WORDS & IMAGES BY IAN FOHRMAN | PRESENTED BY STRAFE OUTERWEAR & POWDER PRODUCTIONS
I was freezing.
It was almost 40 degrees but it was the coldest I’d felt all season. If I squeezed my fist hard enough, water streamed from the palm of my gloves and onto the globs of Sierra-cement on my skis. My boots squished, my fingers and toes were frozen, and we hadn’t even loaded the lift yet.
Despite miserable conditions, a mass of brightly colored humans shuffled in place, soaked to the bone, awaiting meaningful motion from the machine in front of them. The lift would chug and begin spinning to massive cheers from the restless mob only to stop again minutes later, inciting boos. All morning the energy in the line buoyed and sank, vacillating between joy and anger, frustration and excitement.
Archival image of the construction of the original KT-22. From “The Story of Squaw Valley: Including Basic Principals of the Ski Technique”.
The Fingers beckon to every skier that has ever watched a Match Stick Productions film and wished they could ski like one of their heroes.
KT-22 is protected from the heavy winds that sometimes close the rest of Squaw Valley, resulting substantial lift lines.
In 1938 Wayne Poulsen purchased 2,000 acres in Olympic Valley, CA from the South Pacific Railroad with the idea of developing, “a mountain community dedicated to skiing as a way of life.”
Excited skiers and snowboarders flow like river onto the KT-22 Lift.
KT-22’s heavy steel cables bob over a few towers in the flats before they tighten and jut skyward over one of the most iconic pieces of terrain in the world. The Fingers are Squaw Valley’s most prominent and lauded ski lines. Visible from the base area and the lift line, The Fingers beckon to every skier that has ever watched a Match Stick Productions film and wished they could ski like one of their heroes.
On a powder day, when the steep, rocky spines are caked with snow and transitions have formed under the cliffs (which range to upwards of 40 feet), the KT-22 lift line is filled with some of the best skiers in the world.
The most ambitious skiers line up in the dark, hours before the lift will spin, to stake their claim on their chosen line. As 9 a.m. approaches, the line hums with energy and expectant rippers jockey for position. The phenomenon is called “The Fingers Race.” It is a foundation of Squaw’s lore and a major contributing factor to its “Squallywood” moniker.
Gaffney’s and McConkey’s influence and personalities are felt as strongly in Squaw Valley as any founding father, statued leader, or storied military general anywhere I’ve traveled. One can feel the reverberations of both men everywhere.
Images of “Saucer Boy,” McConkey’s alter ego and McConkey himself cover walls of every bar, office, and bathroom in town. GNAR (Gaffney’s Numerical Assessment of Radness), a film based off the appendix of Gaffney’s now infamous book, “Squallywood,” had ripple effects in snow culture around the world.
The building of KT-22 in progress. From: “The Story of Squaw Valley: Including Basic Principals of the Ski Technique”.
Benny Schmidt slashes in the wind.
Benny Schmidt airs into the white off of the corner of the Eagle’s Nest.
At the center of the ripple is Squaw Valley, and, more specifically, KT-22.
In 1938 Wayne Poulsen purchased 2,000 acres in Olympic Valley, California, from the South Pacific Railroad with the idea of developing, “a mountain community dedicated to skiing as a way of life.” Poulsen was a true skier and a success at nearly everything he touched. He placed third at the Olympic trials in Tahoe City as a 16-year-old and, as a teenager, founded the University of Nevada Ski Team.
After he graduated from Nevada, Poulsen coached the Nevada “Wolf Pack” team, an undefeated crew that eventually became Pacific Coast champs. In 1939 he joined the U.S. Air Force as a flight instructor and eventually flew for Pan Am World Airways during WWII.
After the War, Poulsen and a military friend found work as ski instructors at Sun Valley. One of Poulsen’s clients was a young New York City debutante named Gladys “Sandy” Kunau.
He won the city girl over and eventually convinced her to move to the then- undeveloped Olympic Valley with him. They purchased two surplus army barracks and converted them into the first home in the valley.
Connery Lundin makes a high speed turn after airing off the corner of the Eagle’s Nest.
Connery Lundin shiftys making the best out of difficult conditions.
In 1948 Poulsen partnered with Alex Cushing, also a military man, Harvard Law graduate, and Wall Street lawyer, and together, they began development on a new ski resort. During a site visit Poulsen and his wife hiked under what would become KT-22.
Poulsen skied effortlessly to the bottom but the terrain proved too steep for the East Coaster. Sandy traversed the hill and kick- turned her way down to her husband. Poulsen joked with Sandy and declared the slope “KT-22” after her 22 kick turns. The name stuck and in 1960, the original double chair was installed for the Winter Olympics. Thirty-five years and two iterations later, KT-22 was replaced with the high-speed Doppelmayr quad that is revered around the world today.
We waited in the wet lift line for an hour- and- a- half before heeding the call of Wildflour Bakery’s famed pizza bagels and chocolate chip cookies. Our boots, gloves and goggles hung by the fire and we luxuriated in the warm, dry lodge. KT-22 had begun loading skiers, but we couldn’t rip ourselves out of the comfort of the lodge.
As we sulked towards our wet gear, loathe to pull it uncomfortably on, we spotted the father of GNAR, Scott Gaffney, casually headed out for laps on his home turf. We were instantly ashamed of our hesitance toward seizing the opportunity to ski pow, no matter how wet, from one of the best chairs in the world, just 100 feet away.
The skiing directly underneath the KT-22 chair is awesome. Hence the name “Squallywood”.
Whit Boucher finds soft snow in the calm of the perfectly spaced California pines.
Connery Lundin and Whit Boucher dice through the old growth pines.
Not all the trees are perfectly straight. Whit Boucher makes a turn in the midst of the white out.
We threw on our gear and chased our collective hero into the emptied lift line. We rode the 1,767 vertical feet, talking about our respective seasons. We had all met Gaffney before and shared mutual friends and work connections, but there was something surreal about riding KT-22, gliding over The Fingers, and listening to stories from the man who had helped inspire an entire generation of skiers. We lamented the effects of climate change as we looked down on the sparsely covered terrain and discussed where else we would ski.
We let our hero take the lead and did our best to keep us as we headed toward Ice Goddess, one of dozens of potential airs accessed from the top. It was littered with kids in ski team outfits lining up their drops.
Our crew fiddled with camera gear as Gaffney expertly threaded through the mess of seized up kids, sent a perfect air off the cliff and a followed with a laid-out out backflip off the next air. It was like a private sitting with Jimi Hendrix while he riffed in his Seattle living room.
We spent the rest of the day lapping KT-22, chasing Gaffney like little kids ourselves. We skied everything from Red Dog Ridge to Enchanted Forest, a huge variety of steep, featured terrain for one chair.
Despite soaked gloves and sloppy boots, we couldn’t wipe the grins off our faces as we lived, for an afternoon, in an epicenter of ski culture alongside the man that helped create and disseminate that lifestyle across the world.
Benny Schmidtt airs it out.
Whit Boucher mid 360 with KT-22 in the distant background.
Every good day on KT-22 ends with a few beers in the Chamois.
Author Ian Fohrman
Photographer Ian Fohrman
Executive Producers Ian Fohrman and Whit Boucher
Project Lead Whit Boucher
Art Direction Whit Boucher and Ian Fohrman
Video Production John Stifter and Hennie van Jaarsveld/POWDER Productions
Presented By Strafe Outerwear and POWDER Productions
Special Thanks Squaw Valley, The Lundin Family, Connery Lundin, Benny Schmidt
Footage and Photos Strafe Outerwear