We pulled up to the Squaw Valley cabin after maneuvering through several blocks of narrow residential streets, just a little put off by the occasional bright green "Danger Avalanche Area" sign poking through the heaped snow and the seemingly friendly packs of dogs roaming the streets in search of some human attention and a handout.
"Maybe this is why the house is so cheap," one of the cynics among us opined. No matter. We had 4 1/2 days to pack in as much skiing as possible. Forget the groceries, unpack only the ski stuff, no time to pet the dogs, we'll pick bedrooms later. We needed to take advantage of the three-hour time difference and get that first half-day of skiing under our boots.
Our party of eight had picked Lake Tahoe, on the California-Nevada border, as our 1999 ski destination in part because it had gotten more snow than anywhere else other than the Pacific Northwest, and the snow would still be there during our spring break vacation. Also, we could take an early-morning flight and get there in time to ski the same day because the slopes are less than an hour from the Reno airport. But there was another important draw-- a dozen large ski areas are located within driving distance of one another in the Lake Tahoe region. On the north side, there's Northstar-at-Tahoe, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Sugar Bowl, Boreal, Soda Springs, Ski Homewood, Diamond Peak and Mount Rose, and on the southern edge, Heavenly, Kirkwood and Sierra-at-Tahoe.
We knew that trying to stuff many servings of this ski smorgasbord onto our limited plates would be a challenge. Planning took on aspects of a military engagement. Our group included two hot-dogging kids interested in snowboarding, one dad with a bad back, a couple of teenage boys looking for steep-and-deep, a middle-aged mom who wanted nothing more than blue intermediate runs, and two near experts. Should we stay adjacent to one ski resort or pick a centrally located lodge? If we picked one resort, should it be one geared toward experts or intermediates? North shore or south shore?
A month or so and more than a few discussions later, the choice was made. We'd stay at a private home overlooking Squaw Valley, planning to ski there for at least two days and then split the remaining days at nearby resorts.
Squaw, which spread out in front of our home's hillside deck, owns the reputation of old-school macho. Home of the 1960 Winter Olympics and known for its challenging slopes, it was the clear choice as base camp for the skilled skiers in our group. The rest of us--okay, just me--weren't so sure. And an hour after hitting the Squaw One Express lift, and winding up on something steep and icy, I knew why. After fighting my way down blues that I could have sworn were expert blacks, and looking in vain for beginning greens that might feel like blues, I was ready for hot chocolate or, better yet, a hot toddy. Squaw definitely looked more appealing from a distance, especially a few hours later from the hot tub on our deck.
One half-day done and four to go. The rest of the crowd swore they weren't acquiescing to my wimpiness by agreeing the next morning to go to Northstar, the "family resort" owned by one of those mega ski companies. Just because the ski trail map is festooned with yellow smiley faces and the runs have names like "Sunshine" and "Woodchuck" doesn't mean it's for babies, I argued. They muttered and got in the van. A half-hour later we were herded with hordes of other skiers from the packed parking lot onto what looked like a modern hay ride minus the hay, and were shuttled to the main entrance with Disneyesque efficiency. I smelled potential mutiny in the air. But when we met several hours later under brilliant blue skies for lunch alfresco, all gloom had thankfully been dispelled by near-perfect conditions and short lift lines. The experts had discovered the backside, the teens were content mixing it up with the trees, and the guy with the bad back and I decided that these blues were definitely more our speed.
The next morning, with only three days to go, we were back to choosing our poison. All the adults had skied Heavenly in previous trips and we were anxious to show our kids that perfect spot where skiers look down at the brown Nevada desert from high atop a snow-covered mountain. Overnight, a cold front had come in and we were expecting substantial snow that evening. If we were going to make the hour-long trip around the lake on dry roads, this was our last chance. I hadn't skied Heavenly in 15 years, but the incredible views and the peaceful, nature-rich runs along the the edges of the bowls were intact. As we sat in the hot tub later that evening, falling snow covering our shoulders, we agreed the drive had been worth it.
We awoke at 5 a.m. to the bleating of plows and nearly two feet of new snow. Thinking like Virginians, we expected to be stranded for a week. But--take note, local government officials--by 9 a.m. the streets were clear, the schools were in session and our options were wide open. We headed down Interstate 80 to Sugar Bowl, an old-fashioned but naturally beautiful resort where Margie, one of our experts, had learned to ski as a teen. As we left our car, bitterly cold and powerful winds made walking across the parking lot a chore, our mouths frozen to the point that speaking was difficult. But this was our second-to-last full day, and no one dared say no to so much fresh powder. The younger kids strapped on snowboards and, a short lesson later, were zooming down the beginner trails like naturals. The adults and teens bought hand-warmers and hit the powder-laden bowls, feeling as if we owned the nearly empty resort. We went to sleep that night tired from struggling with the deep stuff, but happy.
It was our last day. I'd fought off Squaw all week, but now 14 eyes were on me. They wanted Squaw, and I blinked. But this time, I didn't rush hell-bent into the scary stuff. Instead, I first schmoozed with a kindly instructor, who advised, "Warm up on Mainline, Gold Coast, Emigrant. Then take the Siberia Express or Newport." Now these were blues that did not feel like diamonds. Swapping stories later that afternoon, everyone had a tale with a happy ending. The older boys had found the KT-22 Express lift, where they could launch themselves into the trees through untouched, knee-deep power. Margie and my husband, Bud, had discovered the Snow King Peak and its tougher intermediate skiing. After successfully making my way down the three-mile Mountain Run, I'd decided that maybe Squaw wasn't so scary.
The next morning, we made the short drive to Reno and boarded the flight to Reagan National. Four resorts in less than five days wasn't a bad tally. Now if we can only figure out a way to hit the other eight on our next trip.
DETAILS: Skiing Lake Tahoe
I used www.lowestfare.com to find round-trip fares on TWA between Washington and Reno that cost less than $250 per person (fare for travel next spring is now about $290). I also used the Internet (www.choice1.com/squaw.htm) to find a beautifully situated, comfortable cabin that sleeps nine for about $1,195 for five mid-week nights; just make sure to come armed with dog biscuits to feed Kodiak, Cody and the other neighborhood hounds.
* Squaw Valley (1-888-766-9321, www.squaw.com) is off Interstate 80, about 40 miles from Reno. An all-day adult ticket is $52, juniors 13 to 15 are $26 and children 12 and under ski for $5.
* Northstar-at-Tahoe (1-800-466-6784, www.skinorthstar.com) is near Truckee, off Interstate 80, also about 40 miles from Reno. An adult all-day lift ticket is $49, young adults 13 to 22 are $39, and children 5 to 12 are $10.
* Heavenly (1-800-243-2836, www.skiheavenly.com), on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, about 58 miles from Reno, charges $54 for an adult ski-lift ticket, $44 for ages 13 to 18, and $25 for ages 6 to 12.
* Sugar Bowl (530-426-9000, www.sugarbowl.com) is off Interstate 80 on the other side of the Donner Pass, about 42 miles from Reno. Lift tickets are $48 for adults, $39 for ages 13 to 21, $10 for children 6 to 12, and $5 for children wearing helmets.