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A Short History of Pajarito Mountain Ski Area

Introduction

An excellent source of information is Deanna Morgan Kirby's "Just Crazy to ski – a Fifty-Year History of Skiing at Los Alamos", published by the Los Alamos Historical Society (2003).

The account below of the history of Los Alamos Ski Club was written by Paul Allison, and based on video interviews by Allison and Fretwell and on phone conversations with Allison of primarily Sawyers Hill persons in 85-86. Additional material obtained from newspapers, magazines, books, some interviews of persons involved with Pajarito development. It was begun in 1985, and then revised up to 1991. Further revision is needed to bring it fully up to date. Contributions are welcome.

Origins

The Los Alamos Ranch School (LARS) for boys was founded by Ashley Pond in 1917. Pond's daughter Peggy married Fermor Church, one of the schoolmasters, and spent her honeymoon in 1924 in a cabin at Camp May a few yards from the present Mother chairlift that ascends Pajarito Mountain. Most likely skiing became popular at LARS in the thirties as it did elsewhere in the country at that time. The invention of the rope tow in 1932 by Mueller, a Swiss, made simple, cheap tows available to a good backyard mechanic, and the first skiing competition in the 1936 winter Olympics in Germany and the opening of Sun Valley with the first chairlift provided the inspiration to ski.

Every spring the LARS boys would haul supplies by horse and then by sledge to the Camp May cabin, where they would spend a week skiing and camping. A small slope was cleared near the cabin to practice turning and stopping, but descents from the top of the mountain were the main event.

Sawyers Hill

By 1938 skiing was so popular that Hup Wallis, one of the schoolmasters, cleared a new area on Sawyers Hill, accessible by what was then a dirt road into the Valle Grande, once thought to be the largest volcano caldera in the world. Now they could ski every weekend, and part of the pleasure lay in being allowed to wear long pants, since "all other activities required the wearing of shorts", according to then student Wilson Hurley. Thus skiing provided the warm winter alternative! The hill had to be climbed for each descent, but occasionally a truck took them further up the dirt road to a point from which a shorter route to the top could be taken.

The US army took over the school and its buildings in February of 1943 as a secret site to research the possibility of building the atomic bomb in a race against the Germans and perhaps the Japanese. The group of Americans and Europeans brought to Los Alamos for the project enjoyed the outdoors in the little time available outside their work, and many of them skied on Sawyers Hill in the winter of 43-44. A ski club was organized in November of 1943, and by the summer of 1944 there were work parties to improve the hill and talk of acquiring a tow. Three GIs, including now retired lab employee John Rogers, volunteered to design, build, and operate a tow for a year for $400. An organizational meeting was held in November of 1944 to "cut a path for the tow, in case we get one" and to raise the money. Rogers recalls getting a Chrysler engine from an Albuquerque junkyard and a rope from a defunct circus. These GIs had never seen a tow before, but on Sunday, 24 December, 1944, Sawyers Hill opened for business. Dues for the season were $7.50/person (equivalent to about $80 in 2000$), expensive considering the meager facilities. The circus rope wore badly on the small pulleys, requiring frequent splicing during the day, but it worked and the skiers were delighted. For most of them, Sawyers Hill was their first exposure to skiing, and it was a great place.

In the summer of 1945, the lab's implosion bomb was tested in the desert near Alamogordo, and then two bombs were used to end the war with Japan. With the machine shops now somewhat idle during the uncertainty of what to do after the end of the war, one scientist submitted a design for new pulleys for the tow, so rumor has it. The new pulley was "designed to within an inch of its life" and was built in the lab's main shops, and the tow operation the next winter was much better. By the winter of 46-47 the uncertainty of the lab's future was diminished with the promise of permanent housing, and plans for a new beginners' tow were announced. Ski club president Les Seeley toured over to Pajarito Mountain during the winter with other skiers and assessed the possibility of moving there but considered the obstacles too great.

The first Skiesta, a much-publicized event named after a popular movie of the day, was held on 29 February, 1948. There were races with prizes from merchants in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, a sound truck for music, fancy costumes, and a hotdog lunch with beans for 50¢. Skiesta is still held every year, but a live band has now replaced the sound truck. A lodge was built in the summer of 1948 by the lab's construction company, Zia, for the skiers. A ski school was operated by Jean and Buzz Bainbridge, who charged $2/lesson. Bainbridge, who went on to a long career in the ski business which included development of Santa Fe Ski Basin, recalls that lessons were very popular because "the Los Alamos ski patrol, in their pedantic way, would stop awkward skiers and strongly suggest that they take lessons". Sawyers Hill, with 370' of vertical and two rope tows, had the best facilities in the state except for the newly opened T-bar at La Madera (now part of Sandia Peak) near Albuquerque. But ski facilities were being developed elsewhere, with Santa Fe opening in the fall of 1948 with a 1500' rope tow.

