Squaw: The little valley that could
Forty-five years ago this month, Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympic Games and brought international recognition to the Tahoe-Truckee region.Getting the Olympics to Lake Tahoe had taken a minor miracle by Alex C. Cushing, founder of the Squaw Valley Development Corporation. In the late 1940s, Cushing, a former Wall Street lawyer, purchased 600 acres of mountain slope from Wayne Poulsen, a Reno native and former champion ski jumper who owned most of the land on the valley floor. Cushings company promptly constructed a $100,000 lodge at the base of the KT-22 slope. Despite spectacular mountain terrain ideal for challenging skiing, with just one chairlift and two rope tows, Squaw Valley was virtually unknown in the world of skiing. Even in nearby Reno, only 45 miles away, few were aware of the fledgling resort nestled in the idyllic Sierra valley. Desperate for publicity, in 1954 Cushing submitted a proposal to host the 1960 Winter Games. Cushing believed that even if he failed to bring the Olympics to Squaw, the exposure would inspire financial support for his plan to build a world-class ski resort. To help convince skeptical Olympic delegates that his venue could match up to the great European resorts, Cushing traveled to France with Jo Marillac, a Squaw Valley ski instructor and world-renowned French skier and mountaineer. Despite Cushing and Marillacs best lobbying efforts, however, resistance remained. European delegates, led by Albert Mayer of Switzerland, claimed that Squaw Valley was a business corporation run by private interests and therefore not eligible to stage an Olympiad. Olympic rules clearly state that the games can only be awarded to a town or municipality; at the time, only a small lodge and a few houses were located in Squaw Valley. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had already decided to award the games to Innsbruck, Austria, but Alex Cushing refused to quit. According to the Nevada State Journal, during a one-hour secret session, Cushing gave the delegates what IOC Chancellor Otto Mayer called a brilliant explanation of municipal organization in the United States. Cushing had another ace up his sleeve. He had brought along a huge model depicting the mountains topography, and Cushings vision of the as-yet-unbuilt Olympic village and facility. The 6-by-6-foot model was so large that Olympic delegates had to visit the U.S. Embassy lobby to see it. After a heated five-hour session in June 1955, a second IOC ballot gave Squaw Valley a narrow victory of 32 votes versus 30 for Innsbruck. An elated Cushing stated I am very glad we won. I think moving the Games to the United States will give a tremendous boost to winter sports there. The state of California is very much aware of the great responsibility that has been handed us. We intend to do a first-rate job.Despite political antagonism due to the Cold War, the Russians had sided with Cushing. Constantin Adrianov, head of the Russian delegation, said It seems that the simple and healthy atmosphere of Squaw Valley will guarantee that the Winter Games are held in true Olympic spirit.Site preparation at Squaw Valley took another five years of big money, hard work and sweat. No previous Olympic host community had ever attempted even a fraction of what organizers put together at Squaw. The only thing they couldnt control was the weather and initially their worst fears seemed to be coming true.
The weather pattern in late 1959 featured persistent high pressure and an alarming lack of snowfall. It seemed that the Sierra Storm King was planning to boycott the event. The eyes of the nation and the world were on Squaw Valleys weather. In January 1960, prayers were answered when a barrage of cold storms blanketed the upper slopes at Squaw with more than 10 feet of snow. Olympic organizers and local residents were both relieved and jubilant.The Games were slated to begin on Friday, Feb. 18, but like a bad dinner guest, the Storm King had showed up late and now refused to leave. During the first half of February, subtropical storms raised snow levels to 8,500 feet and rain drenched the Sierra; nearly eight inches of rain soaked Squaw Valley. A week before opening ceremonies, another storm system barreling in out of the Pacific lashed the mountain with more rain. In an emergency meeting, H. D. Thoreau, managing director for the Games, stated The Squaw Valley site is now in serious condition because of the continued unprecedented rain storms. All possible measures are being taken to protect Olympic facilities from the potential damage. The parking lot was nearly washed out and several ski runs were damaged. Wind gusts exceeding 100 mph toppled trees. One 75-footer crashed only 30 feet from the Olympic administration building, tearing down power lines but sparing the structure. Damage in the Lake Tahoe area was estimated at half a million dollars. The Olympics looked like a washout and organizers talked about hauling snow in by truck. Fortunately, cold air sweeping in behind the front helped dump three feet of snow on the flood-damaged parking lot. Greater amounts in the higher elevations boosted the snowpack there to nearly 10 feet deep. The Olympic planners were lucky that they had the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines, as well as a legion of civilian volunteers at their disposal. Naval units salvaged the damaged parking area by repacking the snow while Army and Marine troops were assigned to stabilize ski runs. Forest Service personnel triggered avalanches on KT-22 with explosives and recoilless rifles. Their hard work paid off when a leading official with the International Ski Federation proclaimed the race courses better prepared than those at Oslo in 1952 or at Cortina in 1956. On opening day, the Storm King had one last trick to play. The Weather Bureau was forecasting a slight chance of flurries. Instead, a mini-blizzard that morning cut visibility to zero and dumped eight inches of fresh snow on the thousands of spectators and participants arriving for the scheduled 1:30 p.m. ceremony. Traffic was backed up for miles. Vice President Richard Nixon and wife Pat landed in Reno during the height of the flurries. Instead of an easy flight by helicopter to Squaw Valley, Nixon and his party were forced to travel by motorcade. The snowfall and monumental traffic jam forced Olympic officials to delay the opening ceremony by 15 minutes. The timing was perfect. At 1:45 p.m. sharp, the snowstorm quit, the wind let up, and the skies temporarily cleared. The change was so dramatic that the Russian delegates wondered if the Americans could even control the weather.Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2 are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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