Historic ski clubs of Donner Pass, Part I: Hutchinson, Clair Tappan lodges built

Alpine skiers schuss Lincoln Peak, circa 1932. | Donner Summit Historical Society

When it comes to the earliest concentration of ski facilities and uphill rope tow operations in the Tahoe Sierra, Donner Summit was the leader of the pack. Conveniently accessible by train, San Francisco Bay Area skiers comprised most visitors and participants in the region’s nascent winter sports industry. By 1930 both Truckee and Tahoe City residents had built ski jumps (Hilltop and Olympic Hill, respectively), but on the summit to the west, commercial hotels, ski club lodges and tow operations were attracting large crowds.

Abundant snowfall at the higher elevations makes for more reliable skiing conditions, and proximity to the transcontinental railroad provided dependable winter transportation. By the end of the 1930s, the Donner Summit region boasted one of the most extensive collections of commercial lodges, rope tows, ski clubs and ski enterprises in the United States.

The rugged terrain of Donner Summit had long appealed to skiers who viewed the wintry landscape from a passenger train window or, by the mid-1930s, from their trusty automobile. The storm-wracked region has a deep snowpack that covers the rocky landscape, but it would take lodging, uphill conveyances and professional ski instructors to turn it into a viable winter sports destination for the new breed of alpine skier.

The days of earning your turns by climbing to the ridge on skis before schussing back down were coming to an end. The average skier much preferred to be repeatedly pulled up the mountain.

Popularity of ski clubs
In the late 1920s, college ski clubs were increasingly popular in the United States, especially in New England. The California-based Sierra Club, a conservation-oriented organization that had started out promoting hiking and mountaineering for its members, expanded into winter sports. Some members had been skiing for years. After a trip to Lake Tahoe during the winter of 1915, member Hazel King wrote an essay for the Sierra Club Bulletin telling of her “wonderful flight on hickory wings.”

At Donner Pass, the era of modern skiing started in the 1920s when two brothers, Lincoln and James Hutchinson of Berkeley, introduced their friends to the sport. Lincoln matriculated at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard where he earned two degrees and later learned to ski in Switzerland. James also attended U.C. Berkeley and Harvard and obtained a degree at Hasting College of Law in San Francisco.

The brothers were avid climbers, hikers and pioneer skiers in the Tahoe Sierra. In 1892, James became a charter member of the Sierra Club and, later, a director.

Hutchinson Lodge
The Hutchinsons and their crew made the Old Summit Hotel their winter headquarters. The structure was located at the west end of Railroad Tunnel No. 6 near Lake Mary on Donner Summit. The hotel, which burned down in 1925, was used by movie director and actor Charlie Chaplin to film snow scenes for his classic silent picture, “The Gold Rush.”

The Hutchinson-led group, which soon adopted the name Sierra Ski Club, briefly relocated east to Hobart Mills outside of Truckee but the site was too far from the good skiing on the Summit.

Lincoln Hutchinson then purchased property at Norden, west of the main crest of the Sierra, where during the summers of 1924 and 1925 club members constructed a small ski lodge just above the train tracks. They named their mountain retreat the Hutchinson Lodge. When the Sierra Ski Club disbanded in the early 1950s, the lodge and land holdings were donated to the Sierra Club.

Originally built using rocks and trees from the surrounding area, the lodge was recently upgraded but still retains its rustic architecture.

Clair Tappaan Memorial Lodge
In February 1934, members of the Sierra Club hired a bus for a two-day excursion to Soda Springs and Norden where they enjoyed a weekend of excellent skiing. The round-trip bus fare from the San Francisco Bay Area was only $3.50 per person and food costs were also inexpensive. There were commercial hotels in operation on the summit, but prices were too expensive for these young adults. At its next meeting the club determined that it needed its own ski lodge. Architect Walter Ratcliff offered his services to design one. He had prior experience since Ratcliff designed the Hutchinson Lodge for the Sierra Ski Club. 

Dr. Joel H. Hildebrand, U.C. Berkeley chemistry professor and a future president of the Sierra Club, encouraged the skiers to move forward with their dream.

Construction of the Clair Tappaan Memorial Lodge got underway during the summer of 1934. The chalet, built adjacent to the Hutchinson Lodge, was named for Clair Tappaan, a U.S.C. Law School professor, jurist and president of the Sierra Club from 1922 to 1924.

In the February 1935 Sierra Club Bulletin, Dr. Hildebrand wrote of the project, “The location was carefully considered. It is on the main line of the Southern Pacific, it is on the Lincoln Highway, which is kept open all winter. It lies at an altitude of 7,000 feet and has one of the heaviest packs of snow in the United States; 12 feet is normal in February and 27 feet is on record.”

Proximity to the future site of the Sugar Bowl ski area was a huge plus for the club: “Four miles to the north stands Castle Peak, a massive, palisaded mountain 9,140 feet high, and three miles to the south is Mount Lincoln, 8,400 feet, whose north side encloses the ‘Sugar Bowl,’ a smooth, shaded cirque surmounted by fine pinnacles and collecting enough snow to last through June. The forest is open, and there are many slopes, with but few obstacles to fast running. A magnificent course with a thousand-foot drop in altitude has been discovered, down the slopes of Mount Lincoln. Two of our skiers ran it in five and a half minutes last March in untracked snow.”

Read Part II in the next edition.