Collapse of Squaw Valley’s Blyth Arena, Part I

The Blyth Memorial Arena was built for the 1960 Winter Olympics held at Squaw Valley. | Bill Briner

Among some longtime locals, the collapse of Squaw Valley’s Blyth Arena on March 29, 1983, is a legendary tale of conspiracy, mystery and subterfuge. Even after three decades, unsubstantiated rumors still persist that the structure, completed in 1959 for the 1960 Winter Olympics, was purposely destroyed to expand parking at the famed resort. Detailed descriptions by engineers and Squaw Valley management explaining that the likely cause was massive snow buildup during the winter of 1983 have done little to assuage those who think dynamite brought the building down.

Read Part II of the story

When Alex Cushing, owner of the relatively primitive Squaw Valley ski area, managed to land the 1960 Winter Olympics in the spring of 1955, plans for building the required infrastructure got under way in earnest. It was a huge undertaking with a $16 million price tag, and for the next four years the valley buzzed with activity as crews worked quickly during the summers to construct a modern Olympic site from scratch. One of the key structures for the VIII Olympic Winter Games was the Blyth Memorial Arena. Easily accessible by both spectators and athletes, the arena was a modern and uniquely engineered structure that had won first place from more than 600 other entries in the 1958 Progressive Architecture Design Award for recreational facilities.

Blyth Arena was enclosed on three sides with the south side open. The building was designed similar to a suspension bridge with a span of about 100 yards. There were 16 steel support columns (six on each end of the arena) that held up the roof, but no true support columns within the perimeter of the arena. The roof beams were a clear span from the ridge to the side walls and abutments. Cables anchored to concrete blocks were attached to the top center of each beam so the dead weight of the blocks counterbalanced the roof load. The west and east sections of the roof were separate structures capable of flexing independently under the weight of snow. The arena could seat up to 9,000 spectators plus room for 2,500 people standing, and provided a 360-degree unobstructed view of the ice rink.

After the Olympics, the facility became popular with locals and visitors who enjoyed the year-round skating and figure skating exhibitions, along with youth hockey and broomball leagues brought in thousands of people every year. In the late 1970s and early 80s, Blyth was the headquarters of national training camps for the best American figure skaters of the era including such competitors as Scott Hamilton and Peter and Kitty Carruthers. In fact, every American national and international champion and Olympic competitor of that time trained at Blyth.

Blyth Arena had already withstood some heavy hitting winters such as 1969 and 1982, but the 1983 season was a monster with rapid-fire storms. It still ranks as one of the worst in California history. Severe weather that winter killed 36 people, injured 481 and caused $1.2 billion in economic losses in the Golden State. Peak snow depths at Donner Pass exceeded 17 feet; some of the deepest snow there since World War II. The impact was so devastating in California and around the world that 1983 is the year that put the previously little-known word El Niño into the lexicon of the media and popular culture.

In 1983, incessant storms pounded Squaw Valley from November to May and the snow piled up on Blyth Arena. Unlike most buildings in snow country, which are beefed up structurally to passively carry anticipated snow loads, Blyth was designed with an active system to make the roof shed snow. The roof consisted of galvanized metal with the lower section heated so that snow at the bottom would constantly slide off into concrete troughs at the west and east ends of the building. That allowed snow on the upper portion of the roof to also slide to the bottom rim. Heat was produced by the huge refrigeration compressor that kept the ice rink artificially frozen.

In the years following the Winter Games, however, the compressor became less efficient and was replaced with a smaller, more energy efficient unit supplemented by oil-fired boilers. During the 1970s, complaints that the roof leaked were sent to the U.S. Forest Service, which had assumed ownership of the building after the 1960 Games. Instead of simply caulking the cable-related openings so that the building’s active snow-load management system could continue to function properly, the Forest Service coated the entire roof with waterproofing. Once that was done, snow no longer slid off the roof as designed and the odds of a potentially devastating buildup increased dramatically.

During the winter of 1982, also a heavy hitter, the rink had stood empty. The United States Olympic Training Center that had utilized and operated the facility was transferred to Colorado, but the Forest Service had continued to maintain snow removal on the premises. At one point during that winter, snow built up to a critical level on the roof, so several California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection inmate crews were brought in to hand shovel the facility. After 10 days, the snow was cleared and a crisis averted.

After the winter of 1982, however, the Forest Service surrendered ownership of Blyth Arena when Congress passed legislation to liquidate the federal holdings in Squaw Valley. Subsequently, the former Olympic Village (present-day Olympic Village Inn) was sold to a developer and Blyth was purchased by Squaw Valley Ski Corporation.

After Squaw bought the Blyth facility, Peter Bansen, a Squaw Valley Ski Corp employee and the former assistant manager of the rink, expressed his interest in managing it. The position was granted and Bansen jumped into action to prepare the moribund operation for a new lease on life. Unfortunately, that lease was to be short indeed.