Ski pioneer and entrepreneur Norm Sayler greeted us at the door of the Donner Summit Historical Society, a museum that resembled grandma’s attic more than the Getty in L.A. He is actively friendly and welcoming. It is easy to feel comfortable in the presence of the impish twinkle in his eye and the non-stop sharing of history, experiences and memories of this man who came here in the 1940’s and developed the Donner Ski Resort.
Beverly Lewis, Placer County Film Commissioner and Osceola and my friend, was the person who guided us to Norm. He is a personal friend of hers and after spending two hours with him I can see why. The Historical Society museum is chock full of ski history, signed snowboards, and binder after binder of historical photographs of the area. As we speak, a photograph on eBay on which he is bidding distracts him. He says it is a rare early photo, one he has never seen before. By the number of binders, albums and photographs organized by subject, and the framed pictures on the walls, Norm has seen a lot of these photographs.
He is proud of his soubriquet of skiing “pioneer.” “One day things were kind of slow at his lift in the early 1980s as he tells it. A guy came along with a snowboard under one arm and a ten-dollar bill in the other. I called down to my lift ticket man and said ‘There’s a guy on his way down there with a board under one arm and a ten dollar bill in the other hand. I don’t want the board but I sure do want the ten spot.’” Snowboarders had been an anathema at most of the ski resorts until then. Too noisy, too easy to learn so no week of paid lessons necessary. History was made that day at Donner Ski Ranch.
When Highway 80 was put in and opened in 1965, people stopped using Highway 40 as the best way to get to the Tahoe Basin. Things began to change for Sayler and the area. Ski history author Robert Frohlich wrote in the Sacramento Bee on January 24, 2001, “The lively business district between Soda Springs and Donner Lake, with hotels, restaurants and bars, slowly faded leaving the area to 400 year-round residents.”
After being President and General Manager of Donner Ski Ranch for 46 years and eventually he sold. Frohlich states, “For Sayler, the car has finally run out of gas. After 40 years of owning one of Tahoe’s little gems, Sayler sold his ski area to a Las Vegas development company, which hopes to develop the property into an alpine-style village.”
Sayler never lacks for opinions and that has always sat well with everyone. He told me that Europe is way ahead of us because we are much environmentally concerned than them. He says this area wouldn’t be nearly as famous if it wasn’t for the Donner party. He see the macabre attraction of cannibalism as attracting people and the word Donner has been tacked on to the summit, the lake and many more historic and modern days places, events and marketing ploys for the area.
Norm also says that there is no place in California that is better for history than here. Since he sold his place he has worked on preserving history as seen here in this “mom and pop” yet fascinating museum, and his work to make sure Highway 40 was designated a historic highway, and saving the Summit Bridge on Donner Pass in the 1990s.
Other things he pioneered while running his Ski Ranch included mountain biking and supporting telemarkers who were not allowed at other ski resorts. “We were the first to offer night skiing,” he says. “Back in 1958, I string 100-watt lights on the rope tow. It might not have been too sophisticated, but people were out having a ball.”
Frohlich points out in his book “Mountain Dreamers: Visionaries of Sierra Nevada Skiing” where Norm has a place of honor along with local ski hero Dave McCoy, Norm “says he was the first to allow disabled skiers an opportunity to play on the ski slopes. He says he was the first to run programs for women and youths, busing children from Sacramento to Donner Ski Resort on the weekends. ‘ It was so popular it got too big for us. I finally handed the program over to a bigger resort.’”
But the morning Osceola and I spent at the Historical Society/ Museum it was Norm himself who was the very best and “living” exhibit. The stories rolled on and he was a fount of facts, history and especially great funny and entertaining stories. Some were even told at his expense.
He guided us over to his daughter’s ski exhibit that filled several rooms. While new skis and other equipment was for sale what nearly overwhelmed was the history of skiing stored there. It hung from the ceiling and covered all the walls, and many table tops and cabinet surfaces. I’m not a skier but even for me it was fascinating.
Be sure to stop in at the Donner Summit Historical Society at the corner of old Highway 40 (Donner Pass Road) and Soda Springs Road. You might want to check ahead to make sure it will be open and that Norm will be there. He can be reached at (530) 308 9665. He alone is worth the trip. But remember in the winter Donner Pass average in excess of thirty feet of snow annually.