Extreme Makeover – Squaw Valley USA

Photography by Keoki Flagg

Squaw Valley USA. On a crisp and clear afternoon at Squaw Valley, Jonny Moseley disembarks from the KT-22 lift high atop Squaw Valley and skis to a stop. Good thing, because my legs are toast. For most of the day, I’ve been chasing Moseley around Squaw, seeking out powder stashes and soft turns in Sun Bowl, Women’s Downhill, Siberia Bowl, and a dozen more runs all over the mountain, all while listening to tales of his former high-flying life as a World Cup freestyler and globe-trotter. Surfer-dude handsome and extroverted, Moseley is Squaw’s chief mountain host, and it’s a job he embraces with gusto.

Earlier in the day, Moseley entertained onlookers by performing a ski-ballet routine, pirouetting and spinning downhill like Suzy Chapstick in her snow-ballerina heyday. Then, ripping down a groomer, he whizzed past me while belting out a song (if I’m not mistaken it was the disco-era female empowerment smash “I Will Survive”). Now 37 years old and retired from competition, Moseley has reason to be shamelessly good-natured. Married and chasing two young boys around the hill, he has forged a new career that allows him to ski lots, and make frequent television appearances as a ski commentator — not to mention his duties as host of American Ninja Warrior on NBC. “I’ve had a lot of fun in my life,” he says. “It’s nice to be settled and not have anything to prove anymore.”

Back on KT-22, Moseley has something to show me. He waves his ski pole toward a gnarly side canyon with a wicked roll-over. We stare down into one of the most coveted parcels of land in ski country. “There it is,” he says, “the promised land.” Called White Wolf, this 460- acre chunk of alpine terrain is literally all that stands between Squaw Valley and neighboring Alpine Meadows resort, and all that stands athwart the dream of connecting them. In future years, the owners of Squaw and Alpine (and they became one and the same in 2011) hope to erect a chairlift here that would link the areas. The move would create a 6,000-acre mega resort, the largest in the United States, encompassing some of the Tahoe Basin’s best ski terrain. It would be the final piece of the puzzle for this iconic resort, which is in the midst of its biggest makeover since the 1960 Olympics.

Squaw Valley — epicenter of extreme skiing, genesis of the American Winter Olympics, birthplace of the rocker ski, shooting location for countless Warren Miller movies and ski films — might be the best-known resort that most American skiers have never visited. As a former Coloradoan, I was once among the camp of Squaw doubters. Why fly to Squaw, or Tahoe, with such amazing terrain available in the Rockies? Frankly, unless you are an expert skier, there were reasons to stay away.

Beginner and intermediate terrain were hard to find. Lodgings and amenities were subpar for a resort of such stature. The mountain was difficult to navigate, even for advanced skiers and riders, due to cryptic trail maps and a lack of trail names and signage. Perhaps most daunting of all, an agro, locals first attitude prevailed. “For too long, Squaw was unwelcoming to newcomers,” Moseley says.

No more. Squaw Valley has new owners, new management, and a mission: Convert Squaw from Lake Tahoe’s best resort into one of North America’s best. “The only thing that is changing at Squaw,” says new CEO Andy Wirth, “is everything.”

In 2010, the private equity firm KSL Capital Partners bought Squaw from the Cushing family, whose patriarch, Alex Cushing, founded Squaw in 1949. Composed of former Vail executives, KSL’s leadership joined Wirth in immediately going to work putting their stamp on Squaw. KSL is $39 million into a five-year, $70 million spending spree to install newer and faster lifts, improve grooming and snowmaking, upgrade beginner terrain, revamp shabby restaurants, and replace outdated infrastructure.

In their boldest move so far, KSL in 2011 ended years of speculation and rumor by acquiring Alpine Meadows. For now, the resorts are connected only by a 10-minute shuttle-bus ride, but the addition of Alpine adds tremendous value to destination visitors who can now experience two Tahoe resorts on one pass. The deal was forged on the KT-22 lift.

Wirth is a 26-year industry veteran whose resume includes executive stints at Steamboat,Intrawest, and the defunct American Skiing Company. Jovial and fit, he relishes the task of rebooting an institution of American skiing, and he has embraced the adventurous ethic of Squaw locals. He has taken up skydiving under the tutelage of groundbreaking BASE jumper J.T. Holmes — a move that causes his wife to roll her eyes. As the unofficial mayor of Squaw Valley, he initially lived near the resort but found it necessary to escape the bubble to avoid the constant barrage of comments, opinions, and advice about KSL’s eforts to remake Squaw.

