Date(s) Skied: Feb 8-10, 2009
Resort or Ski Area: Heavenly and Squaw Valley
Conditions: Packed powder, fresh powder dump
This was only my third time skiing out west, and what an amazing trip it was! I got to experience two new ski areas, Heavenly and Squaw Valley, and what it means to ski fresh powder. The trip was arranged by my friend Kathryn, but regrettably her husband Bob was fighting the death flu and wouldn't be joining us. We would, however, be meeting up with his nephew Eric and my college friend Garett out in California. And of course I had the treat of being accompanied by Sabrina for her first big-mountain skiing experience.
This was the easiest flight out west that I've had. Instead of the typical 4am cab ride, we didn't even need to be at the airport until almost 8:00. Since it was a Saturday morning with no traffic, and we'd only be gone five days, it was worth it to just drive to Logan and park there.
The first discovery was that the walkway from Central Parking to Terminal B doesn't actually go all the way there. Just a hundred feet short of the terminal, the heated walkway dumped us out on the sidewalk. Then, the info person at the ticket counter said we couldn't check in to the counter where Kathryn already had. Bizarre, but it worked out for us as the security checkpoint by the alternate counter had no line and was trivial to pass through. Our only fear was that our skis wouldn't make it to our flight, and that turned out to be unfounded.
We got our coffee fix in the food court, then waited at the gate. And waited. And waited. It started to get unnerving, as we only had a 40-minute layover scheduled in Phoenix. We finally boarded, and with everything out of our control we sat back and made ourselves relax. Well, okay, I had to make myself relax, Sabrina and Kathryn were fine. I fired up some movies on the iPod, enjoyed a remarkably decent Cobb salad for airline food, and took a nap.
We made it off the plane in Phoenix with just a half hour until our scheduled departure and a long distance to travel to get to our gate at the far end three concourses away. Fortunately, it was a simple matter of hoofing it down the moving walkways, and we got to the gate just as boarding began.
This next flight to Reno was on a tiny commuter jet made by Bombardier. This gave me a strange comfort, knowing our plane was built by the same company that makes snowcats. The only difficulty was with our carryons - these little planes were not meant to hold ski boot bags. A quick disassembly was required.
Finally, after over eight hours of traveling, we had our rental Ford Escape and were on the road from Reno to Tahoe City. We took I-80 to Rte 89 where we spent a good part of the time following the Truckee River. There's an old wooden aqueduct that seems to still be use, and plenty of huge evergreens. Every so often a "chain installation area" on the side of the road would remind us that we were in an area familiar with serious snowfall.
After passing the entrances to both Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, we rolled into Tahoe City, a cute little village nestled between the trees and Lake Tahoe, full of restaurants, cafes, and ski shops. We found the realty office and from there made our way to "The Villas" where our rental condo was located. It would turn out to be perfect for us, and we were very pleased. Eric met us, and we had dinner at Rosie's Café, big burgers to sate our travel-day hunger. We laid in supplies at the grocery store, finished unpacking at the condo, and collapsed into bed at what was still a relatively early time on the clock.
The magic of time zone differences allowed us to rise early even after ten hours of sleep. Sabrina checked out the area ski condition reports and determined that our best bet was to go to Heavenly, as they'd received fresh snow just a few days prior. Kathryn knew the way, so after coffee and breakfast we hit the road, southbound on the west side of the lake.
This was a great ride, as Route 89 makes some incredible twists and turns through spectacular scenery, packed between the shore and the mountains. At the south end of the lake there are USFS campgrounds everywhere, but once we reached civilization it was not as nice as the north side, being that it was edged up against the casinos and huge hotels across the Nevada border.
We arrived at the California base lodge of Heavenly, geared up, then immediately removed a layer prior to getting on the Gunbarrel Express. This part of Heavenly is small and very steep, rising up sharply and producing amazing views across the lake to the north.
Our first stop was only a short ski away - the Powderbowl Express. This is a relatively short lift compared to the others, but rises over some beautiful, open woods that we would lap twice as a warmup. The snow was dense but soft, a real treat to ski between the trees. Even the groomed trails were silken to slide on.
