Squaw Valley holds special lore in the snowsports community. Its name simply means something different to those who annually flock to the Sierra Nevada to ride its slopes. For some, it’s legacy. For others, it’s progression. The resort was home to the 1960 Olympics, making it one of just three resorts in the U.S. to ever host the Olympic Games. Before the Games, Squaw was a humble ski hill boasting only one lift and lodge. Now, the Olympic venue lives on an international stage, drawing crowds from all over the world. And even though it’s been years since the torch was lit, it continues to foster the next generation of Olympians. In fact, Squaw is home to more US Ski Team Members than any resort in the nation.
In addition to Olympians, it’s also been the proving ground of snowsport’s most audacious free thinkers: the late Shane McConkey, JT Holmes, Jeremy Jones, Jackie Paaso, Ingrid Backstrom, and Elyse Saugstad are just a few to name. What drew and kept them all here was the terrain. There are chairs all over to get you where you need to go, and once you’re offloaded it takes mere seconds to get straight into the gnar. There are plenty of natural features and cliffs to get playful on. Most of them are situated near a lift, meaning that showmanship is key. This performance style of riding is how Squaw earned the loving nickname “Squallywood”, and it creates a vibe like no other.
For skier Amie Engerbretson, Squaw Valley means home. Engerbretson’s story starts with Squaw Valley, having been raised a stone’s throw from the mountain. Her mother went into labor with her at the infamous Wildflour Cookie Shop, which sits at the base of the mountain. Meanwhile her dad—also a pro skier—was competing in an extreme skiing competition on The Fingers. One day later when her parents brought her home—also in the Olympic Valley—they brought her first to the Squaw Gondola. That newborn eventually became a Mighty Mite, and then a ripping professional skier. Even though skiing has brought her all over the world, nothing quite compares to her home mountain. We caught up with Engerbretson to learn a little more about what makes Squaw such a special place.
Even though skiing has brought her all over the world, nothing seems to beat Engerbretson's home resort. TGR Photo.
Your whole family has pretty close ties to the mountain. Can you share more about that?
Amie Engerbretson: Yeah my dad basically followed the example of Hot Dog, and dropped out of college in Northern Idaho and put all of his stuff in his old Ford. He moved to Squaw to be a pro skier, ski in the movies, and compete in the moguls. He ended up becoming a professional skier for the first half of my life. There’s even a line in The Fingers named after him, There’s also rumors of an Engerbretson rock, but that’s not as established as the line. I’ve skied it twice. My mom also grew up in Tahoe City and raced at Squaw, so there’s that history there.
Definitely my favorite skiing is when I'm out skiing with my dad. He’s now a staff photographer for the mountain, so we get to work together and shoot a lot on the mountain. It’s fun because we know the mountain so well for shooting.
What’s your earliest memory from Squaw Valley?
AE: It’s kind of hard to separate memories from photos. But a lot of them revolve from being a Mighty Mite or visiting the cookie shop at the base. It’s hard though to pinpoint one thing because my whole childhood existed there. I skied for the first time on the rope tow when I was ten months old, and we lived for seven years in Olympic Valley.
There's no shortage of fun terrain to play on here. TGR Photo.
How has Squaw’s terrain pushed your skiing?
AE: The actual terrain of Squaw is really fun and exciting. It’s really fall-line skiing, so it gives you the opportunity to do a lot. Sure it might not have the same vertical as other resorts, but the way the lifts are set up has you skiing fall-line right from the chair. You’re not doing much sidestepping or traversing, which lets you get a lot of skiing in. The terrain is steep and fun. The resort is most famous for its cliff features because they’ve got great steep landings. That definitely makes it less painful to send it off a cliff. But beyond the terrain, it’s the people who ski Squaw that push you. It’s all these unknown anybodies who are ripping and hitting all the lines. It creates a feeling of camaraderie that promotes progression for the sport.
What’s special about the vibe about Squaw?
AE: There’s this funny term called “Squallywood” because all of the best runs are right underneath the chairlifts. When you’re skiing underneath the chair you feel like you’re performing. It’s a bit of added pressure to do something cool because someone is always watching. Sometimes it can be funny because you’ll want to try something and really don’t want to tomahawk with everyone around. But it makes for a unique camaraderie. There’s a lot of heckling and teasing, which from the outside can be jarring. But once you realize that everyone is making fun of everyone—even themselves—it becomes really jovial. And I think that’s directly from the legacy of Shane McConkey, who did a lot to shift the competitiveness into something positive and joyful.
It’s an honor to get heckled from the chair.
What’s your favorite zone/line at the resort?
Pow, Slush, or corn—it's all fun at Squaw Valley. TGR Photo.
AE: KT is my favorite line. My favorite run has always been Chute 75. It’s a classic. No matter the conditions—pow, wind buff, slushy spring bumps—it’s just a long sustained pitch. If you catch it just right there’s a sweet cat track air too. There’s just something for everyone. It’s a really steep and beautiful run.
What’s a perfect day at Squaw?
AE: Powder days are awesome, everybody loves them. But my favorite days are the windy midweek days. It can be really windy sometimes, but the lifts will still run. The wind creates awesome wind buff, and since the resort has multiple aspects, you can find epic butter on those windy days. Plus, there’s no one out. It feels like you’re getting fresh tracks on every run because the wind erases it. Those are the days that I can’t stop.
Skiing has brought you all over the globe. With that broader perspective in mind, what makes Squaw so special to you?
AE: Everybody always asks me what’s your favorite place to ski, and I have so many answers for that. But if we’re talking about a ski resort, I still haven’t found a resort that I love skiing as much as I love Squaw. I think what brings me back is the fact that I was raised there. I’m just lucky that my home mountain happens to be a world-class destination with epic skiing, incredible terrain, and when it’s not snowing we get the best bluebird days.