A Tragic Year on the Slopes for Lake Tahoe Ski Resorts

By: AP Email
By: AP Email

As it prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of hosting the Winter Olympics, a tight-knit Sierra Nevada ski community is mourning another loss in an unusual string of tragedies this season.

A skier's deadly collision with a tree on Thursday at California's Squaw Valley USA resort is the latest in the series that involves two other skiers killed in avalanches and nine deaths in all.

Off the slopes, a shuttle bus crash killed a resort employee in April, and three young women hoping to get seasonal jobs died of carbon monoxide poisoning in December while sleeping in a car just outside the resort.

Extreme skier Shane McConkey of Squaw Valley died in March while jumping off a cliff with a parachute in Italy. And Dave Pedersen, the resort's race services director, died of cancer in February.

"To say this has been a year of tragedy is an understatement," said Savannah Cowley, a resort spokeswoman. "It has been tragedies that have really, really struck our community. This is unprecedented as far as the grief this mountain has gone through."

Squaw Valley is one of the world's largest and best known ski resorts. Its founder, Alexander C. Cushing, helped launch the sport in the U.S. by bringing the 1960 Games to his Lake Tahoe-area resort.

Pete Bansen, Squaw Valley's fire chief, said he can't recall as many different kinds of fatalities in his 30 years in the resort community.

The avalanches, one killing ski patrol member Andrew Entin, 41, in March, and the other killing Randall Davis, 21, of Tahoe City, Calif., in December, were especially rare for Squaw Valley, he said. They were the first inbounds avalanche fatalities at the resort since 1963.

The latest accident on the slopes killed Thomas "Spyder" Johnson, 69, of San Bruno, Calif., a longtime season passholder.

"There have certainly been a lot of unusual accidents this year," Bansen said. "Each is profound in its own way, and each deeply affected a different group of people."

Les Pedersen, spokesman for the neighboring, separately-owned Resort at Squaw Creek, said such bad luck is not unique to Squaw Valley.

In 2006, nine people were killed at California's Mammoth Mountain ski resort near Yosemite National Park.

In April, an employee shuttle bus operated by Pedersen's resort crashed on Interstate 80 west of Reno, killing one passenger and injuring 24 others.

"Unfortunately, these tragedies are all too common at mountain resorts," Pedersen said.

"Almost everybody knows everybody up here. It has a small town feel. When it happens, it hurts on a very personal level," he added.

Squaw Valley officials don't think the deaths stem from either their safety protocol or the risk of winter sports, Cowley said. Only three of the nine deaths occurred on the resort's slopes.

"This is something inexplicable more than anything else," Cowley said. "I'm convinced what we've encountered this season is completely abnormal."

She doesn't think the deaths will put a damper on the community as it prepares next season to celebrate the 50th anniversary of hosting the Games and the 60th anniversary of the ski resort's founding.

"All the people we've lost this year were extremely high-spirited people who would want us to go on and embrace the sport we love," Cowley said.

Cushing, who died in 2006 at age 92, opened the resort in 1949 with one chairlift, a rope tow and a 50-room lodge. Now, it's one of the world's premier resorts, with 34 lifts and an alpine village complete with upscale restaurants, shops and lodging.

Squaw Valley becomes the last Tahoe-area resort to close for the season on May 10.


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