The skis were skinny, the hair was long and the living was easy. Nostalgia is one of the most tangible emotions and part of the human condition. It’s easy to get lost romanticizing about “what it must have been like back then.” Never is that more apparent than in reflection on the iconic and storied scene of Olympic Valley in the 80s. A time when Squallywood was in full force, with the release of Hot Dog bringing celebrity glitterati to mingle with the valley’s top skiers. The raw terrain of the mountain, largely un-groomed, sprinkled with slow double chairs, long straight skis dangling from the lifts, was the pinnacle proving ground for skiers from across the globe of the era. Growing up in the Valley, I always had the sense of this time being wilder, grander, more fun, and just euphoric.
As the daughter of a ski photographer and a woman raised on the slopes of Olympic Valley, I’ve spent most of my entire life skiing and smiling for the camera. I recently found myself looking through the stacked archives of legendary photographer, Larry Prosor, and instantly felt a connection to the women smiling back at me in the photos. The vibe of the era became tangible, jumping out of the print and into my body, leaving me craving the passion and adventure of a time long past. I look at photos of these women, hair down, shredding, sending cornices and I want to be them. I am more entranced by these 1980’s snaps than I am by anything on Instagram.
One stand out in this collage of golden gals is Natalie Snider. Natalie’s tale is the quintessential Olympic Valley story. Her family moved to the valley when she was six and she instantly fell in love with the mountain. She started skiing immediately, her father was head of the ski patrol and the mountain became her home, her teacher, her babysitter, and her escape. “On the mountain you are free,” recalls Natalie, a feeling that seems to have shaped her younger years. Natalie began racing during a thriving era of the SV race program, competing against the likes of Olympic Gold Medalist Tamara McKinney and coached by the world-renowned Hans Standteiner. That high level of competition and training quickly molded her into an accomplished skier.
Natalie turned “pro” in 1977 joining the Sierra Tahoe Pro Tour where she found her fun, competitive stride. The tour was a family that skied fast, fostered competitive spirits, and partied plenty! In her first year on the tour, Natalie won every race but one. She even raced against the men and would give them a stiff run for their money. After two and a half years on the pro tour and 5 knee surgeries, Natalie needed a direction change. She was connected to Larry Prosor through his wife at an aerobics class in Truckee. Larry saw her talent immediately and added her to his shortlist of ski models in the area. “Natalie shredded! She was a very technical skier, very calculated. She never fell,” says Larry. Natalie recalls that it was the mountain that made her the skier she was. “They never groomed then, like they do now, so skiing West Face, Siberia Bowl, and even the Mountain Run, there were wild moguls, and you always had to keep looking ahead for anything treacherous. We always skied the “crud.”
Natalie found photoshoots and ski modeling to be a fun and rewarding challenge. She knew she could always do what the photographers asked and could give them what they wanted. “She and I always had our long blonde hair flowing in our photoshoots,” recalls Debbie Dutton, a good friend, and Olympic Valley legend. When I asked Natalie, “was it really that golden?” I could hear her smile as she reminisced… “Yes, it really was.” Natalie spoke of a time that was loose, wild, and free balanced by an amazing trust within the people of the community. “It felt like there was no danger when you were in the valley,” says Natalie, a testament to the strong relationships she had with her fellow skiers.
Susan Chappell Standteiner is another woman who jumped to life out of Larry’s golden time capsule of images (first photo above). Growing up in Placerville and racing in the Far West program through her childhood, her early ski years took her all the way around Lake Tahoe, from the Old Sierra Ski Ranch to Kirkwood and eventually to North Lake Tahoe. Susan saw the scene, the racers, and the community of Olympic Valley as an outsider. She always wanted to be a part of it, working hard and skiing fast to get there. She joined the Sierra Tahoe Pro Tour in the late ’70s where her prowess as a tech skiing master flourished. She too often competed and raced against men. “The boys couldn’t keep up!” Susan says with a chuckle. Susan was enamored with the quality and level of skiing at the time. “You always had someone to ski with and to push you,” she remembers about skiing at Olympic Valley.
It was aerobics and Larry’s wife that also led Susan to photoshoots and ski modeling. Susan became involved with the Snow Country Magazine Ski Test that would come to Tahoe for 6 weeks every season, testing all the latest gear and capturing photos throughout. Prosor claimed Susan as one of his “go-to” skiers. “She was a strong skier, a good athlete, had a great attitude and striking looks,” describes Larry. Susan’s photos show her smiling, catching air, and exuding the freedom we all seek when we strap those two planks onto our feet. “Everyone that has a smile on their face is doing it right,” is Susan’s philosophy of skiing. She relishes in the shared joy we all experience on the mountain, regardless of level.
Lost in the photos and the words of these two women, I am struck by the fairytale of that providential period of skiing here, but soon realize that it’s really not too far off from the ski life I live now. Thoughts of freedom, joy, and magic ring true. When I think of what I love most about skiing and my home mountain, it is all those things. I see photos of these women and the countless legends that have graced these slopes and what stands out to me is not only did they pave the way for someone like myself to make skiing my career but we are so much more similar than different. Decades may separate me from Susan and Natalie, but when out on the mountain, working hard to get a shot, or just skiing with random friends I bump into on KT, the passion is the same. The smile remains.
“You might as well enjoy the journey because you might not get to the destination,” is Natalie’s life motto of sorts. I sit with this statement. Why chase a bygone golden era, when the one you’re living in is just as grand and fun as those of the past. The reality is, the grandest time is the present. Decades bring changes, but the mountain, the people, and the passion, never change.