With persistence, passion and a little bit of luck, Alex Cushing ’39 created a ski resort for the ages. But he’s not going to rest until it’s the best it can be.
Alex Cushing ’39, the founder of one of the country’s most prestigious ski areas, walks with me between the four-story buildings composing the new base village at Squaw Valley. The chateau-style buildings rise above a central courtyard of gray bricks, and I’m interested in how every one of the 139 condominiums on the upper floors of these buildings was presold in six hours for an average of $500,000. But Cushing wants to talk aesthetics. He directs my attention to the alleys between the buildings: They yield hidden views of the ski slopes, and they allow light in. “See how the sun spills into the courtyard, illuminates the patios, warms the tables outside these cafes?” he asks. “These sun spots are critical to California ski areas.”
Considering that 900,000 visitors come to his sun-soaked corner of the Sierra Nevada Mountains each winter, the man knows what he speaks of. Aficionados may go to the Rockies for powder, the Alps for old-world culture and Alaska for new-world adventure, but skiers come here for the sun package–corn snow, blue skies, T-shirt weather, envy-inducing tans.
We sit down at a table in the courtyard with snow-clad summits of Sierras rising beyond the village, and although it’s early December, the Sierra sun is warm. This combination of setting and sun gives a glimpse of how Cushing, during a ski trip to nearby Sugar Bowl in 1946, was snared by the dream of building a ski area, of turning his avocation into a vocation. That thought defined a purpose and kindled a passion that was absent from practicing law on Wall Street. “I kept thinking, if Sugar Bowl was the best resort in California, there was a lot of potential waiting there,” he says.
Cushing has been building on that potential since he started acting on his impulses 55 years ago. Beyond the alleys leading away from the base village, I can view the country’s most sophisticated system of ski lifts–a network of 33 chairlifts and trams crisscross the 4,000 acres and six summits composing the resort. There is so much uphill capacity that even on the busiest holidays Cushing advertises a gutsy money-back guarantee if skiers must do what they hate most–wait in long lines.
When I was 8, I remember my mother telling me I would have to find my own way in the world. that stuck with me.
Alex Cushing ’39
Most impressive of the lifts is the tram, which employs a European flair for drama as it drags 110-passenger cars over the backdrop of a thousand-foot rock wall. Ernst Hager, the general manager of Squaw, says the lift is classic Cushing: “There are easier ways to get people up the mountain, but Alex knew that putting the lift over those walls would generate a ‘wow’ factor.”
Wow factor, buzz, spin–in an industry that has seen only a 2 percent growth in skier visits over the past 25 years, they’re what make some ski areas thrive, and others fail. And Cushing, with his lift building, his Olympic story and his dual-elevation village, has a flair for those intangibles. So much so that the ski area typically rates among the best in the country. In 2002, for example, Skiing magazine rated Squaw the fourth-best ski area in North America. Buzz also accounts for why the area has been home to so many of the country’s past and present ski stars (Jimmie Huega, Steve and Tamara McKinney, Johnny Moseley, Scot Schmidt, Shane McConkey), why it has entertained so many celebrities (Bing Crosby, Robin Williams, Leonard Nimoy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Peter Fonda) and why it has been featured in so many skiing movies produced by the likes of Warren Miller. Put this all together, and you understand why locals dub the mountain “Squallywood.”
Riding with Cushing on the tram, it’s apparent that the man is an anomaly. At 6’5″, he towers over the other heads in the car. A sheepskin coat covers his signature attire–a colorful turtleneck worn beneath a sports coat–and all this clashes with the ski suits, colored hats and mirrored goggles of his patrons. He carries no skis, having given up the sport after hip surgery several years ago, and he’s the solitary elder in this pond of vibrant skiers.
He’s oblivious to all this, maybe because he’s been standing alone most of his life. When he was 3, his father, well-known artist Howard Cushing, died. Due to his mother’s poor health, Cushing spent most of his childhood in boarding schools. “When I was 8, I remember my mother telling me I would have to find my own way in the world,” he says. “That stuck with me.”
The tram carries us skyward, allowing us to overlook the white dentures of the Sierras and the emerald waters of Lake Tahoe. It deposits us at High Camp, where we stroll onto a football-field-sized wooden deck. From this deck we can see the restaurants, outdoor swimming lagoon, outdoor skating rink, bungee-jumping tower and tennis courts of his upper village. Completed in 1991, High Camp was dubbed “Alex’s Folly” while it was being built. Cushing felt the tram needed a draw beyond skiing to pull passengers of all interests up his mountain, but most believed this extravaganza was a $15 million boondoggle.
In a pattern that has seen much repetition over the decades, Cushing enjoyed the last laugh. High Camp worked. Nonskiers enjoyed the ride and the destination of the tram, while skiers enjoyed the chance to skate or soak once the skiing muscles melted. High Camp, with its expansive views and extensive sun spots, also proved pivotal in providing what more and more ski areas are discovering they need to survive–a summer season. The skeptics who ridiculed Cushing are now flattering him by imitating what he built a decade earlier: Vail, Heavenly Valley and Northstar-at-Tahoe are among the resorts that have recently built midmountain activity centers.
At no time were the skeptics more wrong than in 1955, when they told Cushing that bringing the Olympics to Squaw was an impossible dream. How he disproved them may still be the best testament to the qualities central to Cushing’s success: passion, persuasiveness, persistence and patience. In what became a multiyear effort, Cushing first beat Lake Placid, Sun Valley and Aspen for the American nomination to host the Games. Outmaneuvering these famous, better-financed hills was almost comical, considering Cushing’s bid for the Games started as a publicity stunt: By associating with the best resorts, he figured Squaw would earn recognition and cheap ink. But after receiving so many compliments from locals about what he was doing for California skiing, he committed himself to the endeavor: “I decided to see what would happen if I did what everyone said I was doing.”
