Squaw co-founder and first woman avalanche ranger join National Ski Hall of Fame
The names Alex Cushing and Jerry Nunn loom large in the history of Tahoe-area skiing. Cushing co-founded the Squaw Valley Development Corporation with Wayne Poulsen in 1948, brought the Olympics to the valley in 1960, and has guided the resort through 55 years of development. Nunn was a pioneering ski patroller at Soda Springs, Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley, and was the first woman U.S. Forest Service avalanche ranger.
Earlier this month, Cushing and Nunn joined Olympic ski champions Tommy Moe and Diann Roffe, World Championships medalist AJ Kitt, Bousquet’s Ski Area founder Clare Bousquet, and ski lift pioneer Ernst Constam as inductees in the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame.
The seven new members will be formally inducted into the hall of fame on Jan. 24 in Ishpeming, Mich. – the site of the first organized ski competition in America in 1905.
The National Ski Hall of Fame is dedicated to preserving U.S. skiing history, and both Cushing and Nunn have played important roles in creating that history.
Cushing has always taken a unique approach to developing Squaw Valley USA into the destination ski resort it has become.
“I’ve been doing this for 55 years, and what you really get out of it is that there’s no reward at the end of the rainbow,” Cushing said. “It’s the day to day; that’s what you get out of it. So that indicates that if you’re smart, you do everyday what you really like to do, if you can.”
That approach, paired with a lot of hard work, a little luck, and a belief in what the terrain at Squaw could offer, allowed Cushing to build Squaw Valley from a one-lift ski hill in 1949 to an Olympic-caliber destination in time for the 1960 Winter Olympics – the first ever held in the Western United States.
Although Cushing denies he ever had a vision of turning Squaw Valley into the resort it is today, friends and business associates from the early days of Squaw will attest to Cushing’s drive, which saw the resort through it’s humble beginnings and allowed it to grow and evolve.
“There wasn’t any grand vision, it was a step-by-step process. There is an advantage in that though. In a sense, if we had a lot of money, with as little experience as I had, we’d have made a lot of mistakes,” Cushing said. “What you see here is a 55-year effort. Every year we spent every cent we could lay our hands on. And we’ve been doing that for 55 years. … There it is, and it represents the best we could do.”
Cushing does not think he will be able to make the Hall of Fame awards ceremony in Ishpeming next year, an unfortunate circumstance that organizers might forgive because of Cushing’s age – he’s 90 years old this year – or the fact that he recently injured his foot. However, the real reason Cushing will likely skip the induction ceremony is that he had already made plans to travel to Rio, Brazil, where he was stationed with the Navy during World War II for a period of time.
Cushing’s willingness to travel overseas, and the fact that he and his wife, Nancy Wendt, still live in a house at the base of Squaw Valley (literally walking distance from the Squaw One Express chairlift), tells a lot about the man whose vision for what California skiing could offer has brought the world to his doorstep.
At the same time Cushing was trying to convince the skiing world about the potential that California skiing held, Jerry Nunn was trying to break down gender barriers within that world.
Nunn was born and raised in Berkeley, and began skiing at the age of 14 at Soda Springs. By age 18, she had started helping the area’s emergency physician, Dr. Ralph Reynolds, in the ski patrol room.
“I just followed him around and whenever anyone got hurt I helped them,” Nunn said.
When the National Ski Patrol system came west in 1944, Nunn was already experienced in providing first aid in winter conditions. She joined the ski patrol at Soda Springs in 1944, later transferred to Sugar Bowl in 1949, and then to Squaw Valley in 1954, where she had to overcome a bias against women patrollers to get the job.
“It was very difficult for me to get on the ski patrol because the man who was in charge of the patrol at Squaw Valley felt that a woman should be barefoot, pregnant and locked in the kitchen,” Nunn said.
Overcoming those attitudes, Nunn demonstrated that she could control a toboggan solo (without a second person braking), and was accepted as the first woman ski patroller at Squaw Valley.
Never one to get complacent, Nunn volunteered for Squaw’s elite dynamite crew, which was responsible for lessening the avalanche risk on the mountain. And in 1957, she applied to and was accepted into the Intermountain Forest Service Snow Ranger certification program in Utah.
Again, Nunn had to break through gender barriers. “When I sent in my application it said ‘Jerry’ and they thought I was a man. So when I got there and went to get my room, the man there said, ‘Never, ever in the history of the Forest Service have we accepted a woman and we won’t now.’ And I said, ‘Yes you will. You already have. I’ve got it in black and white, and if you don’t I’ll get my attorney.'”
The threat of a lawsuit was enough to get Nunn into the course, and soon after she became the first woman Forest Service snow ranger and the only certified snow ranger in the Far West region, making her responsible for teaching many all-male avalanche courses.
She went on to be one of 60 ski patrollers chosen from all over the country to work the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics, which is how she met her husband, Jimmie.
After the Olympics, Nunn helped Monty Atwater develop and perfect his Avalauncher – a gas-powered gun designed to launch canisters of explosives to set off avalanches in hard to reach terrain.
The Avalauncher went through many prototypes. “It wasn’t such a good product at first,” Nunn said. “There was one serious accident where one of the projectiles exploded and it caused the death of a snow ranger, but it just got better every year. We worked every year to make it better.” These days the Avalauncher has become a standard piece of equipment used by resorts around the world.
When asked about her induction into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame, Nunn claimed it was “very exciting, I never thought it would happen to me. I’m a girl, and boys don’t like girls who step on what they think of as their rights.”
Fortunately for everyone who enjoys skiing without the risk of avalanches, and for those that needed her help after being injured on the mountain, Nunn never let the attitudes of the day keep her from doing what she loved.
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