Squaw Valley’s; Alex Cushing: Ski resort founder looks to future, not past
Squaw Valley USA’s Olympic past clings to the mountain like the swirling snowflakes of a Sierra snowstorm with enough Pacific power to linger for days.
Just as each fat flake piles atop snowbanks several feet deep, each memory of those 1960 Winter Games adds to the allure of this Sierra ski resort and its founder, Alexander Cushing.
Unknown and undeveloped in 1955, Squaw Valley’s quest to win the Olympic bid was considered impossible by the stalwarts of skiing. But once the East Coast-bred, Harvard-educated, New York lawyer set his sights on the Winter Games, he did what it took to convince the International Olympic Committee that Squaw Valley was the best place in the world to host the games.
Some could say the brilliant effort to bring the Winter Olympics to an obscure California valley is Cushing’s greatest achievement.
Not so, says the 84-year-old patriarch of Squaw Valley.
“I think my greatest achievement will be in the future. Making this the jewel of the High Sierra in the next three years will be my greatest achievement. We’ll see, but that’s what I hope,” Cushing said in a recent interview.
Fifty years of Squaw Valley USA history is just one more ski season away, but Cushing’s Squaw Valley Ski Corporation isn’t working on a retrospect of the ski area. The key people in Ski Corp. are pushing – faster and harder than ever – to the future.
“It’s all the future. It’s not the past. There’s a sea of change going on right now and it will be apparent to everybody,” Cushing said.
Next year will be the resort’s benchmark. When Squaw Valley opens for the 1998-99 ski season, it will offer the skier a resort that is on the cutting edge of the cutting edge of technology, he said.
“I think a lot of people are going to like this better than any other place,” he said.
The Funitel, one of three in the world, will guarantee skier transportation to the upper mountain no matter what the weather. Forty-six cabins holding 15 skiers each will use rails to ensure transportation to Gold Coast. The gondola – so prone to wind closures – will be shut down next year and dismantled the following year.
“There will be no such thing as an upper mountain closure. It is guaranteed to run in a 78 mph cross wind,” Cushing said.
Over $18 million, the Funitel is the anchor to fixing problems on the mountain that are so apparent to Cushing, who has lived in a home at its base since it opened on Thanksgiving 1949.
“We’ve been here for 49 years now. We know the deficiencies of the mountain. It’s a wonderful good weather mountain, but when it’s storming it’s a different matter. The 1998-99 season will be the first year we have the mountain running right,” he said.
Completing the uphill transportation of skiers will be the Pulse, carrying skiers between Gold Coast and High Camp. The Pulse will use four connected gondola cars at each end that, when fully operational, will carry skiers on demand – just like the push of an elevator button.
Spending over $18 million on the Funitel, Cushing managed to convince the European company to throw in a two-for-one contract for new futuristic cable cars to replace the old ones this summer.
Then over the next three building seasons, Cushing promises more changes on the mountain – two new six-pack lifts to replace Headwall and Cornice II, and Gold Coast and Mainline, as well as lifts from the eastern end of the parking lot to the Funitel.
Not too far off in the future may be hotels at High Camp.
Cushing admits he’s fixing mistakes of the past.
Soon after the high of a successful Olympics, Squaw Valley slid to a low point.
“The Olympic Games were a huge success from all kinds of points of view,” he said.
In the midst of the Cold War, Russian hockey players were helping American hockey players and first contact was made with the Red Chinese. Five hundred European correspondents came to the Olympics to report about what America was like. The King of Sweden told Cushing what a proud day it was for America.
“We had 10 perfect days of weather. When the weather’s good in Lake Tahoe there is just nothing like it,” he said.
However, the aftermath was a disaster, he said.
“We had a bad 10 years after the Olympics. We went into reverse for a while,” Cushing said.
To get state and federal money for the Olympics, Cushing relinquished his permits for the land, much of which became a state park after the Olympics. He had control over the 600 acres he had obtained from Wayne Poulsen, but 24 state park employees spent the state’s $3 million budget for the rest of Squaw Valley.
