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The Old Man and the Mountain

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.

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."

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