PHOTOS: David Reddick
One day not long ago, above a tumbledown gold mining camp at the upper headwaters of the Feather River, a contest was underway. Two contenders—the last men standing in a field of 16—maneuvered to the starting line at the top of the slope. The line was marked with red Jell-O, which had become smudged in the sun-warmed slush.
Each man was affixed by means of lace-up leather bindings to a pair of titanic wooden skis more than 10 feet long. The skis were four and a half inches wide underfoot and waxed to run fast with arcane concoctions of what race prep crews called "dope." Considerable quantities of skill, labor, whiskey, and other encouragements were required simply to get to the starting line, let alone the final round. There, the skiers pointed straight downhill, toes on the red line, a single stout pole staving off the inevitable pull of gravity.
In the outside lane was the Swede, Thomas Lundin. Lundin had traveled over Beckwourth Pass from Reno with his mentor, two-time World Longboard Champion Eric McGrath. Lundin took second the previous year, after McGrath, and this year he wanted the belt. On the inside was the young upstart and local favorite, Max Breedlove. Breedlove owned a handyman business down the hill. He'd learned to ski right on this very slope at California's Johnsville Ski Bowl in the days—not long ago—when the Poma lift was still running. "I think Max is gonna do it," confided Phil Gallagher, co-founder of the Plumas Ski Club's Historic Longboard Revival Series and another two-time world champ.
Since 1993, the straight-course downhill speed races—in the style of 1850s gold miners who first brought skiing to the Sierra—have been held at the Ski Bowl, about an hour's drive north of Truckee. To the west lies a wild, semi-abandoned swath of timber, gold, and deep-snow country known as the Lost Sierra. Once filled with rough-and-ready mining camps, the region is also considered the birthplace of organized competitive downhill skiing in North America, and possibly the world.
Gallagher spoke of the natural rivalry between the "graybeards"—grizzled veterans like himself and McGrath—and the so-called "blackbeards," like Lundin and Breedlove. But old-timers like Gallagher are pleased to see an infusion of new blood. Above all, he hopes the next generation will carry the race forward. "He's young and pumped up," Gallagher said of Breedlove. "His dope is good and he's got incredible form."
At the bottom of the track, 150 yards or so below, a bluegrass band played on the deck of the old warming hut: accordion, harmonica, stand-up bass. Spectators of all ages lined up along the course. Dogs ran free. Flasks of whiskey and other approved medicaments were passed around. Participants, race officials, die-hard fans, and veteran racers were decked out in motley 19th century attire: wool trousers and union suits, waistcoats and floppy hats. Back in the day, race purses were worth up to $250 ($7,000 in 2017 money). Today it is more about bragging rights, maybe a leather-bound flask or a time-burnished belt buckle, and a place in the history books.
McGrath's money was on Lundin, of course. Over the years, they'd built four pairs of skis together—hand-hewn, kiln-dried, vertical-grain Douglas fir. "It takes about two months, two bottles of whiskey, and multiple cases of beer," said McGrath. They'd carried them up the ski lift at Mount Rose for practice, which had earned them lighthearted allegations of cheating for not hiking by foot. But then Breedlove admitted to using a power sander to hone his boards. Ultimately, the only thing worse than cheating was orthodoxy or a lack of a sense of humor. "Thomas will be winning today," McGrath told me. "Plain and simple."
Longboarding started in the Lost Sierra in the early 1850s, 25 years before skiing took off in the European Alps. The California gold rush was in full swing then. Thousands of prospectors and support staff from all over the globe picked their way along tributaries and drainages into the farthest reaches of the range, looking for yellow dirt. On Rabbit Creek, near a place called Spanish Diggings, a fellow by the name of Henry Harrison Mason erected the first house, a respectable four-room log cabin that would serve as shelter throughout the winter of 1851-52. By New Year's, snow was piled "15 feet deep on the level" and the cabin was buried. By mid-March, most of the food was gone and there was talk of eating the family dog. To save the pet, Mason cut a pair of skis from the floorboards and headed across the drifts to shoot a rabbit.
