Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lake Tahoe - February 2012

We have been skiing and riding all winter (such as it has been) at our small local resorts (such as they are). Working our way, in speed and endurance up and down Roundtop, Liberty, and WhiteTail - with occasional forays to Seven Springs, Timberline, and Snowshoe. This was the year I really learned to ride, for I fell in love with boarding way too late last year to make a real go of it. And The Better Half, as well, has been becoming something new as well - a Telemark Skier (AKA a "Knee Bending Tree Fairy" or KBTF). Thus, it was with no small amount of high-pitched, excited squealing that I planned out our end-of-season ski trip.

Tahoe had been recommended by three different sources, so with that in mind, I planned out a detailed adventure out West.

The Lake:
First of all, the lake itself is pretty damn incredible. On quiet days, it's so glassy and clear that they say you can see 75 feet down (it used to be 100 feet, but it's getting a bit cloudier).

And for many of the skiable mountains, the lake is a constant reminder of where you are. It is an ever-present vista from the top of many lifts. In fact, the first day, we downloaded (meaning, rode back down) the primary lift at Homewood. It was incredible...but terrifying to those of us with height issues. First, let me clarify that there was no restraining bar, so the only thing keeping me on the seat was my death-grip on the arm rest. Second, the chairlift really did go straight down a fairly upsetting incline, with an amazing view:

The first few days were so beautiful - intense blue skies and 60 degree weather. We started at Homewood, a small resort on the (less popular) West side of the lake...relatively low so as not to exacerbate our altitude adjustment. We then moved on to Sierra-at-Tahoe, an incredibly fun resort nestled in the El Dorado National Forest.

We went to Sierra for two main reasons: first, they are one of the two Tahoe resorts that explicitly offers both Telemark lessons and gear, and second, they were advertising this free "Interactive Geologic/Historic Mountain Tour." We were so excited about the tour, and we were sore afraid that we would be too late to get a spot in this amazing offer! Of course, when we arrived, the Telemark school was literally a Telemark shack (referred to as such), which was tiny, but they'd still found room for three cases of beer and some Red Label. And when, after the grueling two-hour lesson (during which the instructor told Alex that if more than two turns were possible, they were being performed incorrectly) beer was offered, it was gratefully accepted. In addition, that tour that we thought would be full-up? When we arrived, we asked breathlessly at the ticket office if there was still space. She had no idea because nobody had ever asked to go on it before. Ridiculous!

Nobody had any idea what we were talking about, either, but when we informed them that the tour was very clearly listed on their website, a phenomenal retired high-school teacher took us on a 1.5 hour meander through the tectonic reason-d'etre of the Sierra Nevadas, and the mythos of the mountain men who poled mail through on 10-foot skiis. It was such a great time, we're going to see if he'll come back-country camping with us next year!

Our third day, we spent at Heavenly. A resort accessed directly from South Lake Tahoe, where we stayed. There is a gondola that leaves from lake-level and rises about 3,500 feet directly up the mountain. It also travels almost 2.5 miles along the ridge's a pretty awesome engineering feat.

We also got great reception:

The coolest thing about Heavenly is that it straddles the Nevada/California state line. At the top of certain hills, you are literally looking down the East towards the desert and down to the West towards the lake. The bottom of Lake Tahoe is actually at a higher elevation than the desert below. So the surface of the lake is much, much higher.

Heavenly is alright, but it was my least favorite mountain. It shore is fancy, though...owned as it is by the Vail group. Turns out, I'm kind of a "rickety-lift" sort of boarder (and not necessarily a "signature cocktail" type). Also, Heavenly is big, not that well marked, and, dare I say it, a beginner mountain. When you're a boarder and the trails are so flat that you have to get out and kick? Not happy.

Surprisingly, I'm happy on the steeps.

Our final day, it was due to snow. And snow it did:

There were all sorts of flashing signs warning of the need for chains. We had made sure to rent an All-Wheel Drive full-size SUV, and boy did it come in handy. That big, bulky Mitsubishi got us to the best riding day of my life.

We took a women's clinic, and I was the only boarder. This meant that my awesome teacher, Megan, led a two-hour clinic on exactly what I needed. My riding was fine, she said, my turns and control looked great. So, she opined, any reluctance I had to riding steeps was purely a fear thing, which was easily dealt with by just making me do it. She took me to the tippy-top of the mountain and made me ride down a wide open bowl. Then she taught me some asshole moves (seriously, she showed me how to spray bystanders with snow). Then, most importantly, she taught me to ride the gully. The gully is basically a naturally occurring half-pipe, but uneven, with trees and rocks and narrows and other fun stuff. She told me one thing - to crouch at the apex of the turn, just as the board is slowing down. This unweights the edges, and you rocket down towards the other side. The result is, you go faster and faster until the force of the swing smears you up the side and the turn is a moment of weightlessness. Once I got the hang of it, I did it over and over and over until the lifts stopped.

It was the best time I have ever had in my entire life. Best.

This video, which shows only the first slow turn up the gully side, reveals something quite clearly: On my snowboard, I am a big jerk. You can tell this by the fact that my Flow bindings allow me to strap in faster than everybody else, so I just take the drop in. See those guys? They were in front of me, but I didn't give a shit. I was ready and I was damn well going. Like I said, a jerk.

On the last run, I was so sad to go that I wailed into the storm...for boarding season is now well over. As I type this back home in Baltimore, the daffodils are blooming, the birds are singing. Spring is most definitely here, and now I say: winter is so short, so fleeting, but with luck will come around again.