Hockey practice outside unfinished Blyth Arena, circa 1959. | Courtesy Mark McLaughlinDue to European concerns regarding changed and unapproved ski course layouts for the upcoming 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley — specifically for the Nordic competitions — it was determined that a practice tournament before the Games was the only way to confirm that it met internationally agreed upon standards. And, just as importantly, it would also provide athletes and their coaches a chance to see and ski Squaw Valley first-hand.
In the spring of 1957, construction had begun on three new double chairlifts to augment two older lifts in operation. By the winter of 1959, Squaw Valley was operating lifts up Squaw Peak, KT-22 and near Papoose Peak, which opened up a significant amount of new terrain. With the addition of the new chairlifts and ski runs, promoters promised that Squaw Valley had become the largest ski center in the Western Hemisphere. Public excitement for the upcoming Winter Games inspired thousands of people to drive up from Reno, San Francisco and Sacramento to check out the new facilities.
Many of the winter visitors were skiers anxious to barrel down Squaw’s challenging new runs, but crowds continued to pour in during the summer months, as well. Even with all the publicity and expanded traffic flow, the resort was still a relatively unknown ski area in national and global markets.
With the threat of a boycott on the table by several Scandinavian countries that were concerned about cross-country ski events being relocated on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore and not in the valley as advertised, all parties agreed that a pre-Olympic competition and facility inspection made good sense. The Olympic Organizing Committee stepped in to host the North American Championships at Squaw Valley in February 1959. All Olympic competitors and other top athletes too young to compete were invited to participate.
In early February 1959, skiers, skaters and support staff from 13 foreign nations joined American amateurs to face-off in the North American Alpine and Nordic Ski Championships. The expanded event included biathlon trials, an international invitational speed skating event and ski jumping along with ice hockey and figure skating competitions. The Championships would give athletes their first look at the nearly completed California Olympic venue at which they hoped to participate the following year.
Squaw Valley president Alex Cushing’s vision of comradery between the athletes with a focus on sports, not the politics and suspicions of the Cold War, called for all competitors and team officials to be housed together in a separate Olympic Village. Four dormitories had been built with 300 rooms that accommodated four men or two women in each room. Females were housed in their own building. For the first time, participants from all countries would eat together in a large dining hall. It was a short walk from the Village to all of the training and competition areas, except for the cross-country skiing venues — one of the sources of contention was the driving distance to Tahoe’s West Shore for Nordic practice. In 1960, the village would be off limits to everyone except athletes, their coaches and managers, but in 1959, participants were sharing dormitories and dining rooms with newsmen, medical personnel, fire fighters, forest service and military personnel.
The official Winter Games were just one year away, and the Championships offered athletes their first opportunity to shred the slopes, skate the oval rinks on artificially frozen ice or launch themselves off the multiple ski jumps. But as an ominous harbinger of the erratic weather challenges that would precede the Olympics in 1960, the winter of 1958-59 got off to a slow start. On the plus side, the worrisome threat of avalanches on the upper mountain was minimal in December. High pressure dominated the weather that month and it wasn’t until Jan. 5, 1959, that the first major storm of the season pounded the Tahoe Sierra with heavy snow. It wasn’t quite enough to open all the terrain, but it was a start that helped partially alleviate concerns of cancelling fan favorite events like the downhill and slalom races. Even with that first shot of snow, the ground was still bare on the valley floor in late January.
Luckily a major storm roared out of the Pacific on Feb. 11 and for two days heavy snow buried Squaw Valley. The Blue Canyon weather station on the west slope set a new 24-hour February record of 33 inches; even Reno, Nev., picked up nearly 2 feet. So much snow fell at Squaw Valley (65 inches at the base lodge) that one foreign delegate observed: “It’s going to be quite a job to work this down to racing quality.”
Olympic directors pleaded for help in moving snow and course packing, and even offered to pay hundreds of local skiers $2 per hour for their time and energy. This barrage increased avalanche concerns. During the winter of 1959, avalanche expert Monty Atwater conducted a training course for the 52-member Olympic Ski Patrol that would handle the 1960 Winter Games. It would be the first time the Winter Games were covered by a volunteer squad. After reviewing the many top skiers who hoped to work the mountain during the Olympics, Atwater recommended Jerry Nunn. Nunn, one of only three women he certified for the distinguished patrol, grew up in Sacramento and learned to ski at Soda Springs (near Donner Pass). She had joined the Sugar Bowl ski patrol when the ski area first opened in 1939.
Despite her diminutive stature, Nunn was a strong, capable skier who became the first certified female Forest Service Snow Ranger and avalanche expert. She again broke the gender barrier in 1954 by becoming the first woman patroller at Squaw Valley. During the winter of 1959, Nunn participated in Atwater’s avalanche control program. During one training session aimed at triggering slides by skiing across the top of a chute, Nunn was swept away by a violent torrent of snow, but luckily survived with only minor injuries. The close call was another lesson that avalanche control is risky, dangerous work, even for experts with long experience.
John “Bernie” Kingery was another young skier at Squaw Valley in 1959, just beginning his career in avalanche control and lucky enough to be learning from the best in the business. Bernie went on to become the mountain manager at Alpine Meadows where he died on March 31, 1982, a victim of one of the most deadly and destructive avalanches in U.S. ski area history.
Look for the conclusion of Mark’s series on the 1960 Winter Olympics at TheTahoeWeekly.com.