Incredibly, for someone who has visited nearly every major resort in North America, Wirth had never skied Squaw. That was remedied on the second day of the 2010-11 season following a 10-foot early-season dump. Holmes, among the cadre of Squaw extreme skiers, offered to give Wirth a mountain tour.The pair got first turns off KT-22, skied Red Dog, Poulsen’s Gulley, and lapped Siberia Bowl. “It felt,” Wirth jokes, “like I was getting a tour of the Vatican by the Pope.

Wirth’s first two seasons have seen highs and lows. The winter of 2010-11 was one of Squaw’s snowiest on record. More than 800 inches fell, and the resort remained open through July 4, allowing the CEO to explore Squaw’s six peaks and scrutinize very aspect of mountain operations. Then came last winter — one of the driest and warmest in history. “You have to go back to General Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn to find another winter like that,” Wirth says. “I’ve experienced the best and the worst.”

Right from the start, Wirth knew his first task was to change Squaw’s too-cool culture, make it friendlier and more welcoming to destination visitors and families.The first fix was simple, and surprising for the fact it had not been done before: Name trails, erect 200 trail signs, and publish a resort map that is easy to understand. Other new features include electronic status boards that provide real-time updates about lift openings and closures, “Easiest Way Down” signs, benches for snowboarders, and safety bars and pads on chairlifts. KSL has installed more snowmaking guns to improve early season conditions, expanded its snowcat fleet to provide more buttery groomers, and replaced four rinky-dink lifts in the High Camp learner’s area with a new triple and the Big Blue Express, a high-speed six.

The base area is also getting a facelift. Outdated ticket booths have been torn down to open up views of the mountain and create a large snowy area known as the Beach. Nearby, the KT Base Bar has new fire pits and cabanas; the previously drab Olympic House is now a sunnier day lodge. Other changes are small but symbolic, such as a cookie truck dispensing hot chocolate-chip cookies on big weekends, and “sniffle station” tissue boxes. “Simple things count. They send a message that we care about our customers,” Wirth says. We are dining at the Six Peaks Grille located in the Resort at Squaw Creek, a 405-room slopeside luxury hotel located beneath the Squaw Creek lift. Aside from this property, luxury lodging options remain scant. Mountain planners, however, have identified multiple parcels within the base area suitable for more lodging, with the goal of expanding the resort’s number of accommodations by two-thirds or more. “Everything we are doing is about making Squaw more welcoming,” Wirth says between sips of wine, “In the ’50s and ’60s, Squaw was one of the premier ski destinations in the U.S. But for the past 30 years, it had been at a standstill. The experience had languished, Squaw was not effectively managed, marketed or capitalized. It is our goal to make it one of the top destinations in North America once again.” Hoping to lure more visitors from outside the region, Squaw/Alpine Meadows this winter has partnered with Aspen/Snowmass, Alta, and Jackson Hole on the Mountain Collective ski pass, a $349 package that provides two days at each resort plus half-of lift tickets afterward.

I ask Wirth if Nancy Cushing, who ran the resort following her husband’s death, is still involved. “No,” he says flatly, “the Cushings are not involved.” And the subject is dropped.

In 1946, wall street lawyer Alex Cushing came West on a ski vacation to the Sugar Bowl ski area, which had opened in 1939, and promptly broke his ankle. It was, pardon the pun, his lucky break. Unable to ski, Cushing visited Squaw Valley on crutches at the invitation of a local, Wayne Poulsen, who owned land in the valley and was eager for investors. Cushing was smitten, and he returned to New York a man on a mission. He solicited New York’s well-to-do families — up to and including the Rockefellers — and raised $400,000. He then moved to Tahoe City, bulldozed a road into the valley, and trucked in surplus military barracks to house a crew working 18-hour days, overcoming spring floods, fire, and avalanches. Poulsen and Cushing frequently disagreed on the best development strategy, and in a move that exemplified his cutthroat business acumen, Cushing voted Poulsen off the Squaw board of directors while Poulsen was out of town on business.

On Nov. 24, 1949, Squaw Valley USA opened with one double chairlift, two rope tows and a rustic lodge. Cushing was broke. Squaw needed a boost. When Cushing learned the U.S. Olympic Committee was accepting bids to host the 1960 Winter Games, he pounced. The Winter Olympics had never been held outside Europe, so when Squaw Valley was selected in 1955 by the International Olympic Committee, the world was stunned. The subsequent five years were a whirlwind of construction as a highway and roads, chairlifts, new trails, hotels, and restaurants went up.

The 1960 Games were an unrivaled success. Record crowds attended and record TV audiences tuned in. The U.S. hockey team defeated the Soviets, and American Penny Pitou won silver in the women’s downhill and giant slalom. Squaw Valley had gone from a pipe dream to America’s resort. Movie stars — including Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, and Sophia Loren — soon flocked to its famous slopes.

