Crossroads: In the face of its most dramatic development in 55 years, what is the future of Squaw Valley?
I am the product of a Squaw Valley romance. In 1974, my dad moved there to join the ski patrol, a job he had been dreaming of since he was a high school misfit growing up in Sacramento. Six years later, he met my mom, a Chico State college student who spent her winter semester loading chairs. They fell in love over deep Sierra snow and lived happily as newlyweds in a shack on Squaw Valley Road that was so cold the water would freeze in the dog bowl every night. They taught me how to ski at Squaw, and as a result, I’ve pursued a life in the mountains. But the home I know is on the precipice of a radical change.
Ten miles north of Lake Tahoe, the second deepest lake in the U.S., Squaw Valley Ski Resort sits at the far end of a U-shaped valley. A vibrant meadow and a bitterly cold creek run up to the foot of a towering granite wall, the masthead to the five peaks that collectively make up the ski resort. Each mountain stacks up behind the other, higher and higher up the valley, a staircase that rises 3,000 vertical feet until the top of 9,050-foot Granite Chief. In the best of years, storms pound on Squaw’s mountains from November to May and can drop several feet of snow in a day. And after the storm retreats, the sky is the clearest of blues. Meanwhile, chairlifts climb to the tops of all the summits a skier can see, granting them the best access to the steepest terrain around. Gnarled rock is etched into the mountains’ embankments, forming features with names like the Fingers, the Chimney, and China Wall, cliffs that generations of skiers have approached to prove their worth.
At the bottom of the mountain, vast parking lots stretch to the east and to the north. That’s where Squaw Valley’s development plan, now going through the approval process, would increase the size of the base area sevenfold. The proposal most recently submitted to Placer County outlines a completely revamped village with buildings that could reach seven stories, 1,757 additional bedrooms, and a 90,000-square-foot water-based recreation center that Squaw management said would attract 300,000 annual visitors. In short, Squaw Valley is on the verge of its biggest overhaul since the 1960 Winter Olympics came to town.
ON DECEMBER 6, 2010, NANCY CUSHING, the widow of Squaw Valley founder Alex Cushing, sold Squaw Valley Ski Corp for an undisclosed amount to KSL Capital Partners, one of Denver’s largest private equity firms. Eric Resnick, KSL’s Managing Director and a former executive at Vail Resorts, told the Denver Post that his company had found a “crown jewel.” Along with the ski area’s iconic mountains, the company saw a blank canvas primed for building a resort destination.
“Squaw Valley is the birthplace of the modern mountain resort in the United States, with a heritage, history, amenities, and perhaps most of all, extraordinary terrain that can never be replicated,” Resnick said at the time.
The acquisition added Squaw Valley to a list of well-known hotels, spas, golf courses, and elite clubs that KSL has owned across the globe, including places like the Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa in Maui, the historic Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, and ClubCorp, the largest owner of golf and country clubs in the country. KSL outlines its investment philosophy on its website—they acquire assets in the travel and leisure sector, assign an independent team to manage that asset, pour money into growing the business, and “generate attractive rates of return for its investors,” which include public state and corporate pension funds, private and university endowments, and wealthy individuals, among other sources. In the months leading up to the transaction, KSL named Andy Wirth as the new CEO. Wirth had previously led similar ventures for Intrawest at Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
“This mountain, this organization needed new ownership,” says Wirth. “It’s an incredibly soulful mountain, a remarkable mountain. The company itself—the facilities were undercapitalized, poorly marketed, and not very effectively managed. And frankly, virtually everybody in the ski industry knew this.”
In three years, Wirth cleaned house at Squaw. Management focused on customer service and the lifties said hello more often. Starbucks moved in with a ski-in/ski-out coffee stand. Wirth said the resort reduced its environmental footprint by 15 percent. And in September 2011, KSL bought neighboring Alpine Meadows, unifying two of the best ski areas in Tahoe. But the biggest change didn’t roll out until the following December. In an effort to globally compete as a resort destination, Squaw Valley submitted an application to the Placer County Planning Department to build a new village.
