A Week in Winter Wonderland #14

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North America » United States » California » Lake Tahoe
January 4th 2011
Published: January 4th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

For one week out of each of the past 14 years our family has taken a holiday ski vacation. As a rule we visit a new location with every trip, and over time we have become quite an experienced bunch of skiers/snowboarders. I won’t even try to list all the resorts we have been to, but suffice it to say that by now we have visited almost every major ski destination in western North America and many of the smaller ones as well. Last year we enjoyed a great week in South Lake Tahoe, skiing at Heavenly and Kirkwood, so this year we decided to come back and explore the north side of the scenic lake in the Sierras.

Our trip began the day after Christmas. This was actually the same day a winter storm was dumping two feet of snow on the Northeastern cities, so we were very fortunate to not have any flight delays or cancellations. We flew into Reno and drove the 80 minutes to our condo in Carnelian Bay. We spent our first day in Tahoe doing some sight-seeing, picking up our equipment, and loading up on groceries for the week. It was nice to have a relaxing prep day for the ski week to come.

Ski Day 1 – Squaw Valley

Although small by comparison, Squaw Valley offered a very nice first ski day. The snow was great, and the lack any lines anywhere allowed us to get in plenty of runs. Lunch was pleasantly stress-free. We ate at an outdoor grille with great food and covered seating. The one down side to our first day on the slopes was that the weather got pretty intense in the afternoon. Our last few runs of the day were done in basically complete white-out conditions. The heavy snow and strong wind working together was enough to convince us to end day one a few runs early.

Ski Day 2 – Alpine Meadows

So we woke up the next morning to discover that our condo had lost electricity. Upon gazing out the window, the cause of the power outage became evident. Overnight, an incredible amount of snow had been dumped on all of Lake Tahoe. To walk out our front door required wading into knee-high snow drifts where only the previous night the ground had been visible. I don’t know the officially recorded amount of snow that fell that night, but over the course of the next day we heard reports that suggested about 22 inches at lake level and anywhere from 2 to 10 more inches higher in the mountains.

So once it became clear that we would not be following our usual morning routine, we built a fire in the condo and slowly began digging out. People worked together to reconstruct the parking lot, freeing cars from their molds of snow and ice and digging ruts for wheels through the thigh-deep snow. Our condo was at the end of a long, branching back road, so it took a while for the snow plows to reach us - but eventually they did around the time we regained power. After such an eventful morning it was strange to think that we could still make it to the slopes with plenty of time to enjoy the fresh powder, but that’s what we did.

We headed up to Alpine Meadows, which is one of the smaller resorts around Tahoe. It had the reputation of being a no-frills resort popular with the locals, and I could certainly see why. Alpine Meadows is simple. It has one long parking lot, one base lodge that doubles as a ticket office, and then just a few lifts leaving from the base. The resort has 11 lifts total, but due to the recent precipitation and persistently strong winds, only 4 lifts were open this day, which meant we only got to experience the lower half the mountain. We started our first run around 11 AM and skied straight through lunch. Most of the day we battled low visibility and face-stinging wind, but overall it proved to be yet another enjoyable ski day.

Ski Day 3 and 4 – Northstar at Tahoe

Northstar offered an interesting dichotomy. Of the two days we went there, one day was frustratingly miserable, while the other turned out to be one of the best ski days we’ve ever had. So let’s start with the bad…

Our first day at Northstar involved more waiting in lines and avoiding crowds than actual skiing. On this particular day it seemed like the resort had attracted three times its maximum capacity, which highlighted its poor logistical approach to managing crowds and gave little reason or desire to enjoy its truthfully elegant village, three mountain lodges, or other special amenities. The waiting began with about 30 minutes on the mountain road to turn into the resort due to traffic. Next was another 15 minutes in line to get on a shuttle that inches you from the peripheral parking lots into the village. Next we had to navigate the ticket lines, and then wait to get on the one chairlift from the village to mid-mountain, which promptly broke down for 20 minutes immediately after we got on. Once we were finally on the mountain the waiting continued in the lift lines after every run. I’d guess the average time spent in line per run was around 15 minutes, until the last run of the day where we waited half an hour for the Backside Chairlift. To cap it all off, it took us an hour to go from the village at the base of the slopes to our car, at which point I was ready to leave Northstar forever and write exceedingly unkind comments about it in this blog entry. But fortunately our ski experience and wisdom prevailed.

The truth was that Northstar had by far the most, the longest, and the most varied runs of the three resorts we had visited - we were just unable to enjoy them because of the swarms of people. But through this terrible initial experience we learned that there were a number of ways to get around much of the queues and cut down on wait time. Northstar capitalizes on their absurdly long waiting lines by offering (paid) services like valet parking and “fast passes” for lift lines. So we decided that for our last day of the ski trip we would try to get to the resort before the lifts open and pay extra for all the bells and whistles in order to bypass lines as much as possible. Additionally, we knew that our last ski day would be on New Years Day – a notoriously unpopular ski day among those old enough to drink alcohol. So with fortune on our side and money bleeding from our wallets, we had one of our best ski days ever on 1/1/11. The weather was perfect, the powder was fresh and deep, the lines were short, and life was good. We spent about seven hours on the mountain that day and enjoyed every minute.

The next day we left Tahoe exhausted and sore, but very satisfied. All in all, the trip to North Lake Tahoe added three more names to our long list of conquered mountains and another great chapter to our family’s ski trip saga.


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