It didn't take long before we were ready to move on to more challenging terrain, and we found it off the nearby Sky Express. We were eyeing our lines for almost the entire ride up. Sabrina headed for the groomers: Ridge Run to Canyon. Eric, Kathryn, and I turned directly into the deep, very soft snow, in places still untracked, heading down a mix of the wider space under the lift, named the Express Line trail, and the trees to either side. The trees varied in density and slope, allowing any turn to lead to greater or less difficulty, and were a real joy to ski. I did this twice and loved it; it was my favorite run of the day. I also took a run with Sabrina from Ridge Run through Jackpot, dipping in and out of the trees, and then a relaxer off the Canyon Express down Ridge Run, then cutting through the trees, under the lift and out the other side onto Highlander.
We went over to the Sky Deck (which is not the same place as The Deck, I learned later) and had lunch as well as sucking down a huge quantity of liquid. That was a side-effect of being at elevation (the top of Sky is 10,040'). Fortunately, it wasn't bothering my skiing, in fact I didn't even feel like I was at a high elevation until I had to pole a traverse, and that happened far too often on this trip.
Light snow began falling while we had lunch, a harbinger of the forecast storm.
We took the Sky chair one more time to get on the Skyline Trail, which brought us over to the Dipper Woods, which were again a lot of fun. We popped out, cut across Big Dipper and towards Orion, then dipped back in and out of the trees again until arriving at the Dipper Express. We lapped this lift several times, twice coming down through Dipper Bowl thence into the woods of Orion's Belt, and discovering that both Upper and Lower Dipper Return are sucky traverses back to the lift, but at least Upper is above the lift. The woods and bowl were great fun, all chopped up but still soft and forgiving, and occasionally I could find a few yards of untouched snow in the trees. For the third run we were trying to decide if the winds, snow, and greatly reduced visibility up top were an issue or not, so we came down through Cosmic Wave and Aries Woods, which were all beneficiaries of said snow and wind with fresh piles forming.
It was after 3pm and the weather up high still deteriorating, so we decided to head up Dipper one last time then run the California Trail all the way back to the Sky Express / Sky Deck area. From here we chose not to do another flat traverse, and instead grabbed the Canyon Express to Ridge Run to Mombo to Cat Track and then the Patsy's lift took us to the top of the tram by the Lakeview Lodge. Kathryn and Eric decided to do the "stupid" and went through the Hogsback woods while Sabrina and I got on Roundabout, which started with an annoying traverse but had a nice middle run. Near the end, I decided to go out with a bang, and dropped down the double-black-diamond Gunbarrel mogul field. My legs were shot, but I hit the bumps and finished with a smile.
Down at lake level off the mountain there were only snow flurries, so we grabbed some sodas and coffees and hit the road for the drive back. We got cleaned up at the condo, Garett arrived, and we all went out for Mexican food at Blue Agave just moments down the street. We easily polished off three buckets of chips and salsa plus our entreés with our aprés-ski appetities.
We again woke early, our bodies still set somewhat to Boston time. After coffee and breakfast we started clearing a foot of fresh, light snow off the cars. We had to take two, as Eric would be leaving us midday, and we only had one brush, a shovel, and a broom. In the distance we heard avalanche charges, the morning sound of victory.
Fortunately, the roads were in excellent shape, and it didn't take us long to get to Squaw Valley, which was reporting a serious powder day. In fact, I think we spent longer in the ticket queue than we did driving. There was a mob waiting to get on the legendary KT-22 Express, but instead we hopped on Red Dog to hit the freshies on the Snow King / Squaw Creek Chair side.
This side of the mountain was one big stash of fresh snow. Eric dropped immediately into the trees, while we came down Lake View and picked up the huge, wide, as-yet-untracked slopes of Valley View. This was it: knee to hip-deep powder. It was amazing! It was like riding on silk through the softest pillow stuffing. It wasn't easy to turn but there was no need to, as even pointed directly down the fall line, the snow wouldn't let me get up a lot of speed. I fell a number of times, giving myself a coating of white, until I learned the right balance of not submarining while also staying out of the back seat. With many contours and ground variations under the powder, it was a matter of staying flexible and accomodating whatever my skis encountered. A few times I made quick drops over larger bumps into deeper "holes" of snow and even managed to get a chest shot.
