My dad taught me to ski when I was 3 years old. He used to pull me up the slope with his pole and let me ski down. He promised I could tackle the big jump at Nashoba Valley as soon as I turned 6. (I don't remember if I ever did this, by the time I was 6, we were skiing at much bigger mountains.) I grew up loving to ski, but it was hard to escape the fact that New England is not a world-class skiing destination (it's better than Virginia for sure, but compared to the Alps or Rockies...). Snowmaking is great and all, but it paled in comparison to my dad's tales of backcountry skiing at Jackson Hole in Wyoming. The rest of my family used to talk in vaunted tones of "skiing out west."
When we moved to San Francisco in the fall, I found myself a lot closer to the slopes of my dad's stories. The Sierra Nevada resorts at Tahoe are three or four hours away. We can reach the Rockies via a relatively short (and hopefully less expensive) plane ride. Excited to forget our lackluster experience at Las Leñas in Argentina, we booked tickets to Kirkwood last weekend. There are five big-name resorts near Tahoe: Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood. Heavenly sounded expensive and overcrowded and I had heard not-so-great things about the variety of the terrain at Northstar. The main knock against Kirkwood? There's not a lot of terrain for beginners. Sold.
Our motorcycle is great for touring Route 1, but it's hardly an appropriate vehicle for ski trips, so we booked seats on a one-day bus trip that included discounted lift tickets. We woke up at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, took the MUNI "Owl" downtown, walked several blocks carrying our skis in the dark, then boarded the bus to Tahoe. We slept most of the way and were pretty pleased with the service, so far.
On average, Kirkwood gets 600 inches of snow a year. Compare that to Sunday River, where my family used to ski in Maine, which gets 167 inches annually. Kirkwood has already gotten more than 200 inches this season. Unfortunately, most of that fell in December, so by February, the snow was packed pretty hard. The weather was nice though and we spent the morning exploring the blue squares and black diamonds in the central region of the resort. Ben is happily a great skiing companion (they're hard to come by). He's not quite as experienced as me, but he's game for anything and is working to improve.
Case in point: According to the nice European man I befriended at the lockers, the most famous trail at Kirkwood is a steep double black diamond named the Wall. He suggested we try it because it has been recently groomed. When we got to the lift, the attendant stopped us: "Have you been up this before? It's experts only. There's no easy way down." I looked at Ben, he said we were fine. Then we reached a sign with a skull and crossbones that warned: "Hard pack. If you fall, you can slide a long way."
Riding up the lift to the Wall, we saw at least one person fall and slide at least 50 feet. We got off the lift, evaluated the terrain below, and went for it. And I have to say, the over-the-top warnings were completely unnecessary. There was one sharp turn at the top. After that, you had plenty of room to evaluate when and where you wanted to turn. The snow was a little hard to really enjoy it, but it was by no means the most terrifying slope I had tackled (that honor is still reserved for White Heat at Sunday River, before it was groomed, when I was about 7 and tried to walk down because it was so hard but discovered that was even more difficult than skiing).
That afternoon, we explored the back of the mountain with nice wide open skiing and slightly softer snow. By 4 p.m., we made it back to the bus for a horrible ride home. The host insisted on playing movies that were both bad and obnoxiously loud, making it impossible to sleep, read or listen to music. We made it home around nine, 17 hours after we had left.
We're keen to get back on the slopes again, but hopefully via a better mode of transit.