Wayne Poulsen and the Rifle Peak Project

The Tahoe Alps above Incline Village, Nev., on Lake Tahoe. | Courtesy Mark
McLaughlin

In the 1930s, North Lake Tahoe missed out on a proposed state-of-the-art, European-style ski resort perched on the mountains above today’s Incline Village, Nev. With an advanced aerial tram system, it would have been the first of its kind in the United States. In addition to downhill skiing and winter sports activities, the view looking south over breathtaking Lake Tahoe was a guaranteed scenic draw for both domestic and international clientele. The allure of the project attracted the best skiers in the Reno-Tahoe area, young men who wanted to contribute their expertise for the region’s first mega-resort.

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In the spring of 1935, Nevada businessman Norman Biltz had recently returned from a skiing vacation in Europe. Energized by his exhilarating experiences at mountain resorts in the Alps, Biltz proposed building an Austrian-style ski resort at Rifle Peak on Tahoe’s North Shore. Called the “Duke of Nevada,” he was a big-time entrepreneur and financier who became a powerful political figure in the Silver State. Biltz was the former owner of the swanky Cal-Neva Lodge & Casino on the state line of North Lake Tahoe, but he lost the property one night in the 1930s when he gambled it away while drinking absinthe.

The Rifle Peak ridgeline flirts with 10,000 feet in elevation and its colder climate generates more snow than lower elevations. Biltz planned to market the remote terrain as the “Tahoe Alps.” Twenty-five years later the state of Nevada used the term Tahoe Alps — the alpine region between Rifle Peak and the present-day Mt. Rose Ski Resort — in its proposal to host the 1960 Winter Olympics there. The Games ultimately went to Olympic Valley.

In Europe, Biltz was impressed by the aerial tramway systems that the Swiss, Austrians, French and Germans were installing to reach higher altitudes. Gondolas effortlessly lifted crowds of sightseers and alpine sports enthusiasts to terrain that had previously been inaccessible. In 1936, when Biltz heard that Union Pacific Railroad’s Sun Valley resort in Idaho had installed the world’s first chairlift, he realized it was only a matter of time before Americans began flocking to mechanized ski resorts. From 1933 to 1936, Americans’ expenditures for ski equipment, travel and accommodations increased 500 percent. It was becoming increasingly clear that there was big money to be made in winter sports.

In 1937, Biltz and business partner Oscar Alexander hired L. Calder Kipps Engineering to study the location and produce a “Lake Tahoe Ski-Ways Prospectus” on the feasibility of the project. Engineering plans boasted an extensive cable and tower infrastructure that could move people efficiently. Biltz also contacted local expert skiers for input.

The men who participated in the Rifle Peak project were among the most prominent skiers, architects, journalists and businessmen in the region. Tahoe skiers included Wayne Poulsen, Carl Bechdolt, Halvor Mikkelson and Junior Henry. Poulsen, a recent graduate from the University of Nevada, later became a partner in establishing Squaw Valley Ski Resort. Mikkelson, along with his brother Roy, dominated as America’s best ski jumpers in the 1930s, both winning national championships. Bechdolt and Henry were competitive skiers and charter members of the Lake Tahoe Ski Team based in Tahoe City.

Biltz envisioned downhill ski runs, jumps, tramways, rope tows, lodges, bobsledding, ice skating and more. The resort would also be complemented by summertime facilities and recreation. So grand was their plan that the United Press news wire service christened the project “A New American Gold Coast.” The Rifle Peak project was going to be a world-class resort, not like the small mom and pop rope-tow operations along Highway 40 west of Donner Pass. (Sugar Bowl wouldn’t open until 1939.)

For the architectural phase, Biltz commissioned Frederic Joseph DeLongchamps, Nevada’s most prolific architect. Examples of his work include many Nevada courthouses and public buildings, as well as the Reno home of Lora Knight, who built Vikingsholm Castle at Emerald Bay. Frederick also designed George Whittell’s quirky Thunderbird Lodge on Lake Tahoe’s East Shore. Eyeing potential profits from the Rifle Peak development, Whittell planned on constructing a $1 million hotel-casino on his shoreline property at Sand Harbor.

It was 80 years ago when Poulsen and Mikkelson spent much of the 1938 winter atop Rifle Peak, the snowiest season on record for Donner Pass. They studied ski-lift placement, snowfall accumulation, slope aspect and snowpack durability. Poulsen and Mikkelson came to the conclusion that a resort there was unfeasible primarily because the proposed ski runs were located on the mountain’s south-facing slopes, which had unreliable snow coverage. The skiers couldn’t know that starting in the early 1950s snowmaking machines would extend seasons and take up the slack if natural snow was late or nonexistent during any given winter.

Ultimately, Biltz decided that the venture was far too extravagant for the times amidst the country’s still-struggling Depression-era economy. “We made quite a study of skiing, but never got our efforts off the ground,” Biltz said years later. “We did start to develop a ski resort on Mt. Rose but abandoned it because in those days they weren’t financially successful.”

It was recommended that Biltz develop the alpine region to the east near the Mt. Rose Highway, but the busy businessman was already distracted by other opportunities. In the future, Reno Ski Bowl, Slide Mountain, Sky Tavern and the Mt. Rose ski areas would find success in the Tahoe Alps.

The Rifle Peak ski resort was never built, but Poulsen’s time on the mountain wasn’t wasted. He gathered important information about the snowpack and water potential in the undeveloped Incline watershed. As a 15-year-old Boy Scout in Reno, Poulsen started snow surveying for James E. Church, known as the “Father of Snow Surveying” for his pioneering work in the field. In the early 1900s, he initiated snow surveying in the Tahoe Sierra to forecast streamflow runoff in the spring. Poulsen crafted his data from Rifle Peak to write several technical articles for the American Geophysical Union.

In 1939 the International Snow and Ice Congress was hosting a conference in Los Angeles. Dr. Church was president of the organization that year. To present their findings, Church and Poulsen boarded a nighttime bus for the long drive to Los Angeles. Poulsen was quite nervous and seeking guidance on his presentation, but Dr. Church simply pulled his hat down and slept until they arrived in L.A.