"Norwegian snowshoes" or "Norway skates" soon became the standard mode of winter travel in the northern Sierra. Native American-style rawhide-webbed "trampers" employed by earlier trappers and explorers—what we now call snowshoes—were quickly replaced by faster, more practical longboards. It would be several decades before the Norwegian word ski gained currency in North America.
"It may be a matter of wonder to some of your readers how people get about where there is so much snow," wrote one mining camp correspondent to the Quincy Plumas Argus in 1859. "It is the easiest thing in the mountains. Nearly all have Norwegian snowshoes. They are about nine feet long, four and one-half inches wide, shaved thin, and turned up in front like a sled runner. By fastening them to the feet about the middle of the shoe, and with a pole in the hands for balance, a person can run over the light and new fallen snow at railroad speed."
With not much else to do in the winter, skiing became a common form of recreation in the Northern Sierra. Downhill races were held across the region, with competitors hailing from far-flung camps with names like Poker Flat, Port Wine, Whiskey Diggings, and Poorman's Creek. At first, they raced "for small purses, whiskey, cigars, and the like," and among the spectators there was considerable side-betting. Bands played, booze flowed, bones were broken, and legends were born.
In the 1860s, while Sondre Norheim was experimenting with sidecut, heel bindings, and drop-knee turns in Norway, significant leaps in downhill ski technology were developed in California driven by pure speed. Flat-bottomed traveling shoes gave way to even longer boards, made from Douglas fir billets up to 15 feet long—with a groove carved into their bases for improved tracking. Much ingenuity and arcane chemistry went into the development of secret dope recipes to make skis run at optimal velocity. Ingredients included pine pitch, oil of cedar, Venice turpentine, wintergreen, soapstone, camphor, and sperm whale oil. Dopemakers, with magic elixirs such as Frank Steward's Old Black Dope or Johnie Williams' Old No. 25, were revered above the racers themselves.
Over the course of six days in February 1867, including an intervening blizzard, the Alturas Snow-Shoe Club of La Porte held a series of races that ski historian Bill Berry called "probably the world's first organized ski tournament." (This was a year before Norheim would dominate an organized slalom competition in Christiania and ignite imaginations with his new-fangled heel straps and turns. In fact, there had been organized ski races in the Lost Sierra at least as far as back as 1861 in Onion Valley.) The championship belt at La Porte that year, on a course measured at 1,230 feet, went to a miner known as Cornish Bob, who won a tiebreaker by four feet. Bob was later shot dead in a bar fight by a fellow longboard racer.
For nearly a century, the Sierra longboarders were the fastest men and women in the world. Above Johnsville, where stake races were held on a steep, 1,700-foot descent from Eureka Lake, competitors ran in a squad of five to seven men at a time on a roped course and regularly clocked over 80 mph. "The time made by horse or railroad racing is not to be compared with the time made by a snowshoe racer," wrote one correspondent. "Only the bird of prey swooping down from the lofty summits into the mountain canyons can compare." In 1874, over in La Porte, a local champ by the name of Tommy Todd was reported to have run 1,804 feet in 14 seconds, setting a world speed record of 87.7 mph. That record would hold for 73 years—until, in 1947, an Italian skier by the name of Zeno Colo clocked 98.8 mph.
In the first decades of the 20th century, with easy pickings long gone and more than $93 million in gold extracted, most folks moved on to seek fortunes elsewhere. Whole camps were abandoned, leaving behind iron beds, stoves, tools, square nails, dope boxes, and old skis. The heyday of longboard racing came to a close with a final organized race in 1911. There were one-off revival races in 1938 and 1941, when a young Johnsville local named Johnny Redstreake beat national and international skiing champions Wayne Poulsen (the founder of Squaw Valley) and Hannes Schroll. In 1964, on the occasion of Nevada's Centennial, Plumas-native Jerry Burelle (on well-doped longboards) crushed U.S. Ski Team Olympic medalist Billy Kidd (on modern skis). It would be another 30 years, though, before a full-fledged revival began.