The latest draft of their proposal calls for more condos, hotels, and cabins, plazas and courtyards, shops and restaurants. It includes pedestrian-friendly walkways and a world-class training facility called the Mountain Adventure Center, complete with pools, waterslides, zip lines, and a lazy river, according to the latest renderings. Attempting to be a good valley neighbor, Squaw is planning to mitigate its environmental impact. The development plans include restoration of Squaw Creek, which has been listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as an impaired waterway since 2002, and nearly all of the project is infill development, so the structures will be built on property that has already been disturbed, like parking lots. Additionally, Squaw would commit $1 million annually to fund environmental projects. According to the resort, the development would double the resort’s employment capacity, bring in some $20 million in additional tax revenue, and diversify the ski resort’s business so it can be successful year-round, with or without snow, an aspect of the business that’s become glaringly relevant as Tahoe goes through its third drought year in a row.
“We sure as hell have the mountains,” says Wirth. As he sees it, it’s not the skiing that’s holding Squaw Valley back. It’s the lack of places for people to stay. According to Wirth, Squaw Valley has the capacity to move 58,000 skiers an hour on the hill, which is slightly less than Whistler/Blackcomb, but the resort has just 15 percent as many hotel rooms.
“Aesthetically, the parking lots are acres of parking lots,” says Wirth. “I haven’t found a single person, opponent or proponent, to stand with me in the parking lot and do a 360 and tell me there’s a whole lot of soul in these parking lots. They’re parking lots and we think they could be something better.”
Inside Wirth’s office, a large black and white photo of the late Shane McConkey dominates the wall behind his desk. McConkey, a longtime Squaw local who became one of the most influential skiers in history, is skiing Eagle’s Nest, a short but sheer pitch next to the KT-22 chairlift. The photo captured an intense moment when McConkey paused to peer down the steep flutes, a shower of slough spilling out from under his skis. Wirth is no stranger to crucial moments of decision like the one portrayed in the photograph. The day I met with him was one of his first days back in the office after a skydiving accident almost ripped out his right arm and nearly killed him. His quick survival instincts saved his life. Ever the optimist, reflecting back on that incident, Wirth told me life has since been outstanding. “I look at it and say a whole bunch of great things came out of that day,” he says.
Wirth talks fast, but he still takes the time to choose his words. It’s easy to understand his vision: the economy needs stimulus, Squaw Valley is undercapitalized, change is needed. But as is the case in most ski towns, the ski area CEO is controversial. People trust Wirth or they don’t. When he moved to town, he immediately got involved with the community, supporting popular causes and nonprofits like Disabled Sports USA Far West and the High Fives Foundation, both of which recently recognized Wirth with awards for his community service and partnership. Despite that show of civic-mindedness, opponents of the Squaw Valley development tend to see him as the wolf in sheep’s clothing for a corporation that had a plan to execute.
“He seems like a puppet,” says Jamie Schectman, co-founder of the Mountain Riders Alliance, a group dedicated to “creating sustainable mountain playgrounds.” “These guys are so competitive and so driven, they’ll do anything.”
Wirth met the executives at KSL while he was at Steamboat Mountain Resort in Colorado, where he had been working for 20 years, starting as an unpaid intern and leaving as the resort’s top executive. While at Steamboat, Wirth helped bring in more nonstop flights from large metropolitan areas and played a role in building the Steamboat Grand, a large luxury hotel at the base of the ski area. But, as he likes to point out, he wasn’t always the ski resort executive. Wirth worked as a backcountry ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park and fought wildfires on a hotshot crew in northern New Mexico. Wirth now lives in one of Truckee’s wealthiest neighborhoods, but when he was working as an intern at Steamboat, he ate ramen and worked the nighttime audit shift at a local hotel.
“We’re mountain people at the core,” says Wirth. “We’re of that cloth. We think we can create opportunity for employment, to create jobs. We think it can be soulful and be appropriate to the Squaw Valley brand.”
Wirth admits the level of development, growth, and change he intends to bring to Squaw Valley is significant.
“This is not a little bit of change. Not a bucket of change,” he says. “This is a 50-gallon barrel of change. And I think people were caught off guard.”
WITHIN A MATTER OF DAYS AFTER KSL RELEASED THEIR DEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL, a vehement opposition movement took shape. Ed Heneveld, a Squaw Valley resident since 1978 and an E.R. doctor at the local hospital, and some of his longtime neighbors, formed a group called Friends of Squaw Valley to channel their concerns and strategize a response.
“I was just trying to get a handle on what they were proposing,” says Heneveld. “It just seemed overwhelming. Our community is 500 to 600 people, maybe 1,000. This is going to double that. What could change? What could give?”
The group became vocal, poring over Squaw’s documents submitted to the county, commenting, and speaking up at local meetings, which were now standing-room only. They circulated information through Facebook and an e-mail chain and distributed purple bumper stickers that read: Keep Squaw True. The group also reached out to Sierra Watch, a local environmental watchdog group that’s known for using litigation to stop big development projects in their tracks.
