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Silver Belt: Reliving the historic race

Sylas Wright
Sierra Sun
Courtesy of Sugar BowlTruckee's Babette Haueisen, now 79, drinks champagne from the winner's prize of the 1955 Silver Belt race alongside men's winner Bill Beck. At 25, Haueisen was the oldest woman to win the giant slalom race, which ran from 1940 to 1975. About the bucket top Beck is wearing as a hat, "The lid got in the way, so I put it on his head," Haueisen says.
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Babette Haueisen has little patience for inaccuracies.

“The Silver Belt was a giant slalom, not a downhill,” the 79-year-old Truckee resident says with a dry and matter-of-fact tone, referring to a Jan. 3 article in the Sierra Sun previewing Sugar Bowl’s Silver Belt Banzai.

Curt, but accurate. The original Silver Belt race held from 1940 to 1975 was in fact a GS.

Besides her sharp memory from which she plucks old names and relives her racing heyday like yesterday, Haueisen’s collection of historic books, both written by local ski author Robert Frohlich, offer a priceless glimpse into a black-and-white past.

The books also confirm Haueisen’s claim as the woman sipping the “bubbly” from the 1955 winner’s trophy ” a silver champagne bucket ” in one of the two photos that ran with the article (above, left). The man in the photo tipping the bucket for her? That’s Bill Beck, “from Dartmouth,” Haueisen recalls.

The skier in the second photo, shown checking his speed on a steep section of the Silver Belt course, is Peter Picard, competing in the first-ever Silver Belt race in 1940 (left).

After establishing the facts ” the article stated the race was a downhill, and the photos ran sans names ” Haueisen relaxes her guard and lets the ski stories flow.

“The year that I won I couldn’t have been a longer shot,” she says, explaining how she had learned to ski just six years earlier while attending college ” on 2,571-foot Mount Tamalpais north of the San Francisco Bay.

“But we didn’t stand up and ski; we sat on the skis and used them as a toboggan,” says Haueisen, who grew up in Wisconsin before moving to the Bay Area as a young teen. “Then the next month we went over to Mount Diablo, because those were the years of big winters. We decided we’d stand up on that one.”

Despite crashing in mud and rocks at the bottom of the hill ” no one showed her how to turn or stop ” Haueisen had discovered a sport that suited her. A year later she left college and joined the Berkeley Ski Club, then landed a job at Sugar Bowl.

“And that’s how it all started,” she says.

Athletic and competitive, and a quick learner, Haueisen was invited to compete in the Silver Belt for the first time in 1953. She went on to place second the following year and won in 1955, upsetting a strong field of international racers. She competed four times, racing to three podium finishes.

In those days Haueisen and company had to earn their runs, as racers were required to hike up Mount Lincoln the day before the race and sidestep down the mountain with their skis. They called it “grooming.”

“You’d start at the bottom and put the skis on your shoulders, and then you’d boot pack up the course as it was being set,” Haueisen says. “So you get to the top and the course setters go, ‘OK, put on your skis, we are now going to groom the course.’ So we groomed the course as we went down.”

It was a tiring exercise, but one that had to be done.

“Oh, sure it was. But you did it,” Haueisen says. “The Europeans always wanted to do a little slip-slip, but there were people on the course who would say, ‘Go back and put your edges into that slip-slip part you did, or you don’t race tomorrow.'”

On race day, the skiers rode up the Disney chairlift and then walked across the Palisades to the start gate ” even though the first chairlift on Lincoln was installed in 1950.

“And then it was, ‘Racer ready. Three, two, one, go, and away we went. It was something else.”

Conditions varied from ice to spring slush and everything in between, says Haueisen. And there was nothing easy about the terrain, especially when coupled with a tightly set course.

According to Frohlich’s book “Skiing with Style, Sugar Bowl: 60 Years,” two-time Olympian Billy Kidd found out about the course’s challenges the hard way.

Former Sugar Bowl General Manager Don Schwartz is quoting telling the story:

“One year, ski school director Toni Marth set a pretty tight course. The steilhang, which is the last section of the course, is damn steep. Once the racer made the turn down it, there were two gates close together. It had a lot of racers worried. But Billy Kidd kept saying that it wasn’t a big deal and he was going to rip this course up. The next day he fell right at those two tight gates and knocked himself out. We carried him off on a stretcher, but only his pride was hurt.”

Haueisen says she became adept at popping back to her feet after a fall and still finishing among the race leaders. They skied on large, cumbersome wooden skis, after all.

Once the race was in the bag, the invited skiers loosened up with a friendly, and often goofy, game of baseball ” played on skis.

“It was a way to relax after you’d been all tensed-up for the ski race. And then we’d go to the banquet to see who won. That was always fun,” Haueisen says.

” Sources: “Skiing with Style, Sugar Bowl: 60 Years,” “Mountain Dreamers: Visionaries of Sierra Nevada Skiing”


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