Phil Gallagher and his buddy Rob Russell have been touring the Lost Sierra backcountry since the 1970s. Gallagher is a visual artist who first came to Plumas County in 1971 on a freight train. He now splits his time between California and Hawaii's Big Island. Russell is a longhaired tele-dog, amateur archeologist, historian, self-described desert rat, and landscape architect. One of the pair's favorite places to ski, back in the day, was Onion Valley—"the birthplace of organized ski racing in North America," as Russell put it. They'd ski back into an old miner's cabin they'd stocked over the summer and spend a week drinking wine and cooking potatoes and hacking out turns on Pilot Peak on their three-pin skinny skis. The "Lost Sierra" was worthy of its nickname then; the forest was empty; it was just these young hippies and their skis and the ghosts of a thousand old prospectors. "Snowmobiles were like bumper cars back then; they couldn't go anywhere," Gallagher explained. "Now it's overrun; it's like a snowmobile park."
Gallagher, Russell and others, including Plumas County Museum Curator Scott Lawson, organized the first World Championship Longboard Revival race in 1993 at Johnsville Ski Bowl, the first such race in a generation. Johnsville was the most accessible of the historic courses, and the only one that had been somewhat maintained over the years. Gallagher did a handsome woodcut of a longboard racer, designed a poster, and brought back the old slogan "Long Live Longboards!" For the first races, they "carefully" borrowed skis from the museum collection. (In subsequent years, contestants began building their own longboards to 19th century specs; the local community college now offers a hands-on course where students craft their own boards.) A crowd of locals showed up to drink beer and watch the spectacle. Russell took the belt that first season and went on to win eight more championships over the next 20 years.
I met Russell and Gallagher in the Safeway parking lot in Quincy one rainy morning in January. A series of monumental storm cycles that would add up to the wettest season in over a century in the Sierra had just begun. It had been 25 years since the first revival race. After some discussion, we decided to hazard a low-angle tour up the lower slopes of Eureka Peak to catch a glimpse of the Lost Sierra.
Jammed into the cab of Russell's camper, we made our way up the mountain. Rain gave way to snow. The windshield wipers could barely keep up. Through Johnsville, the road was as wide as a single plow blade. The 150-year-old clapboard buildings had exterior doors on the second story for egress onto the snowdrifts. "It hasn't been like this in a long time," said Russell.
Bands played, booze flowed, bones were broken, and legends were born.
We took turns breaking trail, punching modern touring skis up the face of the Ski Bowl through deep, heavy snow. Shouting into the wind, Russell gave a brief history of the Johnsville ski area. Hard rock miners used ore carts to ride upslope with skis in the 1870s (possibly the world's first ski lift). A rope tow was installed above the miners' barracks in the 1930s. In 2012, locals banded together to purchase Squaw Valley's retired Main Line chairlift for $25,000. Alas, money, expertise, and political will ran out and the lift was never installed. The chairs, towers and bull wheels were now rusting in a field somewhere along the Middle Fork.
We ate our lunches in the shelter of a derelict A-frame lift shack at the top of the old Poma. Russell described a multi-day "Lost Sierra Traverse" he'd done in 1997 from Onion Valley back across the mountain to Johnsville for a PBS show called "Anyplace Wild." They ended the expedition by showing up on skis to that year's Longboard Championships. Of course, Russell won.
Above us, shrouded in storm, loomed Eureka Peak, known in the early days as Gold Mountain. The first gold-bearing quartz veins were discovered there in 1850. Russell and Gallagher didn't have "beepers," as they called them, or any other avy gear. With visibility minimal and slide potential extreme, we opted not to climb higher and instead wallowed our way down through the woods, over a series of deep pillows and hummocks to the old stamp mill and miner's barracks below.