We lapped this a couple of times, Kathryn and Eric in the trees, Garett, Sabrina and myself on the ungroomed trails. We took a fun little ride down something unnamed, but narrow, steep, bumped up, and with plenty of foliage sticking up through the snow to avoid. I also did a little traversing and enjoyed coming around the far side of Far East when approaching the lift, just to get a little more ungroomed, soft snow.
The clouds were dissipating and the sun peeking out ... it was time to head over to the bigger peaks on the other side of the mountain. We still heard the occasional avalanche charge being fired off, so we knew that some terrain must not have been opened yet. We aimed for Cushman's to get us back to the main base, though almost immediately were looking for ways to dip off the sides of the trail. We decided against it, though, for the sake of time, and of not risking ending up at the wrong place or with a long, flat traverse at the bottom.
We hopped on the Gold Coast Funitel, my first time on such a beast. It's similar to a gondola, with many cabins on the rope and a detachable sequence for loading and unloading. However, the cabins ride on two cables instead of one, allowing for use in much windier conditions than a gondola, and each cabin holds 28 people, both seated and standing. Eight minutes later we had unloaded at the Gold Coast lodge.
Eric and Kathyrn were heading for the Headwall Express, but we weren't sure if we were ready for black diamonds in these powder conditions just yet, so Garett, Sabrina and I hopped on the Siberia Express. As the lift crested a small rise and gave a view of the destination, I knew we'd made the right choice. It was a bowl. A big, beautiful, still-half-untracked bowl. This was Siberia Bowl, and coming down it in fresh, deep, untouched powder was amazing. Fortunately, while it was only partially cut up, and not at all on the far side, enough people had gone down it to track out the runout, so as long as I made sure to have enough momentum near the bottom of the bowl and hit the target of the runout tracks, I was fine to the next drop. Others were not so lucky. Despite Sabrina taking a fall and losing her pole, we continued to lap this awesome terrain another two times. Overall I believe we twice came out to the Yellow Trail, and once to the Red Trail.
We took our lunch break at the ARC restaurant at the Gold Coast lodge. This was recently renovated, and is beautiful inside. It's not your typical food court: I had an Asian bowl, orange chicken over rice. It was delicious, and I'm not saying that just because I was a hungry skier. It was a refreshing change from the mob scenes of eastern resorts, paying a fortune for melted cheese on cardboard. We also learned from Sabrina, who'd learned from the ski maintenance shop where they fabricated her a replacement pole, that the Shirley Lake / Granite Chief side was still closed because the patrol crew had gotten stuck out there. This wasn't a disappointment, however, as it meant the promise of powder that would still be fresh for our return the following day.
After lunch, we headed back to Siberia Bowl, this time with Garett, Eric, and Kat. The freshies were gone, but the snow was still deep, soft, chopped up, and fun. Unfortunately, it was also tiring. This time we stayed high, to skiers' right, along the lower portions of North Bowl and in and out of the trees, then finally out under the Siberia Lift. Eric had to catch a plane back home, so he made his own way down while I took a run off the Gold Coast Express with minor dips in the trees to clear the burning out of my legs.
And that was it, that was all we had in us for the day. We scooted over to the High Camp chair, dropped down the beginner area under Belmont, then up Bailey's Beach which left us right at High Camp itself. I wandered around the deck, taking pictures of the outdoor heated pool & spa, the ice skating rink, and the top of the tram before heading inside to the Terrace Bar for a cold drink with an amazing view.
We rode down the tram, scooted back to the condo to shower, then came back up to the Squaw base for a very nice dinner at Plumpjack's. I had the filet mignon with a first course of chopped raw, seasoned salmon in a pastry not unlike an ice cream cone. This was, indeed, the life. Back at the condo I slept like the dead.
Tuesday morning we again woke early and excited about the prospect of hitting the previously-closed Granite Chief area. Plus, I had adapted to the notions of ungroomed and untouched powder at this point, and despite really tired legs in need of a break, all the mental connections were in place and I wanted to push myself.
We started by getting on the first tram and going right up to High Camp. We rode down from there to the East Broadway lift, from which we dropped onto one of the numbered Shirley Lake trails, partially groomed, darting in and out. We got on the Shirley Lake 6-pack and drooled over Shirley Bowl, full of plenty of pow and still holding untouched fresh in spots. Coming down through Shirley Bowl was a sweet start to the day, and then we were ready to ski with the big kids. We got on the Granite Chief chair.
