I drove toward the moon, a full and brilliant orange globe suspended above the horizon in a March sky. Pockets of fog clung to the pavement of Route 50 as Sacramento faded in the rearview mirror. Ahead, in the darkness, lay the mountains that define Tahoe, where I planned to hopscotch through five ski resorts around the 191-square-mile lake.
The serenity of the moment, the guiding light of the pumpkin-colored moon and the promise of the days to come almost made me forget the very real fact that, while I had successfully made the trip from Washington, my luggage — including all my ski gear — had not.
As any skier or snowboarder will tell you, a successful winter-sport outing largely depends on the whim of always fickle Mother Nature. One year, she can deliver record-breaking snowfall, like the time in 2011 when 16 feet fell across Lake Tahoe in nine days — so much snow that it buried the ski lifts.
But she can just as easily force you to trade the snow-covered slopes for the hotel pool, staring in disbelief at the bare mountain.
In short, it’s a gamble.
You can, however, stack the decks in your favor.
That bounty of snow that swallowed the Tahoe ski lifts fell in March, rescuing an otherwise dismal season. Last year, when I set out for Tahoe, intermittent storms all through the winter had built up a decent base of snow, and the area typically gets mid-spring dumps. Another record-breaking storm was a long shot, but the odds were good.
Even if feet of snow fell the night after I arrived in South Lake Tahoe, though, I still wouldn’t be able to ski. Not unless I wanted to brave the slopes wearing just the light sweater, jeans and thin socks that I’d worn on the plane.
Half a day later, I was riding the gondola up Heavenly Resort, the first of five resorts on my ambitious itinerary. The mountain base had been covered by a leaden overcast, but as the lift climbed the mountain, we broke through the dense blanket of gray to a vibrant bluebird sky bathed in sunlight. The snow gleamed an almost fluorescent white, and the sparkling expanse of Lake Tahoe, visible beyond the gray shroud covering the town of South Lake Tahoe, felt close enough to touch.
“This is where God and science grab hands and say, ‘Ha! This rocks!’ ” exclaimed Mike Fry, a longtime Tahoe resident with a slight gray beard and inviting blue eyes.
My luggage was currently in Sacramento, Reno or San Francisco, following a convoluted path that would eventually end at my hotel sometime that night. But Mike had come through.
He’d met me early that morning to show me around Heavenly, a massive 4,800-acre resort boasting 97 runs. And when I’d explained why I was still wearing street clothes, his solution was simple: I’d explore South Lake Tahoe, a sleepy burg on the border of Nevada and California, and he’d go home and find something for me to wear.
Most skiers have a vast collection of old gear, well used, respectfully retired and impossible to part with because of its years of loyal service. And that’s how I ended up in a pair of tight-fitting ski pants adorned with a two-inch stripe of Hawaiian flower-print fabric running the length of the outer seams, the graphic flaring out like a pair of bell-bottoms at the cuffs. The jacket lacked some of the pants’ flair, but those two pieces of well-worn apparel — as well as Mike’s backup base layers, socks and gloves — had me on the slopes.
That’s one of the things that define lovers of snow. Mother Nature may be fitfully magnanimous, but the people who gravitate to skiing and snowboarding are typically generous to a fault. From Mike and his loaner gear to the hotel clerk at Squaw Valley four days later who pulled out a trail map to show me the best runs on the mountain before I’d even checked in, snow-lovers are deeply enthusiastic about the sport of skiing. It’s not a competition. It’s a shared experience, one that even overcomes the vagaries of the weather.
The only real differences among skiers lie in the type of experience a given individual desires.
And the Tahoe region offers the perfect solution for all comers, from first-timers getting their West Coast powder legs to hard-charging skiers yearning for steep-and-deep terrain to couples looking to marry a few days on the slopes with vineyard tours.
In total, Lake Tahoe boasts seven world-class ski resorts, along with a handful of local mountains. I visited five; three on the southern side near South Lake Tahoe and two in North Tahoe. And from the beginning, it was clear that this visit wasn’t going to be long enough. Instead of an extensive tour, it became a Tahoe primer.
