I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Sacramento, reflecting on this past weekend. It brings a large smile to my face. As far as epic ski trips go, this was one for the books. It started, as most things do, with a simple conversation.
Over the winter I had been in Vermont, at my college roommate’s ski condo. We hadn’t skied together in years. Mind you, when we were in college we had a season’s pass to Killington. We would drive up from Babson every Thursday after classes and ski ‘til Sunday last lift before driving back down. But I digress.
Ian, my old roommate, is an impulsive guy. When he gets an idea in his head, he sees it through. So when I got a text a few weeks after our Vermont visit about booking Tahoe for Easter weekend, I was hardly surprised.
Here’s the thing with spring skiing: It can be incredibly hit or miss. But there are things to look for that can help your odds of success and insure you are skiing with your sleeves rolled up and your sunglasses on.
The big factors are how much snow is falling, and how much of a “base” your mountain of choice has as the season progresses. We used Heavenly Mountain for weather reports, knowing that if we were fortunate enough to catch a storm, we would be doing a day at Kirkwood (it’s known for incredible powder days) as well.
Here is what a forecast will look like: Do you see the base depth number? Do you see the season total? Um, yeah — that’s how you limit your odds of shitty snow. Between seeing Instagram posts and hearing from friends who live on the west coast, we knew California was having an epic snow year, so Ian’s persistence just pushed us over the finish line.
We booked the trip, then prayed to Chione, the Goddess of Snow, for three straight weeks. Another thing with spring skiing: You have to adjust your expectations about the snow. For anyone who has skied out west at the height of the season, you know the light, fluffy goodness often referred to as “pow”. Typically, this is not what you get in the spring.
Spring means a much heavier snow, as each day brings melt, which then re-freezes at night and can get slushy by 2 p.m. That said, when you are skiing in sunglasses and a fleece, or a flannel with your sleeves rolled up, breathing that mountain air, you don’t really care. Plus, lift lines are nonexistent. Generally it’s only season-pass holders and a few die-hards, as the kids are back in school and starting spring sports, and family vacation time has past.
One note of caution: As the snow softens each day (between noon and 2:30 p.m.) your skis can begin to “stick”. This is worth paying attention to, as you can twist a knee or tear an ACL pretty easily. My rule is, start early and call it a day when you start sticking.
Being on east-coast time definitely helps you get an early start in the morning. And when we learned that Tahoe was getting 18 inches of fresh powder as we made the drive through the pass from Sacramento the day before, we knew Chione had heard our prayers! Over beers that night, we decided Kirkwood was the move, an hour drive from South Lake Tahoe and the place to be for a powder day.
We grabbed an acai bowl and a dirty chai at Free Bird Cafe in South Lake, jumped in the car and ate on the drive. As we rolled into the parking lot, people were hooting and hollering as they geared up. We had baby blue skies and 18 inches of fresh powder. And it was April 14th!
Kirkwood was blasting aggressively for avalanche control, as the freeze-thaw cycles make late-season slides an issue. For anyone who skies out west, the thud of the explosives and the accompanying compression you feel through your body translates to pure adrenaline. And man, did we need it!
Our first three runs were through undisturbed powder. I didn’t even see another pair of ski tracks next to me. Turns that sunk you to your knees, people yelling and cheering for you from the lift, and your legs burning so bad from exhaustion that you were begging for the bottom, just to get some recovery on the next lift up. We continued like this until around noon, when we heard the back side of the mountain would be opening (Kirkwood blasted the front side first).
We made our way to the back side and noticed that they weren’t yet sending anyone up. We continued to hear blasts, so we made the decision to have lunch, and we didn’t have far to go. Just before the back-side lift was a little outdoor grill serving burgers and beers. We scooped up two adirondack chairs, ordered and sat back.
Two notes here: 1) It was at this point we noticed we were getting FRIED. The sun at altitude, with the reflection of the snow as a magnifying glass, was intense. We bummed some SPF 50 from a nearby couple; crisis averted. 2) Beers at altitude also have a compounding effect. Just one 7.5 percent ABV tall boy can get you a bit loopy, so if you don’t handle altitude well, be warned.
We hung out here for about an hour, and just as we were gearing up to do another front-side run, we heard cheers from the lift line. The back side was open. We got three more runs of fresh, untracked powder — unheard of at 1 p.m. — but for some reason, our timing was perfection. We called it a day at 3 p.m. and headed back to South Lake Tahoe for a much-needed hot-tub-and-beer session, and to discuss strategy for the next day.
Pro tip: Before you sack out for the night, down a bottle of Pedialyte. Yes, Pedialyte, the stuff for kids and old people. It is slam-packed with electrolytes, and if you want your east-coast legs to keep pace with the west-coast mountains, this will help.
After a good soak and shower, it was time for dinner and strategy. We hit up Azul Latin Kitchen for burritos and beer. (Are you detecting a theme here?) The weather reports told us there would be no new snow. We wanted to cover as much terrain as possible, so that meant Saturday was going to be Heavenly — the name of the mountain would be fitting indeed.
We woke for the second day in a row to baby blue skies, and with Heavenly just a stone’s throw from where we were staying, we took our time at Free Bird and enjoyed our acai bowls in the early morning sun.
Heavenly is cool in that it straddles California and Nevada, so you literally ski across state lines. We started off on the California side and loosened up our legs on some corduroy groomers (this references the pattern grooming machines make on the slopes after skiers are down for the day, to prepare the snow for the next day).
As we made our way to the Nevada side, we saw signs for Mott Canyon. Feeling bold from the day before, we headed in. Mott Canyon is a double-black-diamond area, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. But when that double-black area is still in the shade and hasn’t been softened by the sun, well, that is a problem. A very steep and very crusty 20 minutes later, we made it through.
This is where expectations come into play, and again, it’s important to understand spring weather dynamics on the mountain. You want to strategically select your runs. I like to let the sun soften up the crust from the night before, but not to the point of being super-soft, as mentioned above. The sun’s impacts can be both good and bad, and you have to constantly search for that sweet spot.
We saw a crew snowboarding as Easter bunnies (!), found another great outdoor lunch spot (this time, beers and brats!) and closed out the day on Gunbarrel. Gunbarrel is Heavenly’s famous bump-run. It is steep as hell and tracks under the lift, therefore insuring ridicule for a wipeout, or cheers for a great line. Legs burning and breathing heavy, we closed it out strong.
This was the best spring skiing I’ve ever experienced, and another adventure in the books with a dear old buddy.
Until next time,