Two alpine communities, 13,000km apart mourn as one
On the 18th anniversary of the Thredbo landslide which tragically also killed 18 people, we remember two very special ski instructors whose legacy lives on – on both sides of the Pacific.
It’s an innocuous trail in a ski resort that probably doesn’t enter into too many people’s thoughts outside of California, but when I saw it, I knew. If your heart could rise and sink at just the same time then I guess mine did. It was a name that I could only ever associate with one thing.
The name Sodergren will resonate with many in Australia’s alpine community, as it does in Northstar, California. Sodergrens run, a clear-cut trail in among the Lake Tahoe area’s glades, was named after the resort’s much-loved ski instructor Mike Sodergren and his wife Mariam, who were killed in the 1997 Thredbo landslide. As it did in Thredbo, the death of the pair hit the Lake Tahoe area hard.
Used to picking apart some of California’s steepest terrain with their almost obsessive technical proficiency on skis, it seemed almost inconceivable that the Sodergrens were crushed in bed as they slept. I’d met Mike a few times in the mid-1990s at Thredbo. His broad Cali accent, blond spiky hair and ski-fit physique formed most of my memories of him, along with a warm smile and happy disposition.
Greg Felsch, the current ski school training co-ordinator at Northstar, was a close friend of the Sodergrens. He remembers the couple fondly. He also remembers a conversation he had with ”’Mim” as the days got warmer in Lake Tahoe and a decision had to be made about heading back to Australia for another winter.
”That summer Mariam was toying with not going back [to Thredbo] for the first time in years,” says Felsch, himself something of an institution in the Tahoe area.
”She was working for me at the time and I said, ‘Mariam, why don’t you just stay?’ She eventually said, ‘Ahhh, no, I think I’m just going to go.’
”It was just fate I guess – but it was really kind of hard.”
As the last vestiges of the high alpine snow melted away in Tahoe’s summer heat, a memorial service was held for the pair. Fifteen years on and the Sodergren name still endures.
”That summer Mariam was toying with not going back [to Thredbo] for the first time in years.”
There’s a memorial plaque at nearby Alpine Meadows, a scholarship foundation to educate ski instructors and the ”Soddy Traverse” – an event that dips its lid to Mike’s almost pedantically professional ethos.
”Mike was the consummate professional as far as his dedication and diligence was concerned,” Felsch says.
Northstar itself is a little reminiscent of its former staffer. Just because it’s unpretentious doesn’t make it uninteresting. It may not offer the famed steeps of California staples Squaw Valley and Kirkwood, nor the free-riding reputation of the state’s other big resort, Mammoth Mountain, but there’s enough here to make it a destination resort in its own right.
Located on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, about 10 kilometres south of the equally unassuming mountain town of Truckee, Northstar’s strengths lie with its family-friendly facilities, attractive village and terrain that appears well-geared to those seeking to improve their riding without being pushed too far.
The lift lines are largely non-existent mid-week, and at the fag end of a far from memorable snow year, there’s still plenty of riding to be done, making one wonder how impressive the place must be in a big season.
It’s something that would boggle the mind of Australians. After an unusually lean winter, we’re still riding on an almost two-metre base at Northstar with more than 20 centimetres of fresh snow at the end of March. It’s hard to imagine doing that in NSW or Victoria at September’s climax – even in a great year.
The Sierra snow is still filling tracks as we make our way up the Comstock Express to the top of the mountain, where a bevy of untrammelled runs wait before us.
In a country not short of places to ski, Northstar could be easily missed, but once you’ve crossed its path it’s less easily forgotten.
Much like the Sodergrens.
A version of Glenn Cullen’s story was first published by AAP in 2012 and subsequently used in Fairfax Media.