“There was constant friction between us and them. It was a disaster,” he said. “The place started going downhill rapidly.”
Money, too, was an issue and Cushing admits he didn’t buy the best for the resort.
When Ronald Reagan became governor in 1968, he agreed with Cushing that the state should get out of Squaw Valley. The state sold its interest to an Australian corporation that went broke within four months.
“We took advantage of Mainline’s bankruptcy,” Cushing said, retrieving another memory from his home not far from the gondola.
Since 1949, the home has been a hot dog stand, first aid station, five-person bunkhouse and has undergone seven expansions.
Cushing remembers walking into his living room in 1969 as creditors eyed the floor and how their eyes lit up when he announced he would come up with cash to pay them off and buy the former state land.
“That was the best business deal,” he noted.
It was during this time that Cushing developed his reputation for thumbing his nose at county and regulatory agencies.
“I was very stupid in those days. I used to say ‘come and get me’,” he said. “That was very dumb of me. You can’t beat city hall. You grow up and get a bad reputation.”
But he adamantly asserts Squaw Valley wasn’t in the wrong when it got in trouble for cutting trees down for the Silverado lift in Shirley Canyon. Squaw Valley lost a civil suit filed by the Sierra Club and ended up with a $1 million judgment against it.
“A million dollar absurdity,” “an outrageous miscarriage of justice,” Cushing mutters.
He remembers early on being prevented by the U.S. Forest Service from removing a tree on KT-22 and warning them that someone would be killed because of it. He was right.
Silverado’s case was the same, he said, a steep slope where trees needed to be cut down for safety. He admits, however, that not only did Squaw lose the case, but public opinion did not side with the ski resort either.
These days, Cushing still resents dealing with the regulatory morass and it irks him to have to wait for permits instead of building what and when he wants.
“That may be my instinct but I have to repress my instinct. We have to work with regulators. It’s just a fact of life. That’s the way the world is these days,” Cushing said.
Married to the idol of his childhood while growing up in Newport, Rhode Island, Cushing spent most of his time in the 1970s on the East Coast, coming out for only six weeks in the winter. His wife, who died after 12 years of marriage, wasn’t “adapted for this kind of life.”
“I was running it with one hand behind my back. It was an absentee management,” he said.
A key turning point in the life of Squaw Valley came when Cushing began seeing Nancy Wendt, a New York lawyer, over a decade ago.
Riding up Solitude lift together, Wendt commented, “This is a pretty good place you’ve got. Is this the best you can do?”
Thinking about it, he admitted to her,
“No, it’s not the best I can do.”
“What’s holding you back?” she queried.
Baffled, he said, “I don’t know. I never thought about it.”
Wendt is now president of Squaw Valley Ski Corporation.
“Nan, you see she is just made for this kind of thing,” Cushing said. “Our relationship has always been centered around this place. She works much harder than I do, particularly now.”
For the last 10 or 11 years, Cushing said, Squaw has been trying to better itself. High Camp was built in 1989, with its swimming pool, ice skating rink, tennis courts and restaurants. Better lifts have come on line and amenities have been upgraded.
“Once you get in that mode trying to do the best you can, it becomes second nature. It’s a habit,” he said.
The impression of being rude to customers – stemming maybe from his stiff Easterner manner or just Ski Corp.’s preoccupation “in building the machines to make the area” – was replaced in the early 1990s with employee-customer training, drug and alcohol free employees and the “Tell Alex” public comment cards.
“95 percent are on one subject, how well they were treated or how bad they were treated,” Cushing said.
Wendt’s arrival impacted the future of Squaw, but there are others whom Cushing remembers as key figures.
Emile Allais, a French ski champion taught skiing at Squaw Valley for three years, although he would rather spend more time with a promising skier like Jimmie Heuga than a rich guest from New York, Cushing said. Allais brought out Jo Marillac, a famous French resistance fighter, who aided Cushing in his quest for the Olympics and spent many years as the Squaw Valley Ski School director.