In the 1980s, Squaw entered the American consciousness again with the goofball comedy Hot Dog…The Movie. Over time, Squaw became a magnet for hot doggers and extreme skiers who were lured by photos and films of skiers launching back flips and charging lines through the Fingers, Mainline Pocket, the Nose, Headwall, and Squaw’s numerous big hits. The nickname “Squallywood” was born of the resort’s irreverent, show-off ski culture. “Squaw Valley is made of a series of peaks and bowls, which line up expert terrain right next to beginner terrain,” writes Robb Gaffney in his book Squallywood: A Guide to Squaw Valley’s Most Exposed Lines. Chairlifts also run alongside Squaw’s best lines, allowing onlookers to get a front-row seat to the antics of skiers and riders. Cushing had created a masterpiece, a 3,600- acre playground covered by 35 lifts and 450 annual inches of snow that lured top skiers from around the nation and world.

Over time, however, the luster faded. American skiing went corporate, injecting massive amounts of capital into modern base villages, high-speed lifts, and luxury hotels. As a family owned resort, Squaw lacked the deep pockets to compete. Moseley experienced this firsthand; multiple resorts offered him a job as ski ambassador after the 1998 Olympics, but Cushing’s offer simply wasn’t competitive.

Tall and charismatic, Cushing was an old-school businessman who did not spend frivolously. “Alex commanded respect,” says Troy Caldwell, the owner of the White Wolf property who “butted heads” with Cushing on many occasions. Environmentalists and regulators also had run-ins with Cushing, whose resort was fined multiple times for building lifts and structures before permits had been acquired. Some have called Cushing stingy, but Caldwell rejects that criticism. “Alex threw his entire life into Squaw. He committed everything. But he was dependent on good ski years to fund improvements.”

Ironically for such an astute businessman, it was a miscommunication that led to Caldwell’s purchase of White Wolf. “Alex would have had no problem outbidding me. I was just a dumb kid at the right place at the right time.” In the early ’90s, while scouting for acreage to build a luxury B and B, Caldwell  approached the land’s owner — Southern Pacific Railway — with an offer to buy. “They said, ‘Your timing is great. We want to sell.’” A representative for the railroad contacted representatives at Squaw, according to Caldwell, but the message never got through to Cushing. “It was a missed phone call,” Caldwell says, “that changed my life — and the Cushings’ as well.”

When Cushing died in 2006, his wife, Nancy, took over, opening the way for Squaw’s sale. Not everyone is happy to see the former family-owned resort taken over by a sterile private-equity firm, an investment vehicle with fiduciary duty to deliver dividends to shareholders. Critics of KSL, whose portfolio consists of luxury beach and golf properties, have called some of its moves “heartless” and motivated solely by profit, such as the termination of a lease with one of the valley’s oldest family ski shops. Regardless, it is hard to dispute the fact that Squaw, for all but the loyal tribe of locals who want things to remain the same, is a friendlier place to ski these days.

I finally broke my Squaw boycott in 2004 during a family Christmas vacation in the Bay Area. Eager to escape the eggnog and baby talk, I pounced on the opportunity for a day in the mountains. After a four-hour drive from Berkeley, I arrived to find the valley shrouded in fog. Temperatures were in the mid-30s and the snow was, well, thick as Sierra cement. But I was astounded by the size and variety of Squaw’s terrain. Several years later, I landed an assignment to profile big-mountain snowboarder Jeremy Jones, a Squaw local. The weather was perfect, the snow light, and I raced to keep up with Jones, watching from safer terrain as he ripped the stupidest lines through Rock Garden. Jones, who spent many years in Jackson Hole and now travels to the far corners of the planet in search of death-defying lines, credits Squaw’s terrain with keeping his skills sharp. Now I live in South Lake Tahoe, an hour’s drive away. Heavenly is right out my door, but if I could transplant one mountain to my backyard, it would be Squaw, a sentiment shared by many South Shore residents.

Back on KT-22 peak, Moseley leads me down the newly christened Jonny Moseley’s Run, rocketing over moguls and launching a back flip for old time’s sake. Moseley is now part of Squaw’s next big move: a bid by the Tahoe region to win the Winter Olympics in 2026 or later. Moseley, along with Wirth and former World Cup skier Tamara McKinney, are on the board of Lake Tahoe’s Olympic exploratory committee.

“I’m not that guy who wants Squaw to remain the same as it was in 1960,” Moseley says later, as we share a beer and burgers at [email protected], a new base area bar named in honor of the late Shane McConkey, who pioneered the rocker ski movement. “I like resorts that are comfortable. I like my wife to be happy when she comes with our kids. Squaw is going through a Renaissance, and I’m really eager to see how it plays out.”

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