Skier’s death returns spotlight to Squaw Valley, renowned for its challenging terrain

By Cathy Bussewitz, AP
Saturday, February 27, 2010

Skier’s death returns spotlight to Squaw Valley

OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — The first signal that Squaw Valley is a different kind of ski resort is at the entrance from the highway, a massive structure announcing its place in history as the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Since then, its steep terrain, narrow chutes, long runs and hard-packed snow conditions have trained generations of American alpine skiers. A wooden statue of a bear near the resort’s base lists the names of 46 members of the U.S. Ski Team who have trained at Squaw Valley, a list that does not include current Olympians.

Its most famed lift, KT-22, features the kind of runs found on World Cup and Olympic alpine courses around the world.

“We call that lift the head coach, because if you ski on KT enough, you’re going to be pretty good because of its steep and rugged terrain,” said Mark Sullivan, who is head coach of the Squaw Valley Ski Team and the uncle of Olympic skier Marco Sullivan.

Yet the same characteristics that make Squaw Valley so alluring to some of the world’s best skiers also create an environment in which danger is a constant.

The contrasting sides of the Lake Tahoe-area resort were illustrated again this past week with the death of C.R. Johnson, a professional daredevil skier and X Games medalist. The 26-year-old died Wednesday after hitting his head on rocks while trying to negotiate a black-diamond run.

Johnson had grown up at Squaw Valley and was so accomplished that he had earned the respect of some of those on the U.S. Olympic team.

Julia Mancuso, who won two silver medals at the Vancouver Games, fought back tears as she spoke about Johnson in the wake of his death and the mountain that took his life.

This week, the Olympic flags at the resort flew at half staff.

“I’m so proud to be from the place, Squaw Valley,” Mancuso told reporters from Vancouver. “There are so many incredible skiers from there.”

She said it had been a rough couple of years at the Sierra resort, because of Johnson’s death and the death of another Squaw friend who died while skiing in Italy last year.

Johnson is the fifth skier to die on Squaw Valley’s slopes over the past three years. Two of them died in avalanches, including one member of the ski patrol.

“It’s just guys going out and living their dream and pushing their limits,” Mancuso said. “And skiing is not a safe sport, all of the time, especially when you want to push it.”

Precise statistics on death and injuries at individual ski resorts are difficult to obtain. The National Ski Areas Association compiles data on a national level but does not make them available by individual resort.

Over the past 10 years, an average of 39 people have died each year from skiing and snowboarding accidents, according to the association.

Most of California’s resorts are located on U.S. Forest Land and are required to report fatalities that happen on the slopes. Squaw is one of the few resorts that is on private land, and so is not required to report.

The resort was opened in 1949 by Alex Cushing, a Harvard-trained lawyer, a few years after he visited the Sierra Nevada for the first time. His drive to bring the winter Olympics to Squaw Valley at a time when it had just one chairlift is the stuff of legend in California skiing circles.

Those Olympics, the first to be televised, helped propel Squaw Valley to the A-list of North American ski resorts. Among those who trained at Squaw are Jonny Moseley, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist in moguls. Many of the Olympians have returned to coach, among them Tamara McKinney, who won a World Cup title in 1983.

“When Alex Cushing first laid eyes on this area and envisioned it as a ski place, he really got that right,” said Stewart Foreman, a longtime volunteer ski patroller at Squaw.

The resort is actually a collection of granite peaks, the highest just more than 9,000 feet in elevation, and is best known for its narrow chutes, mogul runs and steep faces.

Many of the regulars at Squaw like to gather at day’s end at Le Chamois, a bar in the resort’s village area.

A day after Johnson’s death, skiers and snowboarders who were friends of his met there and reflected on his life and dedication to skiing, despite the risks he knew all too well. He had returned to form after a serious head injury suffered while filming ski jumps in Utah in 2005.

Some of them described their own relationships with Squaw Valley that sounded almost like an addiction — to both its beauty and its risks.

“These mountains aren’t child’s play,” said Alison Hardy, 27, a friend of Johnson’s. “We’ve lost a lot of people here at Squaw, but that’s because we do what we love to do. You finish at Chamois, and you think, I made it down. Now I hope my friends do, too.”

(This version CORRECTS the spelling of volunteer ski patroller Stewart Foreman’s first name.)

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