Another key figure is Willi Schieffer who sauntered into Cushing’s office in 1955, just as Squaw Valley was fighting challenges by Innsbruck, Austria that its Olympic bid was fraudulent and the Winter Games shouldn’t be held at Squaw.
Unbeknownst to Cushing, Schieffler had been scouting Squaw for four days and was convinced it could hold the Olympics.
“Once you have Schieffer on your side, you don’t need anybody else,” Cushing said.
His familiarity with the international standards for racing were crucial to Squaw putting on the Games.
Cushing met “the greatest all around mountain man in the world” in 1963 when he was worried about who would run the gondola after a German company built it.
He was told by the Germans: “You see that guy, he will operate it.”
There, dangling by his foot upside down and drilling into a cliff for one of the gondola’s towers was Hans Burkhart.
“He’s had a love affair with wire rope all his life,” Cushing said.
After six years at Squaw, Burkhart said he was leaving for New Mexico to build a cable car.
“I said ‘I’ll build a cable car for you.’ I needed this guy,” Cushing said.
For 38 years, Burkhart has worked for Squaw Valley off and on and even when he wasn’t employed, Cushing would ask him for advice.
“I always go to him. He’s the only one I trust,” he said.
Ten years ago, Cushing realized the combination to keep Burkhart at Squaw indefinitely – doing a project the best way possible and leaving Burkhart alone to do it.
“This is a family organization and we run it like a family. It sounds corny but these people are my family,” he said.
He has set things up so when he’s gone, Ski Corp. will continue to operate as it does right now.
“I’m very independent and the company is very independent. We don’t work well with partnerships,” he said.
Cushing is wary of being able to work with Intrawest, a mountain resort developer planning to build a $250 million village of shops, restaurants and condominums at the base of Squaw Valley. The agreement is deliberately designed so Squaw Valley runs the mountain and Intrawest runs the village.
“”We’re going to do our best to make it work. But it’s different. Our top people work seven days because they like it,” he said. In contrast, Intrawest is a corporation with dozens of other resorts to think about, not just Squaw.
However, Squaw Valley needs to be more than a mountain and a parking lot, so it needs to work with Intrawest, he said.
“There is that sense of independence in our group. Our people like to do everything ourselves. Hans would make his own concrete” Cushing commented.
Independence is Cushing’s characteristic. After five years of wartime experience, he was independent enough to leave what he termed a great life as a New York laywer to take a risk on a California ski area. Five years of serving in War World II had given Cushing a hunger for a life less predictable than a law firm.
“I could see it 20 years from now. If you can see it 20 years from now, don’t do it,” he advised.
Independence kept him at the helm of the ski resort in the first five years, rebuilding after three avalanches, a flood and a fire.
“All we were trying to do was stay alive. It was survival for five years,” he said.
He was independent enough to convince the International Olympic Committee to choose Squaw Valley while the members baited him for four intense hours in Paris in 1955.
“I happen to like counter punching. It does something to me,” he said.
Independence makes him continue to sink money into Squaw Valley while other ski resorts join corporate conglomerates.
He is independent enough to believe that the mistakes of Squaw’s past will be forgotten as it enters the 21st century.
“I think when we make this the best we can be, it’s going to be the best in the world. If you’ve got it right in this business, it rings at the cash register,” he said.
He continues to call himself a city boy: “if a machine doesn’t start, the only thing I know how to do is kick it.”
And Cushing has achieved his inital goal of living six months of the year in his oceanfront Rhode Island home and six months at his Squaw Valley base.
“I love skiing,” he said, adding that he trys to run a mile in the parking lot each day to keep in shape for the sport.
For many years, he felt neither a part of the East Coast or the West Coast, always looking at the East with a Western point of view or the West with an Eastern point of view. Not any more, he said, though his affinity for the ocean is still strong.
“The real interest is here. I think this is it now,” he said. “I’m in a hurry. I want to get this done in my lifetime. I want to see it. This is the best time in my life, right now, right today.
“It’s like a piece of sculpture to me and to make it as good as it can be, that’s full-timeI feel the future is much more important to me than the past.”
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