“As soon as people realize what the new development is in its own right, people will be incredulous,” says Sierra Watch Executive Director Tom Mooers. “This is huge. This would dramatically remake Squaw into something different than it is right now.”
Mooers says one of the biggest concerns of the development is water use. According to the Squaw Valley Public Service District, Squaw’s water comes from one source—an aquifer under the meadow—and it currently only has the capacity to service 100 more units. The district recently announced the possibility of sourcing water from another larger aquifer nearby, but a study looking into that option is still months away.
As the Friends of Squaw Valley and Sierra Watch went to work, another idea gained traction. The Incorporate Olympic Valley movement (Olympic Valley is the municipality name associated with Squaw’s zip code) would give the decision-making authority to the people who live there. As it stands, the authority to approve the project is in the hands of five county supervisors in one of the most conservative counties in California, Placer County, which stretches to the suburbs east of Sacramento. Not one of those supervisors lives in the much more liberal Squaw Valley, and four of them represent constituents some 100 miles away. Development would surely increase county revenue from taxes and most agree the Placer County Board of Supervisors will approve whatever plan they’re presented.
Although incorporating was a reaction to the initial threat of development, its leaders stress that they aren’t anti-development.
“Incorporation is not advocating anything, except one thing—self determination,” says Fred Ilfeld, a Squaw Valley homeowner since 1979, who is on the board leading the Incorporate Olympic Valley movement, and whose license plate reads LUVSQAW. “Local control. That’s what we’re advocating. Big village, small village, no village, whatever. That’s not our point.”
After months of unending criticism and outcry against their project, Squaw Valley management retreated in July 2013 and took their initial plan behind closed doors. The staff went through hundreds of comments and picked out the concerns that came through the loudest. They took the scalpel and cut their plan down by a third, taking away key hotel properties and giving back some of the amenities most valued by Squaw skiers, including surface-level parking and the members’ locker room. They came back with their revised plan last December. Two years since KSL submitted the original plan, the process went back to square one.
“They [KSL] underestimated the people who love Squaw and are willing to fight for it,” says Mooers. “I think they were shocked by the depth and level of the opposition. This is California. This is Tahoe. We don’t roll over for this.”
On April 7, Robb Gaffney, a 20-year Squaw Valley ambassador, author ofSquallywood, director of G.N.A.R.: The Movie, and a local psychiatrist, resigned from his connections with the ski area. Gaffney recognized that his peers—Squaw has several high-profile ambassadors such as Jonny Moseley, Julia Mancuso, and J.T. Holmes—had voices that were potentially influenced and limited by their affiliation with Squaw. Gaffney felt obligated to speak up.
“I am not opposed to change, I am not anti-development, and I recognize that Squaw needs drastic updating and improvement,” Gaffney wrote in a letter published on Facebook announcing his resignation. “However, I am not comfortable being linked to an organization and a process that fundamentally disturbs me at several levels.”
While Gaffney has spoken up regularly in the past—he put his thoughts about protecting Squaw Valley to paper in a letter to the monthly magazineMoonshine Ink in September 2013, hosted meetings at his home throughout the winter to discuss the development, and narrated a crowd-funding video for Incorporate Olympic Valley—his resignation was a bold statement against Squaw Valley, its development plan, and its tactics to get support for that plan.
The week before Gaffney’s resignation, Wirth released a detailed letter to the Placer County Local Agency Formation Commission, which is responsible for approving a town’s incorporation, outlining his criticism against it. Wirth cites concern that there won’t be enough revenue to support a new city, and suggests the town’s boundaries exclude the ski resort, which would account for 40 percent of the size of the proposed new town.
Earlier this winter, I walked in to Ilfeld’s home in one of Squaw’s gated communities to discuss the incorporation movement. Sun showered in through the south-facing windows, and I took in the view of KT-22. Ilfeld told me how the legendary mountain at the helm of Squaw Valley got its name. It’s a love story. Wayne Poulsen, the valley’s forerunner, took his wife, Sandy, a New York debutante, skiing from the top of the peak for her first time. Wayne beat her to the bottom. When he looked up, he saw his new wife struggle all the way down the mountain, skiing one turn at a time. He endearingly counted 22 kick turns.
“There is tremendous history and culture in this valley and we don’t want it to be ruined with corporate greed,” says Ilfeld. “There is a Goldilocks solution. You can find something that works for all parties. There can be a good compromise that will serve all.”