In September of 1949, the fallout from Joe 1, the first Russian atomic bomb, was detected, and the news caused some panic in Washington. President Truman ordered a crash program to develop the much-discussed H-bomb, and the lab reverted to the wartime six-day work week. There was limited time for skiing, but the Santa Fe ski patrol was run by Los Alamos skiers for a few years. When the lab returned to a more normal schedule in the fall of 1952, Santa Fe had installed a chairlift and a T-bar in a high-altitude basin with a lot of snow. The old WPA-built tow at Santa Fe's Hyde Park was donated to Los Alamos, where it was installed as the North Tow. However, snowfall had been sparse for the past several years, and in 56-57 the tows ran for only seven days. Dissatisfied skiers, who had wearied of "skiing on a few frozen blades of grass", looked over the maps and made a trip by skis into Camp May in the spring of 1957. Finding considerable snow on Pajarito Mountain, Stretch Fretwell, Bill Jarmie, Dale Holm, Mal Wallis and others began promoting a move to the Club.

The Move to Pajarito Mountain

The obstacles to moving were still great, but increasing skier sophistication made Sawyers Hill look less attractive, in spite of thirteen years of development. Opposition to the move was surprisingly small, and different groups went to seek permission from the AEC to use the land, to promote the improvement of the jeep road to Camp May into a gravel road suitable for cars, to cut new slopes, and to move the tows. Many skiers worked through the summer weekends to prepare the beginnings of a ski area. After a five-year drought, the winter of 57-58 started early, and it was necessary to do a lot of the slope cutting and tow installation in the snow throughout the fall. The leased lab building used for a lodge had to be placed on a pile of logs in November instead of footings. As the snow melted underneath it during the season, the building had to be continually jacked up to maintain it level. On opening day, 23 November, two tows were in place with double the vertical drop of Sawyers Hill, and there was a beginners' slope and a narrow trail from the upper tow. The record snowfall in the county to that date might well have tempted the skiers to stay at Sawyers' Hill had it fallen the year before.

No single person was responsible for development of either skiing facility, there being perhaps 20-50 individuals who made large contributions, but with the move to Pajarito a relatively new enthusiast, Bob Thorn, became president. He organized the development in an efficient way and was widely regarded as the prime mover in Pajarito's development for over 30 years. Chain saws replaced hand saws, and wide slopes were laid out. The next two years' work was focused on slope development, and the North Tow from Sawyers Hill was brought over finally for the 59-60 season. "If you had arms of steel and sufficient disregard for pain, it was now possible to ascend the mountain by two successive rope tows running about 15 mph. Few women or children made it to the top, and no one ever claimed to make it without the tow gripper which was carried around each skiers' waist."

The improved facilities began to attract new skiers, and soon the tows could not keep up with the crowds. The increasing income provided for new lift development, and for the next 25 years the expanding facilities seemed to just barely keep up with demand. Many of the skiers dreamed of a T-bar or Poma lift to replace the rope tows, but there was considerable controversy over purchase of such a lift in 61-62, a trial ballot among members in 1961 barely passing 116 to 112. After more investigation and a compromise allowing mid-station unloading for beginners, the Club raised money in 1962 by selling ten-year season passes, and a 3300' long Hall T-bar was bought for $60,000 to ascend 1100' to the top of east Pajarito Mountain. Installation of a chairlift, more expensive, was considered to be too risky financially, and even the T-bar cost was questioned by some who felt that only rope tows could be afforded. Club members surveyed for a power line that summer and placed the poles to bring electricity for the lift motor, built a new lodge, and got the lift installed in time for opening day, 1 December, 1962.

Club membership continued to grow at a rate of 16%/yr, and three years later a new lift east of the T-bar was being considered. A bulldozer was bought for packing ("a bad idea"), and when the Los Alamos community land was sold by the AEC, the club bought 292 acres for its use, then another 108 acres. Lines were sometimes long at the T-bar by now, and a chairlift was installed on Spruce run in the summer of 1969. This time there was less controversy, although a few favored a T-bar, because a chairlift might attract "outsiders", who were perceived to significantly lengthen the liftlines. Ten-year bonds were sold to club members this time with 8.5% interest to finance the $140,000 project. Slopes were being cut at the rate of more than one per year by a large cutting crew under the guidance of Thorn and newer members like Harry Flaugh, Ron Strong, and Jim Hedstrom. The lodge, built in 61-62 for a much smaller membership, was woefully overcrowded on busy days, and many plans were laid to expand it, but the liftline problem dominated thinking.

The West Side

From the start in 1957, it had been recognized that the west peak of Pajarito Mountain at 10,441' had the most extensive terrain, but it was part of the 100,000 acre Baca land grant in the Jemez mountains, which Congress had granted to the Baca heirs in 1860 in exchange for land near Las Vegas, NM. No portion of the grant had ever been sold off before, but after more than ten years of negotiation by John Rogers, owner Dunnigan agreed to sell the west peak with 185 acres of surrounding land to the club for $90,000. With the T-bar now paid for and the Spruce chair bonds half paid, it was possible to install a chairlift to the top of West Pajarito for $292,000 in the summer of 1976. This time there was little or no controversy on the type of lift, just anticipation of much expanded skiing.

