Weather Window: Sierra Snow Sports a huge attraction since the 30s | SierraSun.com

Weather Window: Sierra Snow Sports a huge attraction since the 30s

Mark McLaughlin

Photo courtesy Author's CollectionU.S. Champion Roy Mikkelsen uncorks a spectacular jump at Berkeleycirca 1935.

With the arrival of November, stormy weather invaded the region right on schedule. The month marks the real beginning of the winter season, when an average of more than 11 days of measureable precipitation can be expected.At the Central Sierra Snow Lab near Donner Pass, November storms statistically produce more than 10 percent of the average annual totals, with 48 inches of snow and more than six inches of precipitation. On average, about 75 percent of Californias annual precipitation falls between November and March; half occurs between December and February.Getting enough natural snowfall in November for skiing or snowboarding is often a challenge, but colder temperatures usually give our regional resorts an opportunity to pump out a base with snowmaking equipment. In the last decade, snowmaking capability has advanced in leaps and bounds and Tahoe resorts have invested heavily in the technology. The fact that Truckee is frequently the nations coldest location is considered a tongue-in-cheek joke among locals because those relatively low temperatures usually occur from late spring through early fall. Compared to other major mountain ranges in the world, the Sierra Nevada has a relatively mild winter climate, but during the summer months, a combination of climate and topography drops Truckees overnight temperatures lower than most other communities in the country. The town now has another meteorological claim to fame locals can boast about. In his book, Extreme Weather: A Guide and Record Book, author Christopher C. Burt ranked Truckee as the snowiest city in the United States. Truckees annual average snowfall of 203 inches nosed out second place Marquette, Michigans 180 inches, and handily superseded the 173 inches recorded at third place Steamboat Springs, Colo. The beautiful irony one of the snowiest regions in the United States is located between sun-drenched California and bone-dry Nevada has never been lost on residents in the Far West. Located within a half-days drive from major urban centers, the Sierra Nevada range has lured snow-starved flatlanders for more than a century. Generations of winter sports enthusiasts have enjoyed their weekends and holidays romping and playing in the Sierra snow. Today, most urban snow lovers travel up to the Sierra via all-weather highways in the comfort of sturdy all-wheel-drive SUVs, but it wasnt always that easy. Until the early 1930s, the road over Donner Pass was usually closed to automobile traffic during the winter months. Once the state began plowing the highways into the Sierra, a broad movement to increase winter tourism ensued. Last weekend, on Nov. 1 and 2, the First San Francisco Ski andamp; Snowboard Festival was held at the Fort Mason Center. It may seem like a new idea, but during the 1930s proponents of winter sports were promoting ski jumping events in the urban markets of California, at places like Berkeley, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In January 1934, the Auburn Ski Club first introduced ski jumping to the San Francisco Bay area by co-hosting an event on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The influential Auburn Ski Club formed during the 1929-1930 ski season and quickly became the largest ski club west of the Mississippi River. California already enjoyed a reputation for sunny beaches and palm trees, but in 1933, Governor James Rolph had proclaimed the first week of January 1934 as Winter Sports Week for California. He stated, In recent years the people of California have come to realize the value of this winter recreation to the point that winter sports are being developed in this state to a higher degree than in any other part of the world. In the promotion of this new industry for California, it is my sincere wish that all the people of the state participate in this healthful recreation during this week and throughout the winter. To prepare for the 1934 Berkeley tournament, 43,000 cubic feet of snow were packed into six Southern Pacific boxcars and then hauled down from the mountains. The extraordinary event, held at the head of Hearst Avenue, just north of the Berkeley campus, attracted more than 50,000 spectators. Ski jumpers Orlan Sanders, Jesse Maxsom, Jr., and Earl Edmunds represented the Truckee Ski Club, while Squaw Valley founder Wayne Paulsen competed for the Auburn Ski Club. The novelty of ski jumping in the verdant Berkeley hills captured everyones imagination, but the tournament ended in disarray when a riot broke out as the first of a series of exhibition jumpers poised at the top of the 450-foot slide. An estimated 5,000 college boys and youngsters, many of who had never seen snow, stormed past fences and police barriers. The event soon turned into a massive snowball fight with the paying spectators in full retreat. Another 45,000 people without tickets crowded onto Tightwad Hill above the edge of the campus to watch the festivities. (Tightwad Hill earned its moniker because spectators often climbed it to watch Cal football games for free.) Tournament officials estimated the number of paid admissions at only 5,000. California Ski Association officials charged Berkeley police with incompetence and insufficient protection which cost the association from $6,000 to $10,000 in paid admissions. (Preferred seating cost $1.00/ general admission was 55.) The unruly, tight-fisted crowd ruined any chance the ski clubs had to raise money to further the interests of winter sports in California. Reluctant to abandon their efforts to promote the benefits of winter sports, officials with the Auburn and other California ski clubs hosted a second Berkeley ski jumping tournament on January 13, 1935. Once again they received additional support from the California Chamber of Commerce, the San Francisco Winter Sports Club, and other like-minded organizations that hoped to make the spectacular ski jump an annual event. Volunteers erected a scaffold 85 feet high on the crest of a grassy hill just north of the Greek Theater and Memorial Stadium. The snow-covered 170-foot long slide was angled at a steep 45 degrees, which enabled the jumpers to reach speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour. Using tons of snow imported from Donner Pass, an expanded landing zone of snow layered over straw bedding permitted leaps of more than 150 feet. The daring athletes sped down the icy ramp and launched themselves with grace and skill into the gray sky. Contestants included nationally known ski jumpers from Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles, Auburn and Lake Tahoe. Several of the competitors would compete the following year in the Olympic Winter Games in the German Alps. The popular skier and former U.S. ski champion Roy Mikkelsen of Auburn took first place with a soaring leap of 139 feet followed by a perfect telemark landing. Mikkelsen had immigrated from Norway in 1924 and acquired U.S. citizenship in 1932, the same year he entered and won the National Ski Jumping Championship held at Lake Tahoes Olympic Hill. The gifted and good-natured Mikkelsen laughed after skiing into the encroaching crowds following his landing. I guess we cant stretch the jumps too long here, he said, You might land down in the Berkeley shopping district. Despite police precautions and excellent advertising, the sponsors could not get enough cash customers through the gate to pay expenses. Only 4,000 people paid admission to the event, while an estimated 10,000 more stood outside the gates at the top of Hearst Avenue and gazed skyward free of charge. And of course, as soon as the contest concluded and the police and National Guard units departed the scene, another free-for-all snowball fight broke out among the snow-starved flatlanders. Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com