Downhill Slide

With ticket sales hurting and its lodges in disrepair, Badger Pass, the oldest ski resort west of the Mississippi, may face extinction

by Paul McHugh
San Francisco Chronicle - December 5, 2003

Badger Pass resort in Yosemite National Park was once the nation's top ski destination, a contender for the Winter Olympics. After newer resorts eclipsed it with more modern facilities and taller, steeper hills, Badger became a popular, low-key family resort. Steadily, this recreation area's glory days moved farther from reach. Now, it seems poised to perform a gelandesprung (ski pole vault) right onto the ash heap of history.

Yosemite's Badger Pass resort was once the nation's top ski destination. Chronicle photo by Michael Maloney.

As the grand dame of the Sierra alpine zone struggles in a soggy snowbank, badly in need of rescue, will anyone respond?

Visitation (30,000-40,000 visits) has plunged to less than half of what it was more than 60 years ago. Structures around the centerpiece building, a once-proud copy of a wooden Tyrolean lodge, are riddled with rot. The lodge itself rarely scores improvements beyond a fresh coat of paint.

Longtime fans view its decline with anger and sadness. Ray Kumli of Sonoma, now 65, remembers that he began skiing there more than 40 years ago, under the tutelage of Badger's ageless top instructor, Nic Fiore. Kumli's son learned to ski at Badger.

The ski house when it was still in good shape. Buildings throughout the resort have since fallen into disrepair. Chronicle File Photo, 1949.

"Badger doesn't have a whole lot of mountain," he said. "But it's been a wonderful and inexpensive family area for a long time. I've noted a decline, the last few years. There just doesn't seem to be strong interest in keeping it up.''

The National Park Service and Delaware North, the concessionaire, assert their commitment to Badger Pass. Over the past few years, gaps in maintenance, they maintain, have been stanched by work on the lifts, one new deck, an enhanced sewage system and repair of a sagging foundation. A new roof is scheduled for next year. Some creativity has gone into updating winter attractions, including a new tubing area and terrain features for snowboarders.

However, what's absent from this scene is a potent master plan, a detailed vision for wrenching this resort off its languid, downward slide, a concerted effort to restore to Badger Pass some measure of its former eminence.

Up in the Snowflake Room, the pub atop Badger's big-beamed lodge, a row of makeshift wooden skis bears names of illustrious ski school alumni. The first, dated 1935, includes Don Tresidder and his wife, Mary Curry.

Tresidder, the first president of the joined Yosemite Park and Curry concessionaire companies, was a charismatic visionary who created the elegant Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite's famed system of High Camps, and Badger Pass' roughhewn, rustic lodge. He managed to do this amid the Great Depression.

Tresidder was a vacationing medical student when he first glimpsed Yosemite, in 1913. He fell in love with the gorgeous valley, began work as a hotel porter, then fell in love with the boss' daughter. He was briefly fired for daring to take Mary on a climb up the back side of Half Dome. But he recouped enough standing to marry her in 1920, and gained even more after he took command of the joined companies in 1925.

His overarching goal -- shared by parks director Stephen T. Mather -- was to transform Yosemite into a year-round destination. It all began with an 800-foot-long snow slide on the valley floor, progressed to a 60,000-square- foot skating rink, then rose to a ski hut and numerous runs at Chinquapin -- near the present-day turnoff to Badger Pass on Highway 41.

Badger Pass, 1,200 feet higher anmiles closer to Glacier Point, was established in 1935. Skiers were served by an "up-ski," a counterbalanced sled on a winch dubbed the Queen Mary (after Mrs. Tresidder) that could slide eight skiers at a time up to the top of Granite Dome for two bits per trip, or a buck for an all-day pass.

The resort was an immediate hit, drawing stars like Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney into winter sport. A succession of foreign instructors was hired to impart alpine skills. That honor roll included Jules Fritsch, Hannes Schroll (who later drew Disney off to help found Sugar Bowl) Luggi Foeger and Nic Fiore -- who arrived in 1948 for a one-year stint and has never left.

The story is that Fiore arrived in Yosemite Valley during a storm at night. He emerged the next morning to see snow draping the towering valley walls, and said, "But Luggi, where do beginners ski?"