A New Lodge

The burden of operating a major ski facility with volunteer direction was reduced by hiring fulltime area and business managers in 1982. For a while the three lifts handled the crowds satisfactorily, and attention focused on expanding the lodge again. After much discussion, a new lodge plan was approved in the fall of 1980 by the Club's board of directors and by a vote of the membership at large, which was required before undertaking large new projects. Some skiers were unhappy with this plan however, and a petition was circulated to overturn the decision. A special Club meeting was called to review the petition, and a large crowd of members attended an angry session in which the board agreed to resubmit the lodge matter to members for a mail ballot. The second time, the measure failed narrowly, and the board immediately formed a committee to address the problem of liftlines. Negotiations with the forest service for land east of the Spruce lift had not been successful, blocking development of that area. Many members favored placing limits on memberships or on day skiers. Liftlines were probably shorter than at most other ski areas on weekends, but there was still much frustration with not being able to keep up with skier demands.

Lift Upgrades

One lift problem had been that beginners still had to use a rope tow, and they were easily tempted to take the Spruce chair to the top before they had the ability to ski the more advanced slopes or even negotiate the lift. The lift committee recommended installing a beginners' chairlift to solve this problem and a triple chair to replace the 20-year old T-bar, which now had increasing maintenance problems in addition to a modest capacity of only 900 skiers per hour. After the new lifts were installed in the summers of 1981 and 1982, the uphill capacity was increased by nearly 60%, and the perceived liftline problem vanished. Slope cutting proceeded as it had for the previous 25 years, but attention soon focused again on the shortcomings of the old lodge.

There were now four chairlifts, three slope grooming machines, a large number of slopes, but outdoor toilets, no drinking water, and mobs in the lodge on snowy days. Financing the lifts, particularly in a time a high interest rates, consumed Club income and forced up membership rates, but some money was used for drilling wells for water in 1985, one of which produced a flow of over one gpm, enough to consider building a water storage tank. By 1986 the Spruce and Mother lifts had been paid off, and negotiations by Stan Moore with the Forest Service were successful, allowing the club to trade land that it had bought in the Jemez Mountains for the 136 acres of new land on the east for ski area expansion. In the summer of 1987 a new lodge was started at last, with the basic structure built by a contracting firm and the interior to be finished with volunteer labor. Finally for the 88-89 season there were indoor toilets and running water. The new lodge was the first big project that had not been financed directly through members.

Organization

By charter, Memberships (voting season pass holders) are limited to persons who primarily live or work in the county. Non-voting season passes may be purchased by anyone. The area is open to day skiers, who have constituted about a third of the users since the early days at Pajarito. LASC is a not-for-profit organization with a membership of about 2000 - 3000, who elect a volunteer board of nine directors, serving three-year terms. Less than 10 full-time employees work for the club, but in the winter there are an additional 50-60 parttime persons, not including the ski school and the ski patrol. The ski school of 20-30 persons, although associated with the club, work independently financially. Its members are fully trained and accredited and are paid from their own income. A few years ago its director was president of the Rocky Mountain Ski Instructors Association.

Volunteer summer work parties still cut new slopes on Saturdays and on Wednesday evenings. Flaugh and Strong have been at it for well over 20 years, and others such as Jim and Markeita Hedstrom, Gene Moore, Rene Prestwood, Milt Gillespie, and Larry Madsen have also contributed over many years. Other work parties build new stairways, mend boundary fences, build new lodges or ski patrol buildings, clear downed timber in the woods for skiing through the trees. The annual contribution of volunteer labor over the years has been equivalent to several full-time employees with a wide range of engineering and scientific training.

Ski Patrol

The ski patrol was formed in February, 1949, just ten years after the National Ski Patrol was founded. It was unique in New Mexico in being entirely voluntary and receiving no benefits such as lift tickets. The patrol has over 100 persons in it, which makes the provision of 6-10 patrollers per day relatively easy. The Club furnished the patrol leadership for Santa Fe Ski Basin in its first year, '49-'50, and Club patrolmen helped out there for several more years. In July of 1991, patrolman Gene Tate was honored for 40 consecutive years on the patrol at Los Alamos, an achievement that is probably unequaled in New Mexico. Few ski areas have existed that long! Numerous other patrollers have served over thirty years.

Catering

As Club membership climbed, there was sufficient demand that a rudimentary food service was inaugurated in '61-'62 by Explorer Post 20. Working outside and cooking over Coleman stoves, hamburgers were served for 60¢. As Club membership was increased from 669 that year to nearly 4000 in the early 80's, the scouts secured room in the lodge and expanded every few years to try to keep up. The lack of water or sewage facilities made food preparation a challenge, and the cramped quarters of the old lodge made it difficult to even store enough supplies for a big weekend. The scouts continued to serve on a volunteer basis with a paid manager for 29 years, when the new lodge facilities were leased to a professional concessionaire. In 2000 the ski area took over management of the Cafe directly, and has run it ever since.

 

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