Sawyer’s Hill

35 Sawyers work party, 48

Work party in 1948

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. 

Niels Bohr 1948

Niels Bohr 1948

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 50ยข. 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.

Chris Holm

Chris Holm in 1959

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.