The answer: Up at Badger Pass, where a gentle hill and its cozy lodge nurtured generation after generation of skiers -- launching more than a few successful ski racers on their careers in the process.

Fiore, nearly 83 now, still works as a ski school ambassador, eagerly ringing a brass bell to begin class. He still remembers the faces and names of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of the children he gently guides today.

Rumors say that Fiore's presence, more than the multiple coats of paint, holds operations together at Badger Pass; when he goes, so shall all the rest. However, Stewart Collins, who manages guest recreation services for Delaware North in Yosemite, calls the notion of shutting down Badger Pass "the rural equivalent of an urban legend."

"We want to keep Badger Pass an asset for both the park and our company," Collins said. "We lose money operating it. But it does draw visitors to the park, helps fill rooms in winter, supports sales in retail stores and other things.

A rotted deck railing above the rental shop is one of the many needed repairs. Chronicle photo by Michael Maloney.

"It's true that the building needs a great deal of work. For its long- term future, it ought to be utilized more than four months out of the year. But the historic value comes from winter operations. If those were to go away, then it's just another old structure out in the woods."

The Park Service's Yosemite master plan (dated 1980) does call for Badger Pass operations to continue. Yet it does not offer any guidance about how to achieve that goal after trends in the ski industry have passed the place by.

The Yosemite Valley Plan, approved in 2000, does envision an expanded use of Badger Pass as a "satellite parking area" during spring and summer. Activities, sales and services would be provided at the lodge to entertain guests while they await shuttle buses to the valley floor. That might produce enough year-round economic stimulus to make a wholesale restoration feasible.

However, the Valley Plan is under fire by environmentalists, who decry its reliance on diesel buses, and by merchants in towns outside the park, who fear that stifling auto traffic into the valley will reduce park visitation and thus hurt their businesses. Recently, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, introduced legislation that would derail the plan's satellite-lot concept in favor of restoring in-valley campgrounds and day-use parking for autos.

Delaware North is a mammoth, privately held firm that runs racetracks for horses and greyhounds, sports stadiums, airport food concessions and gambling operations in many countries around the globe. During the past decade in the United States, it has made steady gains in acquiring concessions in state and national parks. Critics wonder why such a huge corporation can't just pony up bucks to fix problems all over Yosemite.

It's not so simple. One obstacle is that Yosemite's concessionaire no longer owns park buildings. After the old Curry Co. was bought by MCA and MCA was purchased by Japanese-owned Matsushita in 1990, a new policy mandated that proprietary interest needed to be vested in the Park Service. So now a fund, fed by concessionaire receipts, is paying off transfer of these buildings to the Park Service. Badger has become just one more troubled structure among many in our national parks.

Another fund, the capital improvement fund, taps more concessionaire revenue for repairs and improvements around the park. . But all $19 million the fund now holds is earmarked for pending projects. One might expect environmental groups with strong feelings about Badger to lobby or raise money for its salvation. "There's so many compelling things going, I don't know anyone actively concerned about Badger Pass," says Joyce Eden, co-director of the Friends of Yosemite Valley. "So it's kind of an orphan."

The National Park Service, whipsawed for years by competing interests on all these issues, sounds institutionally fatigued when the topic is Badger Pass.

"There's no thought of removing it, or of expansion. We do recognize it's an older facility, in need of work," said says Marty Nielson, chief of business revenue management for the park . A visitor can enter the Tyrolean-style lodge, glimpse its remnant charms and envision its possibilities.

A perceptive alpine architect such as Henrik Bull (who guided the Glacier Point construction) might be able to figure out a way to simultaneously preserve history and embrace the future at Badger Pass. A restored, Badger could become a summer dining destination, or an environmental education and outings center. It could outfit hikers and birdwatchers as easily as it used to launch skiers.

However, go outside the lodge, and one's eyes immediately fall upon split beams and rotting posts, decks condemned and taped off to prevent public use. Wobbly piers that support the rental shop are driven right into a tarn (mountain marsh) and seem close to collapse.

Like a skier teetering upon the brink of a cliff, this venerable old resort could be resurrected, or it could plunge toward its final destruction. The outcome will depend on which way most of the interested parties push.