Travel December 2009

A Winter’s Tale

Squaw Valley celebrates its Olympics, 50 years later.

On the afternoon of February 18, 1960, in a blinding snowstorm, I maneuvered my car onto the one-lane road into Squaw Valley, California. The click-clack of my tire chains measured slow progress as I inched—in a steady line of cars—toward the opening ceremonies of the 1960 Winter Olympics.

I hadn’t skied Squaw Valley since the early ’50s. In those days Alex and Justine Cushing, owners of the fledgling ski resort, would join their guests for lunch on the deck in full view of the mountain run, or around the fireside for drinks in the evening. In the winter of 1950, and for the next two winters, avalanches demolished “Squaw One,” the ski area’s one and only chairlift. The next winter the valley had serious floods, and not long after, the lodge burned down. Still, in 1955 Alex Cushing had charmed and cajoled the International Olympic Committee into awarding the VIII Olympic Winter Games to Squaw Valley.

Next month, to mark the 50th anniversary, Olympians will be back at Squaw to celebrate an event that transformed a remote mountain valley in the Sierra Nevada to what is now one of the largest ski resorts in the United States. There will be a torch relay, fireworks, tours of alpine courses, and historic longboard races.

As a volunteer guide for the Squaw Valley Olympics, I had been issued a parking permit and a pass to Blyth Arena’s opening ceremonies. Snow obliterated the wide-open meadow on my left—green and grassy in summer, laced with cross-country ski tracks in winter. At the head of the valley, Squaw Peak, with its open bowls, tree-lined slopes, and the men’s downhill course, was invisible. So was the familiar wall of granite cliffs to the right of Squaw Peak. I edged my car into the parking lot and, at last, joined hordes of hooded figures groping their way in near-zero visibility to the entrance, and to our seats looking over the indoor arena.

The flags of Greece, the United States, and the Olympics were raised. The band played “The Parade of the Olympians,” the sun splintered through the clouds as the athletes marched in, and Vice President Richard Nixon declared the Games open. Outside, Andrea Mead Lawrence, 1952 gold medalist, skied down Papoose run, carrying the Olympic torch. Fireworks exploded and two thousand “doves of peace” (in fact, pigeons) were released. California’s blind luck added another foot of snow to the mountain that night, and then bestowed a week of clear skies over the Sierra.

The Squaw Valley Olympics was the first Winter Games to be televised exclusively (and extensively) on one network (CBS); it was the first time instant replay was used; the first electronic tabulation of results and scores involving speed, distance, and style (IBM); the first Winter Olympics held in the western United States. It was the first time women competed in speed skating, and the first time the biathlon was an Olympic event. It was the first and only time that all alpine and skating events, and the 80-meter ski jump, were within walking distance of one another. Skiers and skaters watched and cheered at each other’s events on the way to and from their own competitions. It was the only modern Olympics where all the athletes and coaches lived and dined in one village.

Presented by

Eddy Ancinas is a writer who has lived, with her husband, in Squaw Valley for 46 years.

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