Ski Area That Didn’t Happen #1—Independence Lake
Palisades Tahoe opened as a ski area in 1949. Mt. Shasta opened in 1958. Alpine Meadows opened in 1961. It was a major new resort located in the next valley south of Palisades Tahoe. Alpine Meadows was the dream of John Reily, then the treasurer of the Carnation Company, and later a full-time resident of Tahoe City. Reily hired Peter Klaussen to build and operate the resort.
An Amherst College and Harvard Business School (MBA) graduate, Klaussen had quit a corporate job and moved to Palisades Tahoe in 1955 because of his love for the mountains. While schooled in business, he was an avid skier with a keen sense of design and terrain.
After Alpine Meadows was operating, Klaussen resigned his position as General Manager to become a development consultant to the ski industry. In the mid-60s he made feasibility reports and developed plans for the creation of Northstar-At-Tahoe. He also helped plan the new Snowmass resort near Aspen, Colorado. In 1965 he began making avalanche studies for Disney Corporation’s proposed Independence Lake resort, 15 miles north of Truckee off Highway 89.
"Walt Disney was an avid skier who had helped start Sugar Bowl," recalled Klaussen. "He wanted very much to build a Disney-style ski resort somewhere in California. He first looked at Mineral King in Sequoia National Park, but then discovered the Independence Lake area. The Sierra Pacific Land Company privately owned most of the area; it was a company he knew well. Having the land privately owned was a huge enticement because, as a result, federal permits weren’t needed to develop the property."
Independence Lake, southeast of Jackson Lake, was dominated at its east end by the 10,000-foot Mt. Lola. The north side of the lake offered a protected flat area, perfect for a large village.
Walt Disney hired his friend and ski legend, Willy Schaeffler, to survey the property and make reports. Willy had been the Chief of Alpine Events at the Palisades Tahoe Winter Olympics
"I’d been part of the avalanche control team at the Palisades Tahoe Olympics and I knew Willy. He hired me, along with Norm Wilson, to make snow surveys," explained Klaussen. "We rented a snowcap near Sierraville, and for two winters we spent quite a bit of time back there around and on Mt. Lola."
Klaussen discovered intermediate and beginner slopes. At the lake’s west end he skied steeper terrain along Carpenter Ridge. There he found over 2,500 vertical feet of open slopes, some of which avalanched directly into the lake. To the north, level ground provided a potential for wonderful Nordic skiing.
"It had all the makings of a tremendous resort. Everything funneled back to the lake,” said Klaussen. Roads into the resort from Highway 89 and around the lake would have had to be built. Schaeffler and Disney came up with the idea of a boat taxi to ferry skiers back and forth. Klaussen remembered: "We took snow and water samples. Walt Disney’s headquarters were in Orlando, not Southern California. It was funny. I’d go to United Airlines in Reno with coolers full of snow to send off to Florida. It really had the airline people baffled."
"We were looking at a ski resort the size of Alpine Meadows complemented by a Disney Village and year-round recreation," says Klaussen. "Sierra County was all for it because of the jobs the resort would provide. With the new Interstate nearby, people wouldn’t even have to go through Truckee to get to the resort. The area was just as close to highway 80 as Lake Tahoe."
In 1966 Walt Disney passed away at the age of 65.
"After Walt died the impetus to develop the area was no longer there. The Disney company was in the midst of building its Orlando site (Disney World), and the ski project was put on the back burner," said Klaussen.
He continuted: "By then there was some environmental activism against the project by the townspeople of Truckee. I always though it was shortsighted. They were worried about Truckee being overrun, just like it is today. I believe Independence Lake would have been a great success and would have provided a solid alternative to the congestion you see every winter weekend at North Lake Tahoe."