When Squaw Valley resort owner Alexander Cushing announced his plans to bid for the 1960 Winter Olympics, many people thought it was a joke. In 1954, the tiny ski area in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada had but a single chairlift and hotel. Europeans on the Olympic Committee couldn’t imagine rugged mountains and snow in the sunny California of Disneyland fame. But, despite stiff competition from the German city of Innsbruck (which would host the next games in 1964), Squaw Valley prevailed, and Cushing created an Olympic-worthy venue with the help of a team of experts that included Willy Schaeffler, a German immigrant and racecourse designer who had worked on the 1952 World Championships in Aspen, and Walt Disney himself, who conceptualized the breathtaking Opening Ceremony, featuring fireworks from the top of Squaw Peak and 2,000 doves released into the sky.
The men’s downhill at Squaw Peak, a little less than two miles in length, had a steep vertical drop of 758 meters. Buddy Werner, America’s greatest hope for a medal in the downhill, tragically broke his leg shortly before the Games, so it was up to the women to win the U.S. Team’s first alpine skiing medal. Penny Pitou delivered. She took home two silvers—one in the downhill and one in the giant slalom. Frenchman Jean Vuarnet—the first Olympian to compete on metal skis, a pair of Allais 60s—won gold in the men's downhill. The winter games at Squaw Valley were groundbreaking for other reasons as well: They were the first Olympics to be widely televised and the first to use a computer to calculate scores. Perhaps most significant, officials at the men’s slalom event reviewed CBS’s footage to determine whether one of the athletes had missed a gate. It was the first time instant replay, now a sport-officiating staple, was used.
Today, you can ski the trails on which the 1960s men’s and women’s Olympic downhills were contested. The women’s course started just below the KT-22 peak between the Olympic Lady lift and the formerly named Eagles’ Nest rock outcrop, which was renamed McConkey’s in 2009. The course continued down the Accelerator Chute onto the Exhibition face and finished just above the Olympic House Lodge.
The men’s course, started at the top of Squaw’s famous Palisades area, which you can access from the Siberia Express lift. The course ran down Siberia Bowl over Waterfall and continued down Sunnyside on Squaw’s frontside, finishing above what is now the Granite Chief subdivision.