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Tahoe Nugget #133

Jo Marillac: Squaw Valley Legend
Feb. 16, 2008

Squaw Valley USA is best remembered for hosting the 1960 Winter Olympics. Today it is the most popular and best-known ski resort in the Tahoe-Truckee region, and one of the most famous and challenging in North America. The 1960 Winter Games put Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe on the map, but it was no foregone conclusion that the prestigious event would ever make it to an obscure High Sierra resort with only one chairlift, two rope tows and a small lodge.

The history of Squaw Valley is too complex to cover in a short Nugget, but in essence, bringing the Games to California was a 1954 marketing ploy by the president of Squaw Valley Ski Corporation, Alex Cushing. He had learned that Reno and Sun Valley, Idaho, were bidding for the 1960 Olympics and Cushing saw a golden opportunity to gain attention for his struggling ski area.

To overcome Cold War prejudices, Cushing promised International Olympic Committee members that a unique "Olympic Village" would be built from scratch and the focus would be on sports, not politics. Cushing made headlines with his proposal, but it was his good friend Joseph "Jo" Marillac that provided Alex with the credibility he needed to gain the votes of skeptical Europeans and suspicious Cold War enemies. Even some members of the U.S. Olympic Committee considered Squaw Valley "a glorified picnic ground."

No one was better suited to convince the world that Squaw Valley was the best place to host the '60 Games than the French-born Marillac, one of the world's greatest mountaineers. In fact, his life story reads like a James Bond novel. As a teenager he set a record for the fastest ascent of one of the most intimidating peaks in the Chamonix mountain complex in the French Alps, and also became the youngest man to receive certification as a "High Mountain Guide" in the Alps.

As a young adult, Marillac became a war hero as a daring leader of the French Resistance during World War II. He earned national recognition for guiding downed bomber pilots to safety in the French Alps. Twice the Nazis captured Marillac and both times he managed to escape. After his second capture, the Gestapo imprisoned him in an "impenetrable" fortress, but Marillac got away by scaling a vertical prison wall just before he was to be executed by firing squad. After the war, Marillac was honored with the French equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor, presented by General Charles de Gaulle.

In the early 1950s Marillac moved to Squaw Valley where he became good friends with Alex Cushing and was Director of the Ski School for 17 years. His reputation and vote of confidence in Squaw as an appropriate venue for the 1960 Games was Cushing's ace in the hole. When the International Olympic Committee argued that Squaw Valley couldn't have an Olympics, Jo Marillac said, "I'm here to tell you we can." His word was golden in Europe and the persuaded delegates voted for Squaw over Innsbruck.

In 1961, Marillac was among a small group of American mountaineers who made the first ski descent of Mt. Rainer. Marillac later hung up his ice axe and began a successful career in real estate in the Tahoe-Truckee region until he retired in the 1980s. Jo Marillac died on January 4, 2001, in Sparks, Nevada, at the age of 79.

Marillac may be gone, but his legacy lives on at Squaw Valley USA, one of the most famous and popular ski resorts in the world. And much of that fame rests on the shoulders of Jo Marillac.

Photo #1: Jo Marillac at Squaw Valley during the 1969 World Cup.
Photo #2: The Olympic rings represent the five major continents. They are mounted on the Tower of Nations representing the participating countries in the 1960 Winter Games. The words, "Citius, Altius, Fortius," which appear on the background wall mean "swifter, higher, stronger."
Photo #3: Even Jo Marillac could not save longtime Squaw Valley rancher and horse-packer Bud Jones who died when his cabin burned in 1962. Note Marillac at window in bottom left attempting to rescue Jones.
Photo #4: Freaky double exposure photograph of Bud Jones and his favorite horse in front of his cabin shortly before it burned down killing him. Courtesy Vi White.
Photo #5:Stunt skiers flying high at Squaw Valley.

Nugget #133 A Jo Marillac 1969

Nugget #133 B 1960 Opening ceremony1

Nugget #133 C Fire kills Bud Jones1

Nugget #133 D Bud Jones double exposure1

Nugget #133 E Stunt skiers at Squaw Valleyl1

 

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