Patrick Thorne visits Lake Tahoe and find an abundance of snow and endless skiing in the American resort.
22 October 2011
I’ve been to the Arctic, I’ve been to Japan where I’d seen pictures of snow banks towering high over double-decker buses, but I’ve never seen as much snow as I did when I went to Lake Tahoe last year.
Americans are famed for devaluing words like ”awesome” by using them too often to describe what is, in fact, fairly mundane, but in this case ”epic” was a totally accurate description of the massive snowfalls, which buried buildings and, for brief periods, blocked roads to the sunshine state’s ski centres last season. Many of California’s ski areas posted greatest ever seasonal snowfall figures, typically in the 15–17m range for 2010–11, and six re-opened for skiing on 4 July.
The good news is that the La Niña weather system, which brought all the precipitation off the Pacific last winter, is forecast to return for 2011–12. Perhaps not quite so abundantly – which may actually be good news for resorts that sometimes struggled to open against the snowy deluge of last winter – but likely to bring well above-average snowfall again. Of course, a lot of last winter’s snow is still there – helping to ensure the start of the season is set to be a good one.
I flew into California on Virgin’s very comfortable service from Heathrow, and headed up to Lake Tahoe in late March. Arriving in San Francisco it already felt like an English summer, but as we drove inland we went through the full British annual weather system and beyond, and met snowfall that would send our weathermen into catatonic shock. First there was torrential rain as we passed Sacramento, followed by falling heavy snow as we approached Lake Tahoe, which had fallen uninterrupted for the previous 4 months. It was chains on for those not in 4×4s as we rolled into Northstar (www.northstarattahoe.com), one of the up-and-coming resorts of the North American ski scene.
Indeed over the last 6 years, Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort has evolved to offer the only ”boutique mountain resort experience” in the region, centred on a $55m car-free base village choc-full of enticing shops and restaurants, upmarket condominiums to kip in, and the new Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe hotel complex, both completed a few years ago but little known outside the region.
That’s all set to change as Vail Resorts purchased it a year ago, and is now bringing it up to full Vail standards with another $30m spend for this coming winter, and introducing it to the wider international market – which means us.
The morning after touching down in San Francisco I was on the slopes of Northstar, and gawping at the massive snow accumulations all around me. Of course, being on top of the snow it was sometimes difficult to know how deep it was below me, but clues included being told that a mountain hut I passed was actually the upper storey of a two-storey building, and after taking (frequent) tumbles in the off-piste powder the resulting imprint revealed how far I’d sunk as I tried to stand up.
It was a superb day with the powder conditions generally agreed to be ”unbelievable” by our group, who’d explored the full range of Northstar’s 90+ trails. There is 12km2 of very varied terrain, ranging from great beginner slopes at mid-mountain by the Ritz Carlton, through plenty of excellent intermediate cruisers to more challenging on- and off-piste steeps. It will all be expanded this winter by a swish new lift serving the challenging ”Backside” terrain of the mountain, and lunchtime dining choices further improved with a new 500-seat restaurant.
It was a flying visit, and soon we were heading south on the short trip to Heavenly (www.skiheavenly.com), the original Californian purchase by Vail resorts, and now firmly part of the family and, for this winter, available on a low cost joint-ticket with Northstar.
A very different proposition, Heavenly’s vast ski area stretches across the state border into Nevada, and at its base you have the choice of an international resort on the Californian side, with towering glistening casinos on the Nevada side – albeit rather sad places when you take a look inside.
But I wasn’t there to gamble, but instead was whisked up the mountain from the gondola base in the resort centre, to find the same massive snow accumulations, this time with an information hut, and the trail map billboard above it buried 6–9m deep in a snow bank.
The normally sapphire-blue waters of Lake Tahoe, which usually give Heavenly some of the best views from the ski slopes you’ll find anywhere in the world, were sadly steel grey when they appeared in brief breaks in the snowfall, but I made up for it by enjoying some of the best powder of my life; opting more for the 55km of wide-open, groomed cruisers, and bottling out of the double-black-diamond canyons, and the 18m jumps in the Jackpot Terrain Park.
I did, however, give Vail Resorts’ new Epic Mix (www.epicmix.com) technology a shot. This uses radio frequency technology, linked to a chip in your lift pass, to keep a record of your ski day that you can download to the web. It’s infinitely more sophisticated than that, of course, and for 2011–12 gets better still, with free professional photos available to guests using Epic Mix, for sharing on Facebook and Twitter. Guests can combine these with their own photos, vertical feet skied, digital pins earned and cumulative snowfall figures, to capture and share their mountain experience this winter. It was a lot of fun playing with the results online but, alas, I did not win the $100,000 cash prize the company awarded at random to an Epic Pass holder.
I may have to go back and try again this season.
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