Sugar Bowl | Birth of a Historic Ski Resort, Part II

Hannes Schroll, circa 1937. | Mark McLaughlin

When the Sugar Bowl ski area first opened for business on Dec. 15, 1939, the resort turned out to be everything its founders had hoped for. It was the perfect blend of European charm and grace coupled with the vitality and exuberance of early California.

Sugar Bowl Lodge, designed by the noted architect William Wilson Wurster, was the first ski lodge on the Pacific Coast built within walking distance of the lifts.

The rustic resort quickly became the darling of wealthy San Francisco socialites, as well as the Hollywood crowd. It was the largest and most challenging ski area in California and boasted the Golden State’s first chairlift that whisked riders up to the top of Mount Lincoln in just more than 6 minutes. Sugar Bowl Lodge, designed by the noted architect William Wilson Wurster, was built in the Tyrolean Modern style with a broad porch and balcony that overlooked the spectacular alpine scenery. It was the first ski lodge on the Pacific Coast built within walking distance of the lifts.

Read more:
Part I on Sugar Bowl’s history
About about Hannes Schroll

The scenic location caught the attention of Bill and Fred Klein on their arrival to Donner Summit in 1936. The brothers ran a ski school nearby and took their most advanced clients out to Sugar Bowl to climb and schuss down. They dreamed of building a first-class alpine ski resort there but didn’t have the money or business connections. Fortunately, the Kleins had met fellow Austrian Hannes Schroll at the Badger Pass Ski Area in Yosemite National Park where he was ski school director. In his role as head instructor, the Kleins knew that Schroll had developed friendships with prominent Bay Area businessmen and families who took his classes at Badger.

At the request of Bill and Fred, Schroll toured Donner Summit in July 1937 and was impressed. If anyone could get financial support for developing Sugar Bowl, the charismatic Hannes Schroll could. He was 26 years old when he blew away the competition on the fledgling U.S. alpine racing circuit. The man was dashing, athletic and so fast on his boards that he had won more than 100 international ski titles in Europe by the time he immigrated to the United States in 1935. Opponents called him the “Red Devil of Tyrol.”

Shortly after his arrival in America, Schroll crushed the competition at the 1935 Winter Olympic Alpine Trials at Mount Rainier, Wash. These races represented the beginning of America’s national downhill racing program. On race day the course was plagued by poor visibility and icy, rutted snow, but Schroll flew down the cloud-shrouded course with confidence, yodeling as he went. Schroll finished a stunning 1 minute, 7 seconds ahead of America’s best racer, Dartmouth freshman Dick Durrance, who took second place.

With his superior technique and daredevil style, Schroll easily won the slalom, too, which gave him a sweep of the downhill, slalom and the combined. After his impressive victory, Schroll was hired to run the ski school at Badger Pass, California’s premier ski resort at the time. It was a great opportunity for the new immigrant, but it was also a paid job that eliminated him from future Olympic competition. He later said, “I arrived in America with $25 in my pocket, holes in my pants, skis on my back, and not able to speak a word of English, yet I was still able to see my dreams come true.”

In 1938, Schroll quit his position at Badger Pass and together with a group of wealthy pupils from the Bay Area, incorporated the San Francisco-based Sugar Bowl Corporation. Schroll was elected as first president of the company. The company purchased the necessary acreage for less than $7,000 from two sisters who lived in Sacramento. The women had been leasing the lush meadow area to sheepherders each summer. Money was tight during the Great Depression, but when a story circulated that skier, 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 developed, one of the peaks was named Mount Disney.

Silver Belt Series
March 7 | Quad Crusher
March 14 | Banked Slalom

Sugar Bowl’s’ $39,000 chairlift was an attraction in its own right. The ski area was the second U.S. resort to install a chairlift (Sun Valley in Idaho was first), and the novelty of an airborne conveyance drew the curious, skier or not. Thirty-two hundred feet in length, it carried skiers from the lodge to an elevation of nearly 8,400 feet. Non-skiing guests paid 25 cents for a ride up and down on the single-chair lift. The lift cost skiers $2 per day or $10 per week for unlimited rides. A 1939 press release read proudly: “With a ski school under the supervision of Hannes Schroll and featuring the Arlberg Technique, and with an open-air ice rink in front of the Lodge among its other new facilities, the Sugar Bowl takes its place this winter among this country’s and Europe’s most complete and modern winter resorts.”

There was a ski shop, rental department, lockers and rest rooms — all open to the public. The lodge could accommodate up to 20 people in private rooms, with men’s and women’s dormitories that could each sleep 10.

The Sugar Bowl Lodge and chairlift were about 1.5 miles away from Southern Pacific Railroad’s special loading platform for skiers at Norden Station, so transporting winter guests was a significant problem. A road was considered too expensive to build and plow; two Ford station wagons equipped with half-tracks on the rear axle and skis on the front were employed to haul guests. But the vehicles proved impractical in deep snow. Next, horse-drawn sleighs were utilized, which worked for a while until several horses broke loose and were killed by a train. Mechanical tractors pulling sleds was the next phase, later followed by Army surplus tractors known as Weasels.

With his flamboyant style, Schroll was a natural at attracting publicity and he began thinking of ways to entice some of the best skiers in the world to his new resort. Schroll wanted a challenging competition, something to rival Sun Valley’s famous Harriman Cup begun in 1937.

In April 1940, Sugar Bowl hosted its first annual Silver Belt race, a giant slalom run that began near the top of Mount Lincoln at 8,383 feet and then plummeted 1,300 vertical feet down steep terrain through gullies, cliffs and bumps. Before the formation of the international World Cup ski competition, Sugar Bowl’s legendary Silver Belt was considered one of the most challenging races of its era.

Read Part III in the next edition or at; click on Explore Tahoe: History.