushing a portion of it, but after a month and a half of work throughout June and July the ramp was ready for use.

"We pushed it to get it up and running," Ferris said. "Tahoe hasn't had anything ever like this — other than Woodward, which is camped out all summer long. We might open it to public some day, but not this year. It's just basically for our team, just because we know that they can ski."

Going forward Ferris said there are plans of improving the jump area further by adding a sprinkler system to allow the skiers to ride down at a more consistent rate by keeping the artificial snow pads wet and slick.

"Compared to snow it's weird," Ferris said of skiing on the pads. "It's like riding on hard plastic, it's slow and fast, slow and fast."

Ferris said there are also plans to add grass and woodchips to keep dust down, as well as making other enhancements.

"We have two bags, so there's potential of building something more mountain bike oriented or even like a slip-and-slide," he said. "Just to have a venue to have people coming, and get the team gathered and to be a part of each other."

Squaw Free is a nonprofit foundation, which trains out of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, and is designed to instruct skiers in proper freestyle, freeride, and freeskiing techniques. The teams also hands out eight scholarships each year to help members with the costs of getting on the mountain. Aside from training out of the resort and representing Squaw at events, Ferris said the team is independent of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.

For more information on the team visit SquawFree.org.

Granlibakken facts:

Norwegian for: a hillside sheltered by Fir trees

1928 — Tahoe Tavern remains open for its first winter as visitors and locals recreate on what would later be dubbed as Olympic Hill

1932 —U.S. Ski Championships take place at Olympic Hill

1940s — Norwegian ski jumper Kjell Rustad develops area further into small ski resort, naming it Granlibakken

Source granlibakken.com