ON A MIDWEEK DAY IN JANUARY, terrain at Squaw Valley was limited to a several-hundred foot radius around the snowmaking guns, which bordered the easiest trails off three select chairlifts, including the top-to-bottom Mountain Run. The rest of the mountain stood haggard and dry, brown and lifeless. But what else to do but ski? A friend and I sped down a trail that wound its way through the trees like a luge course. We whooshed around tight turns, flying off small kickers, and tapped tips and tails off stumps. Riding back up the chairlift, we talked about the dismal winter. At the end of January, Squaw recorded a soul-crushing 69 inches of cumulative snowfall, a drop in the bucket compared to their annual average of 450 inches, and a far cry from the 800 that fell in 2010-11.
Coming off of two major drought years in Tahoe—2013 was the driest year on record in California since meteorologists began keeping track in 1850—everyone assumed the Sierra Nevada was due for a snowy winter. But as November rolled into December and then January, the forecast still read high pressure. It seemed everyone’s worst fears were coming true in Tahoe: For the third year in a row, it didn’t snow.
“That’s the number one topic of conversation—how bad the winter is and how there’s no snow,” says Jordan Basile, 27, a skier who grew up in Squaw Valley. “It does make me think about the economy and the diversity and how we’re so incredibly dependent on snow.”
Basile has a lot at stake in Squaw Valley—he owns a local apparel company called Tahoe Made.
“If there’s going to be more beds and more people, I’m OK with that, if the economy is going to thrive and people can make money and afford to live here,” says Basile of the proposed project. “They [KSL] are trying to appeal to the locals, but sometimes I get the impression that there is one bottom line and that is the only thing that matters to them.”
Squaw Valley has a deep-rooted legacy of polarizing conflict between the ski resort and the valley residents. Alex Cushing, the founder of Squaw Valley who remained chairman of the ski resort until his death in 2006, famously said he was in the “business of uphill transportation.” Not the business of skiing, nor the tourism or hospitality businesses, but the business of access, of building chairlifts and gondolas and trams. It is not by accident that you can see each of Squaw’s most famous jagged cliff bands perfectly from the seat of a chairlift. Cushing knew how to flaunt the best side of his mountain, and as much as Squaw was built for those with steep skiing ambitions, it was also built for the spectators.
But Cushing would never have known a place like Squaw existed if it hadn’t been for Wayne Poulsen. The two met in 1946 at nearby Sugar Bowl Ski Resort on Donner Summit, and Poulsen, the Sierra-bred skier, partnered with Cushing, the Harvard-educated lawyer, to open their own ski area. The plan may have started with the best of intentions, but it soon soured and Cushing pushed Poulsen out of the business.
“What happened between my father and Alex Cushing was the watershed that created this immense and unsurpassable barrier between one part of the valley and the other,” says Wayne Poulsen, Jr., the Poulsens’ eldest of eight children. “It wasn’t a conflict of personalities as one of the institutional problem of having two large landowners who were in conflict with one another.”
The Poulsens versus the Cushings became a splitting thread in Squaw Valley that still resonates. When Cushing built Squaw for the 1960 Winter Olympics, the Poulsens lobbied incessantly to curb the development, and they were responsible for saving the meadow, which was almost paved entirely. Cushing made decisions singlehandedly that affected the entire community. In 1968, he constructed a metal tram tower on the precipice of the aesthetic wall of granite called the Tram Face. In 1989, he illegally cut down thousands of old-growth trees to build the Silverado chairlift; subsequently, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against Cushing for $10 million. While the politics eventually drove some away, including Wayne Jr., Squaw Valley’s terrain and deep snowfall attracted scores of skiers over the years, cultivating a culture for steep skiing.
“Perhaps the best reason skilled skiers fall in love with Squaw is they never get bored; if things seem predictable you can always find a way to scare yourself,” wrote Dennis Nadalin in a 1984 POWDER article titled “North Shore.” Five years before that story, a 19-year-old Scot Schmidt moved to Squaw Valley from Montana to pursue a career in racing, but Schmidt didn’t last long with the “silver spooners” on the race team. He saw champion speed-skier Steve McKinney dropping first descents off the Palisades and ditched his race skis for his 220s to ski with the “longhairs.”
“We were just a rat pack of guys hitting the cliffs,” says Schmidt. “If I hadn’t gone to Squaw, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I was at the right place at the right time.”
