Sugar Bowl: Birth of a Historic Ski Resort, Part I

Johnny Ellis, circa 1935. | Courtesy Donner Summit Historical Society

Historic Sugar Bowl, the Grand Dame of California ski resorts, is celebrating its 80th anniversary since it opened on Dec. 15, 1939.

For skiers and snowboarders, Sugar Bowl is the jewel of Donner Summit, as well as the oldest of all major Tahoe Sierra ski areas. This classic, European-styled alpine resort caters to skiers and riders who like their powder deep, their friends close and their mountain experience extraordinary. Located in the heavy snowbelt along the Sierra Crest near Donner Pass, the resort averages 42 feet of snow each winter, a climatological blessing that inspired the region’s first back-country skiers to nickname it, “the Sugar Bowl,” back in the 1920s.

The founding of Sugar Bowl was the result of a perfect storm of superb terrain, skier access via Southern Pacific Railroad and Highway 40, all pushed by a tremendous surge in the popularity of downhill skiing during the 1930s.

This resort’s remarkable birth features Hannes Schroll, one of the world’s best skiers before World War II; famous investors such as animator Walt Disney and millionaire recluse Howard Hughes and enthusiastic support from movie actors who loved to ski — Claudette Colbert, Norma Shearer and Errol Flynn, to name a few. But Sugar Bowl didn’t just appear from the tip of a magic wand as in Walt Disney’s cartoon movie “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The founding of Sugar Bowl was the result of a perfect storm of superb terrain, skier access via Southern Pacific Railroad and Highway 40, all pushed by a tremendous surge in the popularity of downhill skiing during the 1930s.

That was the breakout decade for skisport in California’s high country and across much of the nation. Despite a severe economic depression that started with the 1929 stock market crash, in the 1930s increasing numbers of Americans took to the wintry mountains to escape the gloom festering across the country. Thanks to improvements in boot-binding design and the expansion of rope tows that pulled skiers effortlessly up steep slopes, downhill skiing really exploded as a new sport. Once people learned that they could grab a moving rope, instead of spending hours of arduous climbing for one or maybe two runs, alpine skiing eclipsed other aspects of the sport. Downhill skiing was first introduced into the Winter Olympics in 1936. Before that, the only recognized Olympic ski competitions were cross country and jumping.

Long before the development of Lake Tahoe’s modern array of premier winter resorts, the Donner Pass region boasted the most extensive concentration of rope tows, ski clubs and ski trails in the United States. The establishment of Sugar Bowl raised the level of skill and enjoyment of alpine skiing exponentially with its prime terrain and the installation of California’s first chairlift.

Commercial ski businesses began in the 1920s when entrepreneurial brothers Oscar and Herstle Jones arrived at Soda Springs in 1922. At the time there were no hotels along the railroad line between Truckee and Colfax. (The state did not start plowing Highway 40 for automobiles until 1932.) In 1924, Oscar paid $5,000 for a plot of land close to the future site of Sugar Bowl and on Dec. 10, 1927, the brothers opened the 20-room Soda Springs Hotel.

Lacking uphill lift technology, the Jones’ used horses and sleighs for winter transport and to haul skiers. Oscar Jones’ son, Dennis, also played a pivotal role in the summit’s development as a winter sports destination. Dennis attended school in Switzerland where he learned the telemark turn (single, bended knee) and the stem christie (ski tips together and tails apart to turn and brake) from European instructors. He also learned the new Arlberg technique, where skiers used two poles, not one, and linked dynamic parallel turns down the slope, the style made popular by legendary Austrian ski instructor Hannes Schneider.

After opening a ski school at the Soda Springs Hotel, Dennis was among the first California instructors to teach the new technique. In 1929, he cleared trees and stumps for the first ski run on Beacon Hill, named for the aircraft beacon installed on its peak. Beacon Hill is the site of today’s Soda Springs ski hill. At the time, ski activity primarily centered on touring and mountaineering trails; the more ambitious would climb the slopes to schuss down.

After the 1932 Winter Olympics held at Lake Placid, N.Y., Americans started to develop an interest in skiing. The problem was that there were no uphill conveyances in the United States and the sport was mostly relegated to shivering spectators standing in the cold watching ski jumpers. Johnny Ellis installed a rope tow on Donner Pass in 1936-37 at Lake Mary near the present Sugar Bowl site. Ellis had graduated from Dartmouth College in 1935 and that summer he traveled to Donner Pass just in time to help with the completion of Sierra Club’s new Clair Tappaan Lodge. He then became the first custodian of the lodge and built a small cabin next door to live in. Sierra Club began operating its own rope tow for members at the Clair Tappaan at about the same time as Ellis put his rig in at Lake Mary.

Naturally, Dennis and Ellis became fast friends. Both men realized that getting skiers to the top of the slope quickly and easily was the main challenge inhibiting the rapid growth of alpine skiing. In the mid to late 1930s, rope-tow mania had swept the nation and the simple but effective technology sprang up everywhere in snow country. In the Central Sierra, mom-and-pop operations opened all along Highway 40’s high-elevation snowbelt zone.

The Sugar Bowl had drawn adventurous off-piste skiers for years before its dramatic transformation into a popular resort. In 1936, UC Berkeley professor Dr. Joel Hildebrand, a future Sierra Club president and the U.S. Olympic ski team manager, drove Austrians Bill and Fred Klein to the area. Dr. Hildebrand was a strong advocate for alpine skiing and for educating Americans in this powerful style of parallel skiing. Bill and Fred were well-qualified ski instructors and Hildebrand had paid for them to come to California. On their summer tour of Donner Summit, the young skiers looked skeptically at the snowless rock precipices, but Hildebrand assured them: “Don’t worry about the cliffs and boulders. Come winter they’ll all be covered with more than 10 feet of snow and the skiing will be great.”

Dr. Hildebrand convinced the Klein brothers to start a professional ski school using the Claire Tappaan Lodge rope tow. They received free room and board along with 50 cents a lesson. Affable, technically skilled and excited to be at the new frontier of alpine skiing, the pair soon had more students than they could handle. Within a few years, the Klein brothers had taught parallel skiing to thousands. Read Part II in the next edition or at TheTahoeWeekly.com; click on Explore Tahoe: History.