The morning of March 19 got off to an inauspicious start. It was overcast and raining at the Ski Bowl. The course—expertly groomed the previous day—had turned to saturated slush. The competitors scrambled to amend their dope accordingly. Miraculously, just before the firing of the cannon at high noon to signal the commencement of the 25th Annual Revival Series World Championship Longboard Races, the clouds shifted and the sun blazed through.
Top-hatted club officials and other muckety-mucks tapped kegs and gave speeches concerning the history and the gravity of the affair and the various prizes to be awarded. The rules were laid out plainly: no spitting, no cheating; leather boots, some attempt at 19th century attire, and wooden skis with a minimum length of ten feet required; modern ski waxes and fluorocarbon compounds forbidden.
Security and officiating were to be provided by the The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus (ECV), a satirical fraternal organization that likely originated in the early days of the California Gold Rush, and may or may not have included Mark Twain (and Jesus Christ) as one of its early members. Competitors drew seed numbers from a hat and then began to make their way upslope toward the starting area. The graybeards, in general, towed their boards behind them on the snow, while the blackbeards carried theirs jauntily over their shoulders.
Racers went head-to-head, two at a time, in single-elimination rounds, with a litany of good-natured trash talk, sandbagging, and minor psychological sabotage between heats. At the first gong—a large saw blade rung with a hammer—32 gentlemen competed for the men's title, and eight ladies in the women's category. The ladies' races were clean, elegant, and quickly decided, with Jessica Nelson of Johnsville, three-time world champion in a denim cap and ankle-length gingham skirt, beating out Sarah Johnstone of Beckwourth and Austyn Harrington, "battle-born" Nevadan from the south shore of Lake Tahoe. "She always wins," remarked one gentleman.
The rules were laid out plainly: no spitting, no cheating; leather boots, some attempt at 19th century attire, and wooden skis with a minimum length of ten feet required.
The men's races went like this: McGrath made it to the third round only to be smoked by young Breedlove. Joe Sagona, a well-decorated X Games skier representing this magazine, was eliminated in his first heat when he exploded into a double somersault just off the starting line. The fine-tuned boards he'd borrowed from Gallagher continued of their own accord across the finish line and into the woods. (He would later be awarded a steel flask for "Best Crash.")
This writer, on those same champion skis, barely stood through his first heat, winning only through involuntary crowding-out of his opponent, and then had his own explosion just before an exciting, near-photo finish. Russell lost to Jack Webster in the second heat. Gallagher gave the first heat to a blackbeard circus performer by the name of Nick Polzak who was just back from some shady adventure in Belize; Polzak in turn lost to Lundin. Which brings us back to where we started, with Lundin and Breedlove on the starting line.
Breedlove had been accused of cheating on account of the plastic buckles on his Asolo telemark boots. "I will go unbuckled," he retorted.
"We will not start until the official has been bribed," declared the official, eyeing the whiskey flask circulating amongst the Breedlove supporters. Once the official and the ringer of the gong had both been properly compensated, the countdown began: 3… 2… GONG!
Both men started handsomely enough. But Lundin, the dark horse from out of state, was slightly more effective off the line with his pole. Breedlove lost his hat to the wind as he dropped into his tuck, already a breath behind. His form was unassailable. His dope, however, proved wanting. In the end, Lundin won by two full ski lengths and took the belt back to Reno.
Later, when the awards had been bestowed, the band gone home, more speeches made and whiskey drunk, the sky clouded up again and a light rain began to fall. Nine longboarders, including Breedlove and Sagona, hiked their boards far above the official starting line for a free-for-all high-speed grudge match. Remarkably, all nine men managed to cross the finish line standing. But it was Breedlove who crossed it first, way out front, reestablishing himself as the unqualified local favorite to win next year's world title.
This story originally appeared in the October 2017 (46.2) issue of POWDER. To have award winning stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.