Sugar Bowl: Birth of an Historic Ski Resort, Part III

Norman “Red” Rockholm rides the Sugar Bowl lift he helped build. | Courtesy Donner Summit Historical Society

It’s been 80 years since Sugar Bowl opened in December 1939 to become California’s first world-class ski area. Hannes Schroll, an Austrian immigrant who was Sugar Bowl Corporation’s first president and popular ski-school director, brought European flair and technique to the slopes of the high Sierra. His powerful skiing style and raucous yodeling became legendary.

Read Part I & Part II

The newly built resort had two surface rope tows, but looking to set a higher bar in its skiing experience, the company installed a chairlift that whisked skiers to the top of Mount Disney in minutes. The lift was the second one installed in the United States, preceded only by a similar single-seat version at Sun Valley, Idaho. Sugar Bowl’s innovative apparatus was designed by Henry Howard, a mining engineer. The challenging terrain and extended vertical drop the lift accessed inspired Schroll to create the Silver Belt race to draw the world’s best skiers to his resort so they could spread the word.

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

Starting in 1940, top-ranked skiers of the day competed in Sugar Bowl’s giant slalom race, hoping to take home accolades and the 3-foot long, silver-studded waist belt with its big silver buckle. The trophy was based on an award given to “Cornish Bob” Oliver who had won the first official championship downhill ski race in 1867 at La Porte, when he beat all other longboard racers to take home a silver belt prize worth $75. The Silver Belt race began near the summit of Mount Lincoln at 8,383 feet, then plummeted 1,300 vertical feet down the gnarliest terrain at Sugar Bowl through gullies, cliffs and bumps.

The Silver Belt race began near the summit of Mount Lincoln at 8,383 feet, then plummeted 1,300 vertical feet down the gnarliest terrain at Sugar Bowl through gullies, cliffs and bumps.

Sugar Bowl’s inaugural men’s and women’s races were won by Friedl Pfeifer and Gretchen Frazer, two of America’s best skiers at the time. Frazer went on to qualify for two U.S. Olympic ski teams and became the first American to win an Olympic alpine medal when she earned silver in 1948 at St. Moritz, Switzerland. Pfeifer, who started his own ski school in Sun Valley and won the U.S. national title in the slalom in 1940, later fought with distinction and was seriously wounded in combat with the storied 10th Mountain Division ski troops. Both Pfeifer and Frazer are honored members of the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame. Over the years, the winners of the original Silver Belt race series (1940 to 1975) read like a who’s who of champions including Ski Hall of Fame members Alf Engen, Buddy Werner and Jean Saubert. The list also includes notable Tahoe Sierra skiers: Dodie Post in 1949, Babette Haueisen in 1955, Starr Walton in 1957 and 1960, and Eric Poulsen in 1969 and 1970. Today, that legacy has morphed into Sugar Bowl’s three-event Silver Belt Series.

During World War II, Sugar Bowl was closed by the U.S. Army to eliminate crowds and protect the transcontinental railroad tracks from possible sabotage. The resort opened again at Christmas of 1945, but Southern Pacific Railroad canceled its popular Snowball Special express trains that delivered carloads of customers. Skiers still flocked to Sugar Bowl, but now they arrived by automobile.

In 1953, Schroll and his brother-in-law, Jerome Hill, replaced their over-snow tractor system with a new gondola called the Magic Carpet, which whisked skiers to the lodge in quick, efficient style. This aerial tramway was the first of its type in the country. Hill, who had inherited some of his father’s fortune from the Great Northern Railroad, financed the deal himself. Hannes had married Jerome’s sister Maude. The suspended cable cars were detachable and carried six passengers each. As the gondola cabins filled with skiers, they were pushed along a track from which a mechanism engaged them with a moving overhead cable.

Winter access to Sugar Bowl had always been limited to in-house transportation and the lack of automobiles, trucks, snowplows, noise and congestion preserved its old-world charm. As long as most of their clientele arrived by train, the system worked well, but after World War II America’s love affair with the automobile really took off. Undeterred, Sugar Bowl refused to build a road into the village and instead became the first resort in the U.S. to ban automobiles. To accommodate their motoring guests, a three-story garage was built in 1963 along Highway 40, where skiers could park their cars, then board the Magic Carpet gondola for a ride into the resort.

In the 1930s, Austrian immigrant Wilhelm “Bill” Klein had been one of the skiers who introduced Scholl to the future site of Sugar Bowl. During World War II, Klein served with the 10th Mountain Division as a technical master sergeant in charge of the instructors, who were teaching American troops to ski. After the war, Klein returned to his ski school and retail businesses at the Sierra Club’s Clair Tappaan Lodge near Donner Pass. But when Schroll retired as Sugar Bowl ski school director, Klein took over the position.

In 1947, a European named Dennis Wiles got a job at Sugar Bowl working in the cook shack. He was a decent skier and soon asked Klein to train him as an instructor. Klein obliged and Wiles worked at Sugar Bowl; he taught skiing for several seasons. Nearly four decades later it turned out that Wiles was really Georg Gaertner, a former German prisoner of war who avoided repatriation by escaping from a New Mexico POW camp. Gaertner admitted to Klein that he had removed the military’s wanted poster from the Norden post office shortly after his arrival at Sugar Bowl. Gaertner was later pardoned and wrote a book called “Hitler’s Last Soldier in America.”

Today, Sugar Bowl has been expanded and improved in virtually every way. The resort now encompasses four major mountain peaks served by high-speed chair lifts. Bending to economic realities, a paved road was built offering access to automobiles, buses or taxis with convenient parking. On Highway 40 skiers and riders can catch the Village Gondola that will deliver them to lifts and lodging. The spectacular terrain provides skiers and snowboarders with an endless variety of challenges. With some of Tahoe’s finest off-piste terrain and deep snow, even after 80 years the area is still mecca for powder hounds. |