Arizona Snowbowl is honoring its 75-year history with festivities that include the Arizona Snowbowl 75th Anniversary SnowDown, a torchlight procession and a fireside chat with famous skiers associated with the ski resort during the first 10 days of Winterfest Flagstaff, February 1-10.
For 75 years, Arizona Snowbowl has been part of Flagstaff’s identity and has had its brush with Olympic fame. World champion skier Christian Pravda served as Snowbowl’s ski director in 1966 after Flagstaff unsuccessfully put in a bid for the 1960 Olympics. Billy Gaylord grew up skiing at Snowbowl and competed in the Lillehammer Olympics. Flagstaff’s Dr. Bill Gaylord and Mountain Sports owner Mark Lamberson are U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association officials who worked the Salt Lake Olympics. Michael Jankowski, Northern Arizona University alumnus, learned to snowboard at Arizona Snowbowl and is now a US Olympics skiing and half-pipe snowboard coach. (He is also the cousin of Flagstaff Chamber President Julie Pastrick.)
Historian Jane Jackson tells the story of Norwegian brothers, Ole and Pete Solberg, who introduced skiing to Flagstaff. “During the winter of 1914-1915, Flagstaff had six feet of snow. The brothers made a pair of skis out of pinewood and Ole took a run down Observatory Hill. The next day 100 people turned out to watch Ole ski. Unfortunately, the snow had melted off the top string of a barbed wire fence along his run. It caught his skis and sent him crashing into a rock. Ole survived, but not the skis. The townspeople, however, thought it was a great stunt!”
Winter festivals became popular in the 1930s. Locals were strapping themselves into long wooden homemade skis and heading to hills around town. In 1934, one Flagstaff mom who worked in the downtown JCPenney department store ordered a pair of skis and poles out of the Christmas catalogue for her 7-year-old son, Jimmie Nunn.
Jimmie grew up skiing with neighbors Paul and Bruce Babbitt. The Forest Service created a run on Sheep Hill, four miles east of Flagstaff. “We would ride our bikes out there,” he said, “but after a day of hiking up and skiing down, we would be looking for someone with a bike rack or pickup truck to bring us home.”
Nunn later joined the Flagstaff Ski Team, served as a member of the Olympic Ski Patrol and created the Arizona Ski Museum on Highway 180 with his wife, Jerry. She was America’s first female snow ranger and the only Arizonan inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame.
In 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps, under the direction of Forest Service timber staff officer Ed Groesbeck, provided the first real access to the mountain with what is now Snowbowl Road. By 1938, skiers were up on Aspen Corner using a rope tow. The 20-30 Club held the first Snow and Ice Fiesta in 1939. After the event’s huge success, the group had a contest to name the ski area. Top names included Alta Vista, Winter Haven and Arizona Snowbowl.
In 1940, the 20-30 Club created the Flagstaff Ski Team, which bought equipment for Snowbowl. Skiers competed with teams from Flagstaff High School, Phoenix and Prescott. A year later, skiers were enjoying the three fireplaces and glass observation porch of the first Hart Prairie Lodge, designed by Groesbeck and created by the CCC.
California businessman Al Grasmoen bought the facilities in 1946 after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He also purchased a boxcar full of white 10th Mountain Division army surplus skis. He painted them orange so they could be seen in the snow and rented them for 25-cents an hour. He also installed the world’s longest rope tow on Hart Prairie and, in the early 1950s and built the Agassiz Lodge.
“It’s been said Al made more money buying and selling the ski area than operating it,” said Jackson. “He sold Snowbowl three times in the ‘60s and ‘70s, buying it back from discouraged owners after dry winters.”
Throughout the years, Arizona Snowbowl has changed hands, lost its first lodge to fire, upgraded its rope tows and poma lift to two-seater and eventually three-seater chairlifts, built and improved lodges, increased and improved trails and had a name change to Fairfield Snowbowl.
Scottsdale businessman Eric Borowsky brought back the original name when he and partners purchased the ski resort in 1992. Today, Arizona Snowbowl is ushering in a new era. With snowmaking, it is capable of creating enough snow over night to cover a four-lane, one-mile stretch of Route 66! For the first time ever, Arizona Snowbowl is able to offer a guaranteed season.
This article is based on Jane Jackson’s research. Her video “Echoes of the Peaks” is available at Snowbowl and local ski shops.