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.
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.
Kirkwood receives an average annual snowfall of 500 inches, with last season reaching more than 800. Heavenly, a mere 35 miles away, accumulated 480 inches, while Colorado's Vail received about 300.
Kirkwood, tucked away from the heavy traffic of Route 50, is a good option for skiers who want great snow and a challenging mountain, yet don't require a lot of apres-ski action. While there are a few bars and restaurants in the village, the clubs and casinos remain at South Shore.
According to Kirkwood president Tim Cohee, many of Kirkwood's 13,000 season-pass holders commute on weekends from the San Francisco Bay Area, 177 miles away. However, the mountain never seems crowded. Over Presidents' Day weekend, a popular family vacation time, the lift lines were short and the runs open.
Cohee said 80 percent of visitors come via other South Lake Tahoe resorts, just as I did. Despite the accommodations at the base of the mountain, many travelers only hear of Kirkwood once they get to the Sierras, and remain at other resorts.
This is something the mountain wants to change. Kirkwood is in the midst of a 10- to 20-year expansion that would add eight more lifts and 800 dwelling units, restaurants and retail shops. For the new season, Kirkwood replaced the slow double chair at Timber Creek Lodge with a high-speed quad.
But Cohee is mindful of maintaining the current culture that sets Kirkwood apart from other area resorts.
"We want to continue to honor the soul of Kirkwood," Cohee said. "And that's preserving the feeling of open space."
With the plethora of snow, bowls and access to the backcountry, Kirkwood is a ski destination aptly suited for intermediate to advanced skiers. The top half is expert terrain funneling into intermediate trails. There is a small beginner area that USA Today ranked in 1999 as one of the top 10 places in North America to learn how to ski. But the ski school is following an industry trend by adding programs for experts.
Kirkwood is one of the few mountains in California with an open backcountry policy. In an effort to draw more experienced skiers to the ski school, Kirkwood launched Expedition Kirkwood in 2004, which trains skiers for the unpredictable but enticing terrain bordering the mountain. At small one- and two-day clinics, skiers and boarders learn safety tips, such as how to determine which out-of-bound areas are safe to explore. Backcountry-specific equipment such as avalanche beacons, probes and shovels are provided.
During our powder day, there was so much snow on the mountain and so few skiers Gina and I did not need to explore the backcountry. In the afternoon, we made our way to Thimble Peak, the back bowl. With 20 other skiers, we waited for Chair 4 to take us to the spectacular peak, with its stunning views of the snow-capped Sierras.
Later, we skied "the Wall," a steep snowfield under the ridge line. This was by far the best part of the day. We were two of the first people to create fresh tracks in the back bowl area.
"There's still so much powder!" Gina shouted.
As 4 o'clock approached, we knew we had time for only one more run. Our legs ached, but we felt exhilarated. We had experienced a powder day, one not often seen by tourists and usually savored only by locals.
Lauren Wiseman is an editorial aide on The Post's Metro desk.