There was a playground below us. Rocks, trees, cliffs, bowls, bumps ... we watched as one skier hucked off a ledge, did a full backflip, and stuck his landing. This was going to be fun! Three times I'd come down through the soft, powdery goodness of High Voltage. One time I stayed in the lift line and bailed out low, which turned out to be a bad idea as I ended up hitting a hole, kind of a sheltered spot between some rocks, and getting stuck in snow deeper than myself. That cost a lot of time and energy, so the next two runs I took wiser bailouts before the narrow tricky stuff further down.
This turned out to be unnecessary, as I was totally capable of running that terrain, which I learned on the next run when we noticed that Hidden Bowl had been opened. Kathryn, Garett, and I made a wraparound traverse under the lift over to the bowl, and there I got one last wonderful dose of untracked, hip-deep powder. Fortunately, the runout was already tracked out and I was able to hold my speed to the edge of the next mini-bowl, and from there it was a twisted negotiation around trees, avoiding ledges, dropping through bumps, and eventually coming out on a miserable flat, poles-needed traverse back to the lift. This would be the most enjoyable ski run I've ever done, but at that point my legs were shot and it was lunchtime, so back up Shirley Lake we went and over to the ARC again for a noodle bowl.
After lunch, we took a ride up Emigrant. The wind had kicked up and it made for an unpleasant ride on the lift, and in fact up on top the snow was being blown off and it was crunchy styrofoam. My stomach grumbled, and I excused myself and bolted down the groomer back to the Gold Coast Lodge while the others made a back entrance around the top of Emigrant into Shirley Bowl. After hopping on East Broadway, I was treated to a beautiful rainbow stretched through the approaching snow clouds. I booked it down one of the Shirley Lake groomers onto the Granite Chief chair and met up with everyone up top.
They had opened the top entrance into Hidden Bowl, so all four of us dropped right in. While it was mostly tracked now, it was still fluffy and soft and a treat. Through the runout and down through the trees, with more confidence having already done it but also more tired. We did it again and this time I couldn't keep it together and had a few falls. That was it for the black-diamond terrain for my legs for the day, and fortunately everyone agreed.
But we couldn't bear to quit just yet. As we rode up the Shirley Lake chair, I knew I had to run that bowl again, so Kathryn and I did, while Sabrina and Garett took the groomer. It beat me into submission, but I skied it true and felt satisified. We all lapped the chair one more time for a nice high-speed groomer race to the chair, then rode back up and started a long, slow downhill to High Camp, following Garett. Unfortunately, this did not quite work ... we had to descend to Bailey's Beach, but it meant our last freshies, our last pass through completely untracked snow, was right up there at the top of the beginner area, nearly flat, and in one spot so densely-packed by the wind that Sabrina and I were dragged to a halt by the snow. Soooo much fun!
Sabrina and Garett wanted to go out with style, so they rode down Mountain Run to the bottom, left their gear in the car, and rode up the tram. Kathryn and I went directly to the bar to secure our seats. Amusingly, when the tram came into sight out the window, we got them on the 2-way radios and took their drink order so that we had them ready the moment they arrived. I also got some great pictures of Garett and Sabrina as the tram docked next to the bar. We hung out for a while unwinding, rode down, drove back into town, got takeout at Rosie's, packed, and fell dead asleep.
If this had been a longer trip, Wednesday would have been the rest day. It snowed overnight, and the morning was just a lull before another forecast storm for the evening. Alas, we had to leave, but the lull worked out for us to clear out of the condo and drive back to the Reno airport. From there it was pretty straightforward and we had no problems making our connection in Phoenix and then flying back to Boston.
Altogether, this was an amazing ski trip. We were truly blessed to have that powder dump, and it provided us New Englanders with such a treat. Skiing in those conditions was amazing and Tahoe is simply a beautiful area. I was incredibly impressed with Sabrina's abilities to adapt to the steeps and snows of the big mountains in only her second winter skiing, thrilled to ski with Garett (whom I hadn't seen in about a decade) and overall had just a great time out there. I can't wait to go out west again, and while I really want to go someplace I haven't gone yet (Telluride, maybe???), I would never object to going back to Tahoe. Thumbs up for Heavenly, thumbs and toes up for Squaw Valley.
You can see my photos, videos, and Google Earth imagery from my GPS track here.