Hannes Schroll: The Red Devil from Tyrol

Hannes Schroll, one of the founders of Sugar Bowl, in 1937.

It’s been nearly 80 years since the Sugar Bowl ski resort opened on Dec. 15, 1939. Sugar Bowl is known as the Grand Dame of Tahoe ski resorts due to its long, colorful history based on easy winter access by railroad and by automobile after 1932.

“As (Hannes Schroll) passed me, his hat sailed through the air, and he whooped even louder, glad to get his skis back on the snow. Before he stopped, he had passed No. 41, who had taken off 10 minutes before.”
–From Alpine Olympic trials, 1935

In the decade before World War II, years before Squaw Valley opened in 1949, Donner Summit boasted one of the most extensive concentrations of rope tows, ski clubs and ski trails in the United States. Despite the plethora of mom-and-pop rope-tow operations in the heavy snow zone along trans-Sierra Highway 40, Sugar Bowl Resort raised the level of skill and enjoyment of alpine skiing with its high-elevation skiing terrain and California’s first chairlift.

Sugar Bowl, northern California’s first true alpine resort, was notably larger than any other nearby operations and its $39,000 single-seat chairlift enabled a skier to sit down for a leisurely ride up the hill. The chairlift accessed the slopes of 8,383-foot Mount Lincoln with its challenging ski runs and vertical drop of 1,500 feet. Located along the Sierra Crest about a mile south of Donner Pass Road, Sugar Bowl encompasses a small basin surrounded by a rim of mountains that tower above. The location receives more than 40 feet of snowfall each winter, the heftiest of any California ski area.

The Sugar Bowl had drawn adventurous off-piste skiers for years before its transformation into a popular ski resort. The moment of opportunity came when Austrian ski racer Hannes Schroll toured the area in July 1937 with fellow countrymen Bill and Fred Klein. The Klein brothers had been teaching skiing near Donner Pass and dreamed of building a resort at Sugar Bowl, but didn’t have the money.

The Klein brothers had met Schroll at Badger Pass in Yosemite National Park shortly after their arrival in the U.S. and knew that Schroll had developed many friendships with prominent Bay Area businessmen among his ski clientele. The Klein brothers thought that maybe Hannes could get the funding to make the dream a reality. Schroll was initially skeptical that there would ever be enough snow to cover the rugged terrain, but he was assured that come winter it would all be covered by a thick blanket of white. After the summer inspection, Schroll envisioned a first-class alpine resort like he remembered from his days growing up in the Austrian Alps.

In 1938, after two seasons at Badger Pass, Schroll quit his position as Ski School Director and together with a group of wealthy business associates incorporated the San Francisco-based Sugar Bowl Corporation. Schroll was elected as first president of the company and they purchased the necessary 700 acres for less than $7,000. They bought the land from two sisters who lived in Sacramento and were leasing the area to sheepherders each summer. Despite financial setbacks due to the Great Depression, after a story circulated that the cartoonist, animator and movie producer Walt Disney was one of the principal investors, it gave the company credibility to sell more stock. As the resort was developed, one of the peaks was named Mount Disney.

Schroll was the perfect front man for Sugar Bowl. Athletic, handsome and flamboyant, Schroll was already a skiing sensation when he arrived in the U.S. in 1935 at age 26. He stormed into the fledgling U.S. racing circuit and quickly proved his chops by crushing the competition at America’s first Alpine Olympic trials at Mt. Rainer National Park, Washington. At the try-outs, the betting money was on Richard “Dick” Durrance. A freshman at Dartmouth, Durrance had spent six years going to school in Garmisch, Germany, where he learned to ski from Europe’s top racers. In 1932, at age 17, he became the fastest in his age bracket in a Bavarian championship race. The following year he placed 16th in the world-famous Arlberg-Kandahar downhill among a field of 80 elite Europeans. By 1935, Durrance was considered America’s top speedster.

But few people knew much about Schroll, a last-minute entrant at the U.S. try-outs. Known as the Red Devil of the Tyrol, Schroll had a reputation for ripping down the mountain. In 1934, Schroll had taken first place in the Marmolata Race in the Italian Alps, which earned him this trip to the United States to show off his abilities as one of Austria’s best competitors. It was also a ticket to safety out of a troubled Europe that in a few years would explode into war.

On race day at Mount Rainier, the course was plagued by poor visibility and icy, rutted snow that some felt left the results too much a matter of chance, but Schroll flew down the cloud-shrouded slope with confidence. Wearing his signature felt hat, yodeling with glee, Schroll averaged close to 60 mph and finished a stunning 1 minute, 7 seconds ahead of Durrance, who took second place.

An eyewitness described Schroll’s impact on the spectators and other racers that April day in 1935: “Pretty soon the boys start to come down at one-minute intervals… I knew Dick Durrance of Dartmouth, when he came by. He was going like a hurricane. Some others coasted along. Then I heard a yell high above me. I looked up, and coming down through the fog like an eagle swooping down on a rabbit was No. 51 – Hannes Schroll. And he was yodeling at the top of his lungs!” The narrator continued: “Schroll jumped the first terrace like a deer going over a rail fence. Then he jumped another – and landed on one ski. His body was leaning over like an open jack-knife, and he was swinging his ski poles to keep from somersaulting. He must have skidded a quarter mile on that one ski, whooping and yelling all the time. As he passed me, his hat sailed through the air, and he whooped even louder, glad to get his skis back on the snow. Before he stopped, he had passed No. 41, who had taken off 10 minutes before.”

With his superior technique and daredevil style, Schroll also easily won first place in the slalom, which gave him a sweep of the downhill, slalom and the combined. The 1935 Olympic trials earned Schroll a great job teaching skiing at Badger Pass and a strong start toward U.S. citizenship. His crushing victory over the competition at the try-outs was also the first step toward Schroll’s legacy as the man who opened Sugar Bowl.

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