Known for high elevation, bounteous snow and its remote location, Kirkwood has been a beloved ski resort for generations and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It also has a fascinating history, created from scratch and a lot of hard work when Highway 88, the access road to it, wasn’t open in the winter.
According to the excellent book, “Mountain Dreamers, Visionaries of Sierra Nevada Skiing” by the late great Tahoe writer Robert Frohlich, Kirkwood was the brain child of Bud Klein, a businessman from Stockton who had four kids who loved to ski.
“I kept thinking how nice it would be to have an area that kids and parents could ski together without so much worry and hassle,” said Klein, who visited the valley in 1965. “I thought it was the most beautiful spot on earth. I fell in love with the place.”
Klein saw a large meadow surrounded on three sides by mountains seemingly designed for skiing. He was not alone. Monty Atwater, who was working with Tahoe National Forest in 1963, also declared it a great site for a ski area. But there were a lot of issues to overcome before anyone could strap on their skis.
“We have our own weather system that sits over Kirkwood and just dumps. My favorite times are getting stuck out there and having a bluebird day and the roads are closed and we get the most awesome powder.” –Sandra Smith
First, Highway 88 was not a year-round road because it went through lightly populated terrain that received a ton of snow. Kirkwood sits between the cliff known as Carson Spur to the west and Carson Pass on the east, two of the most active avalanche zones on any road in California. To keep the road open Kirkwood’s developers worked with Caltrans to create two maintenance stations at Caples Lake and Peddler Hill, where now some of the best snow removal and avalanche crews in the country work.
If they could get the road to stay open, the second step was to create a community in the valley where there was no housing, no power, no water or sewage treatment.
The Forest Service approved the project in 1971. John Carnell was the first ski patrol director at the resort when he arrived at the ski area via snowcat in the winter of 1972.
“The highway wasn’t opened. I lived in the Kirkwood Inn. There wasn’t anything there. We started laying out the trails and cutting the trees down,” said Carnell.
The next summer they cleared lift lines and put the first four lifts in.
50th Anniversary Kickoff & Documentary Premier
Dec. 17 | 3:30-6:30 p.m.
Kirkwood Ski Resort
“That first winter we established all the snow safety routes and started naming ski runs,” Carnell said.
He drove the snowcat over the treacherous Carson Spur to pick up Klein and others who wanted to come in and check out the progress.
“We took a Forest Service map of the area, picked place names on the map we liked the sound of and used them.”
According to Carnell, Bogie’s Slide was “named after a dog that a friend owned. We came into a cliff area and threw dynamite and the dog chased the charge that set off the avalanche. Then he came running right back up ready to do it again, so we called that trail Bogie’s.”
One trail name was Carnell’s Couloir, because Carnell skied it for the first time before the ski area opened.
“[The first year] it was a wild place. One guy was living in the generator room,” said Carnell. Carnell’s wife Mary remembers getting up at 3:30 in the morning to drive up from South Lake Tahoe because there was no housing in the valley yet. “He did snow safety and I was the phone operator, putting the plugs in the holes and selling tickets,” she said.
The following year, Dick Reuter came down from what was then known as Sq**w Valley. He got a mechanics shop set up in an old barn.
“People started coming, things got worked out, I was lucky. Some tough guys came to work for me,” Reuter told Frohlich.
Mort Testerman started working under Reuter in 1973 and said, “It didn’t take anyone very long to understand that Reuter knew what he was doing, so we put a lot of pride in our work to work for that guy. He had a profound effect on a lot of guys. Kirkwood owes its great reputation to him.”
Testerman appreciated how Reuter led by example and wasn’t afraid to get dirty. “When I met him, he was covered in sawdust and smelled like diesel,” he said. “It is such a good place to ski, both for the excellent terrain and the people that worked there.”
According to Testerman, in the early days it was a small crew and the big excitement was on pay day: “We would pile into someone’s car and go spin the wheel at Harvey’s with our paycheck, get a steak and lobster and some groceries and then would come back to Kirkwood broke.”
While it was a lot of hard work bringing the Kirkwood dream to fruition, it has always been an amazing mountain to ski and work.
Sandra Smith has worked at Kirkwood since 1995. She started out recording the daily snow report on the ski area phone, but quickly moved into being a ski instructor.
‘It’s a skiers’ mountain. The sunrise and sunsets, the beauty all around. The terrain is the best teaching terrain around, it does the teaching.” said Smith, who knows every nook and cranny of the mountains and can find powder stashes days after the big storms.
Smith described the K factor: “We have our own weather system that sits over Kirkwood and just dumps. My favorite times are getting stuck out there and having a bluebird day and the roads are closed and we get the most awesome powder.”
Kirkwood not only attracts families for generations, but also workers. Smith’s son was born just a few years after she started working there and was raised on the mountain. He has worked for the ski patrol there for the past five years.
Kirkwood’s marketing director Dennis Baggett seconds Smith’s proclamations about what makes Kirkwood unique: “It’s our remoteness. We are out of the way. People seek us out intentionally as opposed to other places at Tahoe.”
The area is popular both with families looking for a more low-key experience — just as Klein had — and extreme skiers who love the wild, less crowded mountain.
“The mountain was already shaped by nature, runs off the top were predetermined by avalanche paths making it bare of trees. They built the runs into the fall lines. You’re always skiing the steepest lines on that ridge, top to bottom, all day. That creates a certain ski environment. I’ve been skiing since I was10 years old,” said Baggett. “I grew up skiing at Sierra-at-Tahoe. Then my family came here. They were looking for off the beaten path. I was a daredevil skier. We were welcomed to a more extreme thing. My mom was an instructor. We fell in love with it quickly, got a condo here and have been here ever since.”
While the Carnell’s left Kirkwood as employees after a few years, they have been skiing there for all of those 50 years. “It was a really nice, family resort. The mountain was always awesome. We go up during the week, especially in the spring on a nice day and there is never a line,” John said.
While Testerman quit the ski patrol in 1988 to become a teacher in Bridgeport, recently he moved down the mountain to Woodsford and he now gets up to ski at Kirkwood about four days a week.
For some folks, once the magic of Kirkwood gets in your blood, you just keep coming back for more.
Kirkwood will host a 50th anniversary celebration and premier of the documentary “50 Years Deep: The Story of Kirkwood” on Dec. 17 from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. The party is limited to the first 250 people to RSVP. The film will be made available for streaming online at a later date. There will also be live music, a raffle, limited-edition anniversary swag, food and cash bar. RSVP kirkwood.com