1969 Squaw World Cup: Storms & shooting stars 

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows will be hosting the FIS World Cup women’s slalom races on March 10 and 11. The biggest names in professional skiing will be competing, including U.S. Olympians Julia Mancuso and Mikaela Shiffrin. Media networks will be broadcasting the competitions and festivities across the United States and throughout Europe. As during the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley, the Truckee-Tahoe region will be showcased internationally in all its winter splendor.

The women’s giant slalom and slalom courses will be held on the Red Dog area of the resort, the same location where the women’s races were held during the 1960 Winter Olympics and the 1969 World Cup. Olympic Valley native and veteran racer Julie Mancuso has called the Red Dog course one of the most challenging in the world.

Who knows what the Storm King has in mind for this time around in Olympic Valley, but in March 1969 World Cup racers and course preparers endured extreme conditions. High winds and unrelenting snowfall at the end of February kept everyone cooped up in hotel rooms. The winter of 1969 was a stormy one and the bad weather was simply a continuation of the preceding months. Throughout January and February, snowfall totals soared to nearly 300 percent of normal.

The world’s best skiers could barely see the slalom gates ahead and deeply carved ruts in the soft snow slowed the pace.

During practice runs athletes endured fierce blizzard conditions. The world’s best skiers could barely see the slalom gates ahead and deeply carved ruts in the soft snow slowed the pace. Renowned skier, climber and author Dick Dorworth, who grew up in Glenbrook, Nev., and raced for the Reno Ski Club, was chief of course for the Squaw event. He deployed a small army to boot-pack the runs, but the volunteers couldn’t keep up with all heavy snowfall. The downhill race was cancelled, the last scheduled World Cup downhill of the season. It was a politically charged decision vigorously opposed by European coaches.

Chief of race Fraser West’s crews overcame adversity to prepare the men’s slalom and giant slalom courses on the steep slopes of KT-22. West had skied for the University of Nevada, Reno ski team under coach Wayne Poulsen, an original partner in Squaw Valley Ski Corp. Luckily for everyone involved, skies cleared on the last day of competition and the racers finally got a chance to see the famed terrain they were skiing.

The Poulsens: A Squaw Valley love affair

Legendary American skiers Billy Kidd and Vladimir “Spider” Sabich were there. After that racing season, Kidd and Sabich turned professional and joined the newly formed pro-skiing circuit. The dynamic duo with movie star looks helped popularize skiing in the United States in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Spider, along with Kidd, was the inspiration for the 1969 film “Downhill Racer,” starring Robert Redford. Kidd, who won the slalom at Squaw Valley, went on to a stellar career and is still one of America’s most recognized skiers. Kidd was the first American male to win a gold medal in alpine skiing and the first American man to win an Olympic medal (silver in 1964) of any kind in alpine skiing. He also topped the competition in several world championships. Today the Stetson-wearing ski god is the official promoter for Steamboat Springs, Colo.

The American contingent at Squaw Valley in 1969 included Tahoe racers Cheryl Bechdolt, Caryn West and Lance and Eric Poulsen. The television media was mostly focused on Kidd and Spider Sabich. Nineteen-year-old Marilyn Cochran from Vermont, a World Cup rookie, was the only other American skier at Squaw Valley to podium after she took second place in the giant slalom.

Tahoe Sierra’s 10 biggest winters
Join author Mark McLaughlin for a free presentation on his book “Snowbound!” on March 11 at 2 p.m. at the Galena Creek Visitors Center in Reno, Nev. 

Kidd went on to become a renowned alpine skier, but his buddy Spider wouldn’t be so fortunate. Vladimir Sabich Jr. was a Tahoe skier, raised at Kyburz on U.S. Route 50. His father, an officer with the California Highway Patrol, nicknamed him Spider when he was born prematurely. Sabich Sr. said, “He was a long baby, but he had no flesh on him. He was all skin and bones.” The father raised his three children to be ski racers. They attended school in the summer so they could hit the slopes every day in winter. They learned to ski at the newly opened Edelweiss on U.S. Route 50.

Their coach at Edelweiss, Lutz Aynedter, was a German downhill champion from the 1940s who immigrated to America after World War II. Aynedter taught the Sabich boys European-style racing techniques. Soon Spider and his younger brother, Steve, were dominating better-equipped racers from flashy Tahoe resorts such as Squaw Valley. Spider and Steve were superstars among Aynedter’s talented team of fearless young skiers. They were called the “Highway 50 boys.”

Spider grew up ski racing at Mammoth Mountain and Lake Tahoe and later became a two-time world professional champion and Olympic skier. It was amazing that Sabich raced at all at Squaw Valley in 1969 considering that the 23-year-old speedster had already sustained seven broken legs and nine operations during the short span he was a U.S. Ski Team member. He went on to win World Cup races and a national title in downhill. After turning professional, he won the World Pro Ski title. Tragically, it wouldn’t be leg fractures that ended the charismatic racer’s impressive skiing career.

Spider Sabich’s racing credentials and movie-star looks earned him lucrative product endorsements. Soon, he was making more than $100,000 a year. He built a ski chalet at Aspen and purchased an airplane that he piloted to skiing events in North America. In 1972, Sabich met French actress and singer Claudine Longet at a pro-celebrity event at Bear Valley. At the time, Longet was separated from her husband, famed American crooner Andy Williams.

Sabich and Longet lived in Aspen together until March 21, 1976, when she shot him to death after Sabich returned from a day of skiing. Longet claimed that the gun accidently discharged as Sabich was showing her how it worked.

Prosecutors pointed out that an autopsy report indicated that Sabich was bent over and facing away at a 6-foot distance when he was shot. It was not likely he was indeed showing her the gun. Police made several procedural errors, however, and a jury convicted her of only criminally negligent homicide.

Longet was sentenced to 30 days in jail and remanded to pay a small fine. Skiing sensation Spider Sabich was dead at age 31.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.