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50 Years as a Tahoe Ski Bum

Dick Tash recalls life in the late ’60s
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The excerpt below is from Tash’s 1977 article Downhill in High Sierra Times, a newspaper that was published biweekly from November 1976 to May 1978. Based in Incline Village, NV, the paper promised to be “A forum for politics, the environment, sports, social issues and you.”

“Have you even been at the top or a mountain on a warm February day and noticed ski tracks leading off the backside into an unpatrolled area? You look to see where they go and they disappear into the trees or run over a steep face. This is the realm of the ‘junkies.’ They are addicts in a sense but not the kind we usually associate with the word. … Some of these fanatics will follow basic rules. … Names like ‘Saudan’ and ‘Stamberger’ are well-known as those who live in a knife-edged world of the ultimate challenge, if indeed they do live. There are also many unknown gladiators. Those who have put their tracks upon sheer mountain faces, upon spires with scant snow clinging to them and in steep couleers [sic]. They all belong to a new breed of skiers who have evolved from many years of skiing and improved technology. One can only wonder what the next evolution will bring.”

An East Coast transplant in the winter of 1967, Dick Tash has been a Tahoe local ever since. He’s been involved in a radical ski school, an epic ski film, and many projects and shenanigans over the years. Among much chatter of the “good ol’ days” in Tahoe, we wanted to get an authentic description and thought Tash, 73, who celebrates his 50th year as a local this year, would be the man to do so. He remains an avid backcountry skier and active community member.

What brought you here?

After college I moved to Maine and worked as a bar waiter so I could ski. I started skiing as a teenager and was an average skier. My skis were 215-centimeter length skis with bear trap bindings. I crossed my tips, fell, and broke my leg in seven places. After that, my buddy and I wanted to move to Alaska, so we packed his sports car, a Sunbeam Alpine, and drove across the country.

We got to Seattle and everyone said you guys are crazy — it’s dark and there is not much work in the winter. Dirt, gravel, road — that’s what the Alaskan Highway was. So we said, “oh well, they are probably right.” We looked at a map and saw Lake Tahoe.

Did Squaw Valley have a reputation at the time?

I had vaguely heard there was a ski area but coming from New England I didn’t know much and it had been seven years since the Olympics. But the mountains are so much bigger and craggier than New England so I said, “wow — look at this place!” And thought this would be a cool place to work.

What was your first job?

I met Clif Taylor, who was introducing a new type of ski school. He had a different approach to ski teaching — he used shorter skis and called it the Graduated Length Method. People who ski two or three times a year and put on 7-foot long skis aren’t going to like it, they hate it. It’s logical, not everyone is Travis Ganong — what a great kid he is, an incredible athlete. There were two ski schools at Squaw Valley, and at the other one, they were so technical and they thought Taylor’s method was too radical. But they were wrong, because nowadays everyone uses short skis.

Where did you live?

We all wanted studios and I wanted one that was attached to a house, sitting right on the lake. But they were asking $800 per month, which back then felt like paying $3,000 or something. I got a one-bedroom cabin in Tahoma that I paid $100 a month for.

What was the area like? Where did everyone hang out?

We had passes to Squaw Valley, which was growing at the time, but not huge. They were still building many of the lifts. We’d hang out in Tahoe City, that’s where everyone was other than a few guys who’d hang out in Truckee at Pastimes [Pastime Club] and Tourist Club. Tahoe City was the spot; we had Hearthstone, where Rosie’s is today, live music, and stuff to do.

Did anyone go backcountry skiing in those days?

We’d sneak off the backsides of resorts sometimes, but ski patrol doesn’t want to see your tracks. We would drop off the backside of Alpine Meadows — that was allowed. I wrote an article for High Sierra Times about backcountry skiing in 1977. I wrote a skiing column as a trade deal for an advertisement for the ski school. The backcountry column described getting to spots like Mount Munchies and Chicken Nob.

In those years there weren’t that many people in the backcountry. Nowadays it is unbelievable — everybody goes. I like to see people getting out there and doing this stuff, better than sitting in front of a computer. Ski areas are cool but there are so many high speed lifts now, everyone skis fast. The backcountry is therapeutic to me.

Was there a lot of ego around the mountains?

The same as now. I say some guys join the military, some go skiing. Women too now. Ripping this big mountain stuff, it is mind-boggling. I compared it to a gladiator pit in one of my articles.

What has changed in the area since the late ’60s?

There was not one traffic light in the whole mountain area. Incline, Tahoe City, Truckee, Kings Beach, Squaw Valley, nowhere. All just stop signs, and that’s significant.

The first traffic light was in Tahoe City at the wye. When the light went in I was in a Jeep and had a couple beers. The Jeep stopped and all of a sudden there was this red glare at me and I thought, “It has reached me, civilization has reached Lake Tahoe.” But I love people and we are lucky. This place has gone through transition and we don’t know what to do with the cars, everyone has studied it but no one knows what to do. It is crowded but you can always get away in the backcountry.

Who’s that in the photo (above)?

That is me on El Capitan in Yosemite with Bob Stokes and a cameraman. Our buddy Rick Sylvester, a ballsy guy who rock climbed, said he wanted to do the first BASE jump off “El Cap,” and he got together with Mike Marvin a local guy (who went on to film Hot Dog) to film Earth Rider. The plot was we’d ski around the local mountains — me, Bob, and Rick — then he [Rick] would describe that he wanted to BASE jump and we’d shrug him off.

We couldn’t get permission from the National Parks, so we had to get dropped off by helicopters in radio silence and do it all secretly. And he did it, Rick hucked off that thing, 3,000 vertical feet. But that’s a whole other story. Rick went on to do the stunt in The Spy Who Loves Me and he still lives in Squaw Valley. It was a great movie, but unfortunately got tied up in legalities. (Read more on Sylvester’s exploits in Last of the Ski Bums, here.)

Did you ever think you were going to leave Tahoe?

No, you know, it’s a great place. I can’t believe it has been 50 years.

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May 10, 2018