More Powder for the People
Sunday, December 4, 2005
Fifty skiers and boarders anxiously waited shoulder to shoulder on the edge of Wagon Wheel Bowl, their tips hanging over the ridgeline. A flimsy rope separated the group from 22 inches of untracked snow that glistened under a bluebird sky.
With each chairlift that reached the top, more riders rushed to the edge to wait while the ski patrol finished an avalanche safety check. Finally the rope dropped, and with "yahoos" and "yee haws" the thrill-seekers dove into the fresh snow.
From a chairlift opposite the bowl, my friend Gina and I watched the riders descend the mountain like an army of ants zigzagging down a white-sand hill. We smiled, knowing our turn was soon. When we reached the top, we trekked to the bowl. Then, with powder up to our knees, we carved seamless turns. We went up two more times before venturing to another almost untouched bowl.
This was Kirkwood, a ski resort in the Sierra Mountains of Northern California. Kirkwood is one of 15 resorts that surround Lake Tahoe, but none of the other mountains -- Heavenly, Alpine Meadows, Sierra at Tahoe -- get as much snow. And yet this mountain remains a secret haven for locals. Large packs of tourists and heavy lift lines are nonexistent, leaving room for skiers and boarders to find fresh tracks all day.
Gina and I decided to sample the skiing in California last February, renting a house in South Lake Tahoe, about two miles from the base of Heavenly, because of its close proximity to the casinos. But the mountain was crowded, the runs were short with tons of catwalks, and the only pockets of knee-deep snow were tucked in the trees. We asked a local where else we could ski and he told us about Kirkwood's wide-open trails, deep snow packand short lift lines. It was only a 45-minute drive from Heavenly, he told us.
The next morning we knew we were in for a treat. The snow report said Kirkwood had received 22 inches of new snow, compared with 12 at Heavenly. It was a "powder day" -- a day when few trails are groomed and we could float through untouched snow.
Kirkwood's 2,300 acres comprise a series of five bowls created by horseshoe-shape ridges, with a vertical rise of 2,000 feet (top elevation, 9,800). Each bowl has some narrow runs, steep chutes and sharp cornices at the top and wide intermediate runs at the bottom. There are 65 trails and no catwalks. About 50 percent of Kirkwood is accessible by lifts, with more than 1,000 acres reachable by climbing or hiking.
Within a few minutes on the mountain, we caught on that Kirkwood diehards refer to ski lifts by numbers only. We first skied under chairs 5 and 6. The trails were spacious, marked with S-shape tracks created by the skiers before us. But we easily found untracked snow to sink our skis into and call our own. We glided through the powder without another skier in sight.
"It feels like you have the mountain to yourself," Gina said as we rode up Chair 5 again, this time on our way to the ridge.
We hiked to the ridge with our skis over our shoulders, happy to carry the weight. When I reached the edge, I clicked in, hopped the edge of the cornice and landed knee-deep in fresh powder. Gina followed, trying to create a figure-eight design over my tracks.
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Washingtonians who ski or snowboard know that traveling out west is worth the time and expense: The mountains are bigger, the snow pack deeper, the weather warmer and drier. What they may not know is that the Sierras get dumped on each season, accumulating more snow than the Colorado Rockies. And they are just as easy to get to, within a two-hour drive from Reno, Nev., and Sacramento.