Shortly after winning the American nomination, he traveled to Chicago to see Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, for advice on getting the committee to take him seriously. When Brundage heard Squaw’s infrastructure was limited to a double chair, two rope tows and a modest lodge, he muttered, “This is worse than I thought. If you win the Games, you’ll set the Olympics back 25 years.”
Cushing was undeterred. Although Squaw Valley was unknown to the world and had virtually no chance of beating the European nominees, with the help of George Weller, a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, Cushing spent six weeks canvassing the world as he traveled to the doorsteps of the 64 members of the IOC. “We knew the only possible way to persuade the committee members was to look them in the eye as we made our case,” he says. Most people connected with the process believed Innsbruck would be hosting the eighth Winter Olympics, but committee members were so influenced by Cushing that they bought into a resort that was more imagined than real. In a surprising 32-to-30 vote, the IOC gave the Games to Squaw rather than to Innsbruck.
What they really bought into was a mountain on the verge of bankruptcy. When Cushing left the East Coast in 1948 to start Squaw with $125,000 of his own money and another $275,000 raised from acquaintances like Laurance Rockefeller, he was $100,000 shy of what he truly needed. He was fueled by an entrepreneur’s passion to bring life to a vision, but he was broke when the lifts started running on Thanksgiving Day 1949. During Squaw’s first five years of operation, calamities kept Cushing on the brink of financial ruin as avalanches flattened lift towers three times, a flood washed away his access bridge once and a fire damaged his lodge.
Cushing gambled about $40,000 to win the Games, but with the Olympics came guaranteed financial backing from the state of California, and this allowed him to build the dream he had peddled. In the makeover to ready the mountain for the 34 national teams and more than 750 athletes that would arrive, Cushing built more lifts, fabricated ski jumps, constructed an ice arena, and erected lodging and dining facilities. He also installed the first computerized system to tabulate race results.
The Games forever changed the complexion of American skiing and Squaw Valley itself. For the first time, the Olympics were televised. The broadcasting rights sold to CBS for only $50,000 (compared to the $545 million NBC paid for the Salt Lake City Games), but the coverage spawned dramatic national growth in the sport, fueled development around Lake Tahoe and put Squaw Valley squarely on every serious skier’s map. All of this accounts for why Cushing was recently inducted into the Ski Industry Hall of Fame for his lifetime contribution to the sport.
Cushing and I are now walking from the base of the tram to his home situated a few hundred yards away. Make that shuffling. Just shy of 90 years old, Cushing’s body is slow, even though his mind is sharp. Sharp enough to remain the resort’s guiding light, if not its day-to-day leader. The daily job falls to Nancy Wendt, president of Squaw Valley Ski Corp. and Cushing’s wife since 1987. Wendt, who attended Harvard for her third year of law school but received her law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1975, met Cushing in 1985 while providing legal counsel to resolve land issues hamstringing development at the base of the mountain.
Cushing credits Wendt as the inspiration behind the resort’s latest transformation: “We were riding up the mountain, and she commented this was a pretty good ski hill. … Then she asked, ‘But is it the best you can do?'” It was an epiphany of sorts, and since that time Cushing has labored to make Squaw more than a mountain embracing the passion of skiing. He’s worked to make it the best mountain possible.
This accounts for why the best village designers (Intrawest) have been given the rights to develop new phases of the base village and why lifts with 50-year operational lives (rather than the more typical 15-year life) are installed here. It also accounts for why Cushing has wooed–maybe even stalked–some of the best personnel, like Ernst Hager. “For years, Alex called frequently and asked if I wouldn’t want to work for Squaw,” says Hager. “He persuaded me with his persistence.”
During our stroll, I ask Cushing if he regrets leaving law. He tells me he enjoyed practicing for three years before WWII and for nine months following the war, “But I was up against people who enjoyed law much more than me,” he says. “You can’t compete with someone who is having more fun than you are. You have to find something you’re passionate about.” Still, there are no regrets about the training: “I can’t imagine having done this without that background. I learned how to think in law school. I learned the underpinnings of how things work. I learned how to break down problems.”
I ask him whether he could have pulled this resort together if he hadn’t been born into a well-connected East Coast family. I expect the question to raise hackles, but the man is remarkably humble. “Probably not,” he answers simply. “Even more to the point, I couldn’t have done this without an amazing amount of luck. So often little happenings that made all the difference in the outcome, yet were beyond my control, went well for me.”
We arrive at his house, a tasteful but unpretentious rambler, and he confides, “My kids tell me I should sell the area, but I don’t ever want to sell it.” Even a casual acquaintance can surmise that such a sale could truly be labeled Alex’s Folly. This resort is who Alex Cushing is; it is the creation he has spent a lifetime sculpting, and it is the creation that continues to give him purpose.
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We stand in a sun spot with the glory of his six-summit resort encircling us, and I ask him how close he has come to fulfilling his vision. How close is he to making this mountain the very best it can be? He ponders all that he envisions for the future–the boutique hotels he hopes to build at High Camp, the quality service he’d like every one of his 2,000 seasonal and full-time employees to embrace, the roads he’d like to decommission to beautify the hill in summer, the summer programming he’d like to implement. “I’d say I’m halfway there.”