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.
After the Games, I went to a nearby ski area and found myself waiting for the chairlift with a member of the Argentine Olympic team. I had heard him play guitar the night before, and seen him on the slalom course. I thought I might improve my Spanish if I rode the chairlift with him. Now, my Spanish much improved, he and I live in Squaw Valley, where we have raised three children and three ski shops, and watched the ski area grow from a village designed to stage the Olympics to an international resort.
Blyth Arena is now a parking lot. The lodge, surrounded by shops, restaurants, condos, and a village, has been reinvented for day use, the view from the old deck blocked by new ski lifts. The Athletes’ Village is corporate offices.
In 1960, there were four double chairlifts and a rope tow; today, there are 33 lifts on six different peaks, including a cable car to High Camp at 8,200 feet, with its tennis courts, swimming pool, spa, and restaurants—all in full view of Lake Tahoe. Before the Olympics there was one hotel in the valley; there are now seven, including the luxury Resort at Squaw Creek, with ski-lift access in winter and golf in summer. It’s not the number of lifts or amenities that make Squaw special, however. When I ski across an open bowl or down a steep chute, or glide on a gentle track through the pine forest, I know it’s the mountain—and the assurance that some things just can’t be improved upon.