Granlibakken | Birthplace of Tahoe Skiing

Ski jumpers at Olympic Hill.

Granlibakken Tahoe Resort celebrated its 95th anniversary in 2017 making it the oldest by far of all Lake Tahoe ski areas. This secluded mountain valley just south of Tahoe City got its commercial start in the early 1920s when snow play and winter sports were becoming more popular with residents and tourists alike.

The legendary Tahoe Tavern
The history of the Lake Tahoe Ski Club

Until then, Lake Tahoe was primarily a summer vacation spot with few year-round residents. The first opportunity to expand winter sports at the lake appeared in 1928 when new owners purchased the Tahoe Tavern Hotel, a 223-room, European-style resort near Tahoe City. The new management kept the facility open from December to March for the first time. Winter transportation to the tavern was provided by Southern Pacific Railroad, which maintained a narrow-gauge track from Truckee. The train provided reliable access for winter-sports enthusiasts heading to North Lake Tahoe.

Word spread across the country and in Europe that California may be known for sunny beaches and orange groves, but it also possessed a mountain climate and ski conditions superior to most other winter resorts.

Initially, the main attractions were ice skating, cross-country skiing and tobogganing near the hotel, but soon a Winter Sports Grounds was developed at a forested slope (current location of Granlibakken Resort) about half a mile west. In 1922, the tavern hosted its first ski jumping event there.

A double toboggan slide was built and then shortly after a 65-meter trajectory jump was constructed. The jump was designed so that at the apex of their leap, skiers could see distant Lake Tahoe over the forest canopy below. Like the Hilltop scaffold jump built at Truckee, this project was designed and construction supervised by Lars Haugen, a Norwegian-born professional jumper who would eventually win seven U.S. national jumping championships.

As captain of the fledgling U.S. Olympic ski team in 1924, Lars Haugen’s younger brother, Anders, made some of the longest jumps at the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, but due to a scoring error he was ranked fourth and did not receive a medal. The mistake was discovered 50 years later, however, and Anders was finally awarded the bronze for his performance, becoming the first and only American to medal in Olympic ski jumping.

Before long the winter sports program at Olympic Hill included cross-country ski racing, as well as ski jumping exhibitions. To entertain guests, Tahoe Tavern management hired the Haugens and other nationally ranked ski jumpers, Sig Ulland and brothers Alf and Sverre Engen, to perform daring leaps. Alf and Sverre had a signature move where they hit the jump simultaneously, clasped hands in mid-flight and then broke away for the landing. These professional exhibitions drew hundreds of spectators to Tahoe Tavern and Granlibakken.

During the winter of 1928-29, the Haugen brothers, along with local Tahoe City skiers Jack Starrett, Carl Bechdolt, Joe Henry and others, formed the Lake Tahoe Ski Club to organize more activities and competitive events. It was the beginning of a club that would leave an indelible mark on the sport and produce more national ski champions and Olympians than any other program in America.

The town of Truckee is justifiably proud of organizing its first winter carnival in 1895, an event that would transform the Tahoe Sierra into a winter-sports powerhouse, but it was Tahoe City residents that nearly landed the first Winter Olympics held in the United States. Los Angeles had secured the 1932 Summer Games, but competition for the 1932 Winter Games grew into a fierce contest between Yosemite National Park, Tahoe City and Lake Placid in New York. Optimistically, Tahoe locals started calling their winter sports facility “Olympic Hill.” Ultimately, Lake Placid was picked because of its established history of hosting winter-sports events and its location in upstate New York’s reliable snow belt. At the time, few Americans knew that it snowed in California.

Tahoe City’s bid failed, but it was rewarded with the 1932 National Ski Association Championship Tournament, with events in jumping and cross-country skiing. In the weeks before the 1932 event, nearly 23 feet of fresh snow buried Tahoe City. Skiers and officials arriving from the just-finished Winter Games at Lake Placid could hardly believe their eyes. Conditions had been so dry in New York that jumpers landed on a mixture of dirty snow and straw.

The 1932 contests at Tahoe attracted Hollywood celebrities such as movie star Buster Keaton, as well as California Governor James Rolph. More than 100 professional and amateur competitors from around the country traveled to Tahoe City to strut their stuff, but the Lake Tahoe Ski Club had plenty of members who successfully proved their mettle against the world’s best. One newspaper gushed: “The 28th National Ski Tournament goes down as one of the best exhibitions of good sportsmanship, one of the most thrilling meets, one of the most spectacular events ever held in the United States.” It was a colorful affair with some 3,000 spectators.

Other than some spectacular spills sustained by a few jumpers, most of the competitions went off without a hitch. The Dauerlauf cross-country ski race was billed as the first national-level contest of its type held west of the Rockies, but portions of it were so poorly marked that racers found themselves lost in the woods. Several skiers didn’t make it back until just before dark and one contestant went so far off trail that he was returned to Tahoe City by boat.

After the event was over, word spread across the country and in Europe that California may be known for sunny beaches and orange groves, but it also possessed a mountain climate and ski conditions superior to most other winter resorts. Visiting athletes went home to tell their friends and families that California was the place to go for deep snow.

In 1945, Norwegian-born ski jumper Kjell “Rusty” Rustad secured a land-use permit for the Sports Grounds from the U.S. Forest Service. He cleared the slope of trees and built facilities for day visitors and overnight guests. Later he installed several rope-tow systems to pull skiers up the hill. Rustad named it Granlibakken — Norwegian for “hillside sheltered by fir trees” — because it reminded him of where he had skied as a boy.

As a direct result of the 1932 tournament at Lake Tahoe, the popularity and economics of winter sports throughout the Tahoe Sierra boomed. This successful event established the area as a prime training ground for developing world-class talent. It also propelled the region into its role as one of America’s top-rated ski destinations. We can thank the Lake Tahoe Ski Club and Rusty Rustad for establishing these deep roots.

History talks at Retro Ski Film Series
5 p.m. | The Chateau | Incline Village, Nev.

March 1 | Reign of the Sierra Storm King
March 8 | History of Lake Tahoe and the Comstock

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Mark McLaughlin
Mark is an award-winning, nationally published author, historian 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.