Story & photos by Priya Hutner ·
Visit with Norm Sayler to hear about life on Donner Summit back in day.
Norm Sayler is a pioneer and influential icon of the snow sports industry on Donner Summit. He was 15 when he first came to the area on a church trip. Old 40 was the main road to get into town and Norm remembers walking from Squaw Valley to Carnelian Bay and not one car drove passed him when he moved to the area 61 years ago.
I sat down with Norm at the Donner Summit Historical Society recently. He jokes about the chaos around us. The small space is filled with mountains of memorabilia and antiquity. One can’t help but to be drawn into the crowded room where the old skis, toboggans and lanterns hang from the ceiling and photographs and books of local lore and history of the Summit line the shelves.
The small space at the Donner Summit Historical Society is filled with mountains of memorabilia and antiquity.
When Norm arrived on the Summit, he lived in a tiny shack in Serene Lakes that had no water, no heat and one light bulb, he fed the sled horses in exchange for the room and cleaned toilets at The Snowflake Restaurant for his lunch. Eventually, he moved from the shack into in a garage with Frank Woebbes, a local ski patroller at Donner Ski Ranch and photographer.
Norm helped build the first chair lift at Donner Ski Ranch in 1955. He met his late wife, Karen, in Soda Springs were she was the bookkeeper for the resort. Norm became a majority stockholder and the couple eventually took over the resort.
“It was the place to be back then. We called our friends to help us out. They tended bar, cooked and helped us run the ski lifts. Everyone bought their ski lift tickets and food and no one expected a free ride. When the rope tow broke, we’d get everyone out in the snow to hold it together while I put it back together. It was a way of life,” Norm said.
Norm was a member of the famed 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale. He also participated as a Torch Runner in Squaw Valley’s 1960 Winter Olympics and was recognized as one of America’s ski pioneers in Robert Froehlich’s ski history book, “Mountain Dreamers.”
“There were ski clubs that would come up and ski. They’d have a drink and unload their stuff and every weekend we’d dance ‘till 2 a.m., then get up first thing in the morning and ski all day long,” Norm recalls.
Norm was a visionary. He reminisced about the advent of telemark skiing.
“They weren’t welcome on any of the hills in the area,” he said.
Norm saw an opportunity and opened Donner Ski Ranch to telemark skiers.
In the ‘80s, the ski industry was hurting on the Summit and snowboarding was gaining popularity.
“There weren’t many places for them to ride. So, we opened our hill to them,” Norm explained. “Kids came from everywhere in busloads to snowboard here. We became the first resort to hold the snowboard trials for the X Games,” he added.
In its heyday, the ski resort held numerous events in the summer, as well. In 1997, Donner Ski Ranch hosted the National Motorcycling Trail Riding Championships that were held at Donner Ranch Ski Resort. “We drew 13,000 people to the area,” Norm adds.
Mountain biking followed.
“I remember when seven guys came up with their bikes and asked to take the chair lift up the hill. I taught them how to operate the lift and they rode all day.” Norm says. The resort hosted mountain bike events for many the years.
The Saylers owned the Donner Ski Ranch until 2000 when the ski industry once again was changing rapidly and he sold the resort.
Norm has been instrumental in helping preserve the history of Donner Summit. He helped spearhead the effort to establish Highway 40 as a designated State Historic Highway. The signs posted along Old 40 are due to Norm’s passion for his community. In 1995, he helped save Rainbow Bridge from demolition.
When ski writing legend Robert Froehlich died, he bequeathed all of his memorabilia and historical materials to Norm and they are now housed at the historical society on the Summit. Norm turned 80-years-old in December and was recently honored by Placer County for his contribution to the community.
To explore a piece of history, take a ride up to Soda Springs and visit the Donner Summit Historical Society and buy a cup of coffee and sit with Norm to hear about life on the Summit back in day. School trips are welcome.
Norm Sayler may be reached at the Donner Summit Historical Society in Soda Springs at (530) 587-2160.