Even in the early ’80s, skiers like Schmidt had a strained relationship with the ski resort management. According to Schmidt, it seemed like Cushing’s agenda was to build a new lift every year and invest in infrastructure, not the community or the culture. “I don’t think the Cushings realized what they had,” says Schmidt. “I had been hoping for new ownership, new blood, new vitality. But it just seemed like it was never going to happen.”
The same year the article appeared in POWDER, Squaw was going through another renaissance. The article cites a group of “ambitious developers” who intended to build a $200 million project at the base of the ski area including “a million dollar watergarden, a pool integrated with a restaurant and bar, and a 90 suite inn.” Those plans never came to fruition, although a few hotels around the ski resort were built or renovated during that time. The article continues: “Although Squaw has been a world-famous resort for over 20 years, it has never been a true destination resort in the tradition of the planned village/ski area complexes of Europe.”
“It’s the next stage of evolution,” says Bill Jensen, who worked in the marketing department under Cushing during the 1980s, and then left to start his own newspaper, The Squaw Valley Times, in 1990, around the same time the valley’s residents were up in arms against the Resort at Squaw Creek, the big hotel and golf course that sits on the far side of the meadow. A decade later, another controversy stirred over Intrawest’s Village at Squaw Valley. Both projects were built, and are now as much a part of the fabric of Squaw Valley as the chairlifts.
“Ski resorts evolve,” says Jensen. “It’s a cyclical thing. There’s always going to be somebody who is against it, but in the long run, there’s enough sensible people who are passionate about Squaw that a common ground will be found, and it will move forward for the best.”
I asked Jensen if he thought the development would destroy the very thing that people love about Squaw. He likened the mountain to the New York Yankees. The Yankees have had a mystique since Babe Ruth, and they’ve persevered even when Yankee Stadium was torn down. The same holds true for Squaw Valley.
“Squaw is more than just chairlifts and restaurants and hotel rooms,” says Jensen. “You go back to the culture, that’s never going to change. Squaw is always going to attract the top winter athletes because that’s the nature of the mountain. We’re going to continue to spawn the McConkeys and the Scot Schmidts. They’re already out there. There are future Olympians out there right now in Mighty Mites. The evolvement of Squaw, and if it means new buildings, well, that’s just part of the evolution.”
AT 11 A.M. ON PRESIDENTS' DAY, I slowly circled the parking lot at Squaw Valley, scouting for an empty spot. It was the first time all year I’d seen the parking lot so full. I pulled into the rear of the back lots, booted up, and started walking toward the Village to get to the lifts. Like any skier at their local ski area, showing up solo and running into different friends and making laps adds to your own identity of the place, your crew swells and shrinks as some peel off and others join. On that day, I ran into two local bartenders, Ali Nobel and Steve “O” Littel, and the three of us clicked-in to our skis and skated up to KT-22. It reminded me of what Scot Schmidt remembers most from Squaw Valley. “For me it was all about that group of guys that we’d go out with every day and just hit it,” he told me. “That was what it was all about. The daily experience.”
The future of Squaw remains uncertain. The first comment period closed at the end of March and about 50 skiers and riders wrote letters highlighting concerns such as traffic and water supply that KSL has yet to address. Squaw Valley countered Gaffney’s resignation by saying he was not really an ambassador in the first place. Incorporate Olympic Valley launched a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo in April to attempt to raise $25,000 toward the application process required to become a town. And Squaw management is working with the Placer County Planning Department toward the next step of the approval process—drafting a thorough environmental report, on which the public will have another opportunity to comment. It could be years before construction breaks ground.
That February day was the first time all year I loaded KT, odd and sad since standing in the notoriously rowdy lift line has long been a powder day ritual for me and my family. The chair rose up and took us high over the famous and pronounced Fingers cliffband. The entire south-facing side of the mountain was sun-baked and rotten, but seeing the rest of the mountain covered in white made everything else—the bad winter, the development proposal, the impending change that is coming to my home—fade.
The skiing that day was the best all season—chalky, wind-buffed, and smooth. We lapped the Headwall lift all day long, not needing to explore anywhere else, taking advantage of one of the few good days of skiing this season.
Nobel left us first, and I convinced Littel to ski another run before he had to go to work. Then it was just me. The air was warm, and the sun started to dip behind the Tram Face, casting a long shadow across the valley. I skied down the run, the wind in my face as I arced turns on the open snow. I was about to head in when I made a last-minute right turn to catch last chair on KT.