This time every year, the dreams start. The dreams of snow, of skiing, of winter, of the trite, sentimental White Christmas. I don’t even have to be asleep and I’m dreaming. This year, I’m dreaming of snow in California.
As a Coloradan, I have an inborn bias against California, most specifically against “Sierra Cement.” You see, we in Colorado are smug. We think we’ve got the best mountains, the best resorts and the best snow. Never mind that in California, their storms are measured in feet, while ours are measured in inches. Never mind that scores of World Cup athletes hail from the Golden State (yeah, we’ve got ours, too!) or that California has actually hosted a Winter Olympics, while the good people of Colorado voted Citius, Altius and Fortius from our borders. Why would I travel to California when I can stay home and ski?
My Eyes Are Opened
Last March, I visited South Lake Tahoe and spent two days skiing at Heavenly, one day at Kirkwood and one day at Sierra-At-Tahoe. I couldn’t have picked a more desolate ski season for my first visit. When the shuttle from Reno deposited me at my hotel, it was 60 degrees outside. There was no snow on the ground and astoundingly blue Lake Tahoe beckoned much more than the towering mountains around it.
Still, I’m going back. Despite the less than optimal conditions, I had a great time skiing in California (and Nevada). I’m still a Coloradan, but I’ve got my California dreams.
Day One: It’s tropical: 54 degrees at the base of the gondola at 8:30 a.m. Luckily, the gondola is all about getting taking you way up the mountain, where the real Heavenly begins. One thing I love about gondolas is that they give you an easy opportunity to pump your fellow travelers for information. And pump, I did. “I’ve never been here before,” I explained. “Where should I ski?” The four men in my cabin (who ranged from 8 to 68) were unanimous in their agreement: stay on the Nevada side and ski the Comet and Dipper Express chairlifts. Did I mention that none of them were local?
The gondola unloads near Tamarack Lodge, a beautiful new building with tons of outdoor seating for soaking up the sun, and a Nevada-style après party most days of the week (Only in Nevada would you find an après party, rated M for Mature, with go-go dancers – who knew they still existed?). Also in this area are a new children’s learning center known as the Bear Cave, and Adventure Peak, with tubing, snowbiking and sledding.
The Tamarack Express heads up from the mid-mountain base. At the top of the mountain, it was “breezy.” The views, however, were stunning.
Unfortunately, the snow was not so stunning and the wind was doing a very effective job of blasting any remaining loose snow from the mountain’s surface. After several fast, firm groomers, I decide to visit the California side.
Adios Nevada, Hello Cali
Traversing over to California, I took the Sky Express to the top of the mountain, and was working my way around the now sun-softened slopes. Since I was skiing by myself, I continued chatting up my chairlift partners, looking for tips and hoping to find a local.
Finally, I boarded with Malcolm and John, two sixty-something long-time locals. They proffered some advice and we said goodbye.
By afternoon, wind closed the Sky Express and I found myself in the novel position of being stuck in California, with no way of skiing back to the gondola. Not sure where to go, I was randomly exploring when I met back up with Malcolm and John. I skied with them the rest of the afternoon, finding some good corn snow in Powderbowl Basin, enjoying some soft, slushy moguls on Waterfall and Fall Line and learning a lot about the lure and lore of skiing Heavenly.
With conditions being thin, Gunbarrel was closed which was a big disappointment. To get off the mountain, we had to take a long cat track, Round-A-Bout. Part way down, I followed John into a tree-lined chute, which gave me just a taste of the famous Face. A bus ride back to the gondola and my first Tahoe ski day was over.
Day Four: Wondering what happened to days two and three? Day Two saw 16 inches of fresh in South Lake Tahoe that resulted in an amazing day at Sierra-at-Tahoe. Day three found me skiing in more wind at Kirkwood, the newest addition to the Vail Resorts’ family. But day four, well, day four was the best.
1) Locals! On Day Four, I was skiing with a group of writers and industry reps from the North American Snowsports Journalists Association. The big advantage to being with this group is that the resort wants to make sure you have the best day ever.
Heavenly didn’t disappoint. Our group was assigned to a long-time ski instructor, a long-time local, and long-time freestyle phenom Wayne Wong, who back in his prime was one of the best mogul skiers in the world. He’s still amazing and an incredible ambassador for the sport.
Heavenly can be a confusing mountain for a newbie, especially during a year when closure gates nearly equaled open runs. But between these three men, our group skied as much as we could, covering much of this big mountain.
2) Powder! This was Thursday, and it had snowed on Tuesday. Amazingly, there was still powder – untracked powder – in the trees, adjacent to groomed runs, at a busy resort. “How can this be?” one of my skiing companions exclaimed. How could this be? In Utah or Colorado, the lines would have been taken, the snow skied out.
But at Heavenly, we found fresh all over the mountain, in the trees that line the Olympic Downhill that leads to Stagecoach Lodge, clear up to the top of the mountain where there was now enough snow to enjoy Milky Way Bowl, one of the few advanced areas that was open.
There still wasn’t enough snow to take advantage of double black Killebrew Canyon or The Face, but the little taste of off-piste skiing we enjoyed convinced me that in a normal snow year, Heavenly would indeed (I have to say it!), heavenly.
3) Trees! I have to give a shout out to some of the best glades I’ve ever seen. The trees at Heavenly are big, but never tight. Rumor has it that the tree skiing at Heavenly is so sublime because during the 19th Century silver boom, trees were logged to build mine shafts. I was told that only one species was good for mine shafts, so those trees were logged, leaving the other species behind. The result? A dreamscape of perfectly spaced trees in an amazing natural playground.
When You Go…
The south side of Lake Tahoe is home to Heavenly, Kirkwood and Sierra-At-Tahoe. Heavenly and Kirkwood are both part of Vail Resorts, while Sierra is independent. I wrote last winter about Sierra-at-Tahoe’s Star Wars Experience for budding snowboarders under age 6. I highly recommend it, if you’ve got a grom of that age. The skiing was extensive with beautiful glades and a surprising amount of terrain. Over two feet of new snow made it especially fun, if a little disorienting. I honestly can’t tell you where I skied. I must return.
I wasn’t at Kirkwood on a good day. It looked good: the sun shining, the snow soft, the mountains dramatically etched against a cobalt sky. But, the wind was so strong that the upper lifts never opened. Like a kid in a candy store, I could taste the thrill of skiing this rugged range, but I couldn’t make it happen. The day was still fun, ripping through gullies and playing on groomers, but I didn’t have the Kirkwood experience. Again, I must go back.
I stayed at the Embassy Suites about 2 blocks from the gondola. It was pretty much perfect with two rooms, breakfast and afternoon drinks and snacks. An indoor pool seals the deal if you’re bringing kids. There is closer lodging at Marriott’s Timber Lodge, as well as the requisite variety of independent condos, hotels and motels you’ll find in any ski town. For a family, I definitely recommend staying on the California side (no smoking, no gambling and so on).
Heavenly is making some family friendly improvements this season, bringing back an 18-foot halfpipe, after a three-year hiatus, and creating a new Kids’ Adventure Zone on the California side, to complement the kids’ zone near Tamarack Lodge and the Bear Cave.
Now, all we need is snow.
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