Thursday, October 9, 2014

College Ski Cabin On the Road Less Traveled

It's early in the school year...that time when schools and colleges renew their efforts to educate, to inspire, and to encourage independent thinking.  Today's Ski House of the Day is one that exists because of some inspired college's the ski cabin owned by the Dartmouth Outing Club of Northern California.

This unique cabin, is owned, manged and enjoyed by alumni of Dartmouth College.  As they put it, it's a magical little piece of New Hampshire transplanted to California.  And as I see it, it's a magical little place...right along the road less traveled.

This ski house is a cute, compact, cozy cabin, with rustic logs (sporting the requisite Dartmouth "green" on its upper exterior), nestled in the snow among the pine trees in Donner Pass.  In winter it's only accessible over the snow (skis / snowshoes).

The common areas on the first floor include a kitchen plus a cozy, comfortable living room...

 ...and two (college dorm-style) bunk rooms on the upper floor:

It looks really great, and I bet those alums love being there;  but there's a story behind this ski cabin. The history of this place can be traced (at least in part) to 1934 when Johnny Ellis graduated from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.  Johnny Ellis, like poet Robert Frost (who also attended Dartmouth some 35 years earlier), took the road less traveled after he graduated from Dartmouth, when he made his way to the mountains of California.

According to the Donner Summit Historical Society, Johnny Ellis wasn't ready to go to traditional work after graduation (even though it was the Depression) so he left New Hampshire and headed out west to carve out his own future.  He found work helping to construct the Sierra Club's Clair Tappan Lodge and it must have suited him, because he stayed on as self-appointed "major domo and floor cleaner" performing the jobs of fireman, cook, plumber, doctor, ski-instructor, snow-shoveler, washroom-scrubber, cashier, etc.  (...the original "ski-bum"?).  "It was a grand job."  But Johnny had a few other big ideas, and soon took steps to put them into motion. One was the formation of the western version of the popular Dartmouth Outing Club (which he did, along with other alums), and the other was his grand vision of creating a ski resort at Donner Summit.

The first step was to acquire some land, which he did (for $3.50 an acre), on which he built a warming hut, and constructed the first tow-rope in the west in 1937.   Johnny's entrepreneurial spirit continued as he constructed two additional tows, and started land development of ski lodge lots.  He had specific plans for an innovative first-class ski resort development in 1941, but it was not to be. WW II broke out that year, and the ski tow, although successful, unfortunately was dismantled due to the war. Johnny headed back East, working in engineering, all the while gathering ideas for improving lift operations in the Sierra. After the war, Johnny did not return to the Sierra, but rather he moved on to "plastics" thus once again taking the road less traveled toward that new, innovative material, even before The Graduate.  So, his visionary ski resort was an idea that was left to others to pursue.  Whether ultimately successful or not, it seems to me that those with new ideas who break new ground and who travel their own path, create new opportunities for the rest of us, and leave inspiration in their wake.

After the war (1946), club members began constructing the ski cabin using discarded railroad timbers from Southern Pacific's snow sheds that were being rebuilt.  Two years later, electricity and a toilet were added. The 1950's brought an addition, running water, and dedication of a memorial fireplace (which even includes New Hampshire granite!):

According to the Donner Summit Historical Society, Johnny later said,  "Perhaps I left a mark or two on Donner is nice to know that some of the things I cared about are still growing."

I think this ski house is a testament to those, like Johnny Ellis, who see possibilities, dare to dream, and who dare to take the road less traveled.

Remnants of that original tow remain on the site of this ski cabin...invisible to some, but for the independent-minded adventurers who see the possibilities they can be found... they're right along the road less traveled.

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