Heavenly is the big boy on the block, with the most acreage and longest vertical drop. It also offers lake views that make you feel as if you could launch off a jump and splash into its glittering surface. At the only resort to straddle the California/Nevada border, you find a heady mix of both gob-smacking natural beauty and a Vegas-on-the-slopes vibe best typified by the Unbuckled happy hour at mid-mountain, complete with go-go dancers wearing strategically placed fur.
The resort’s proximity to South Lake Tahoe also makes it one of the easiest to reach from a variety of accommodations, whether they’re casino resorts or private lakeside vacation rentals or old motor motels converted into hip boutique hotels.
More than 30 miles south of Heavenly, Kirkwood trades lake views for a more iconic alpine landscape. The mountains stare down at you from the parking lot, issuing a quiet dare that’s reinforced when you see a handful of lifts marked with skull-and-crossbones signs that indicate that all you’ll find are expert-only runs at the top. About half the resort is rated for intermediate skiers and riders, but locals anxious to test their skills and torture their legs gravitate to Kirkwood, hiking across the expansive ridgelines of the 2,300-acre resort before winding down with a can of beer on the expansive village patio.
Sierra-at-Tahoe also caters to the locals, with prime tree skiing when the snow is deep enough. It wasn’t on the day I visited, but the main runs had received a several-inch dusting and proved a riotous blast. Sierra also has a defined cred among freeskiers and snowboarders, a rep that’s likely to continue thanks to the Burton Star Wars Experience. This full-day program uses characters from the iconic movie to help budding Shaun Whites, ages 3 to 12, learn how to ride in a kids-only camp.
The smallest of the three South Tahoe resorts I visited at 2,000 acres, Sierra eschews the more grandiose resort elements for a relaxed mom-and-pop vibe. “The typical development news here isn’t the construction of new hot tubs,” said Steve Hemphill, the resort’s communications manager. “It’s getting more local beers on tap.”
Head west out of South Lake Tahoe and drive north for an hour on scenic Route 89 along the western coast of the lake, and you reach North Tahoe’s Squaw Valley. Host of the 1960 Winter Olympics, this epic resort boasts a rep as an extreme-skiers’ playground. Hardly any of the terrain in this 3,600-acre resort is off-limits; if you can see it, you can try to ski it, as some of the best skiers in the world have demonstrated.
Like Kirkwood, the six-peak resort almost smacks you in the face with its sheer, steep topography. The exposed ridgeline also means that if the winds pick up, the lifts may close. Surprisingly, only 30 percent of the resort is rated for experts, with almost half the 170-plus runs ideal for intermediates.
Come spring, it’s best to start late and let the sun warm the hard pack and ski until the snow softens into the infamous Sierra cement, a sticky composition that’s more sludge than snow. Then retire to Squaw’s High Camp pool and hot tub near the mountain’s summit — just wear your bathing suit under your ski gear. Afterward, make like a local and ski back down to the base in your board shorts or bikini.
If Squaw feels wonderfully carnival-like, Northstar, just to the northeast, embraces the more refined, family-friendly skier’s experience. It’s geographically sheltered from the prevailing winds that can cause the Squaw lifts to close and boasts robust snowmaking coverage — the ace in the hole against a dismal ski season. The gentler pitches on the resort’s 3,170-acre mountains make for easygoing runs, though adventurous skiers can find tight, exhilarating lines through the trees when the snow is plentiful. Such was not the case on my one day there, but the groomers were wide and steady, the sun bright and strong enough to burn my pale face a bright red below my goggles.
Six days after losing my luggage and wearing those glorious Hawaiian-print pants, after skiing a half-day at Heavenly with Mike the gear savior and watching the U.S. Freestyle Championships at Heavenly two days later, after squinting through an intermittent spring storm at Squaw and braving overcast conditions at Kirkwood, after driving 275 miles and taking slightly more vertical feet than my legs could handle, I ended my final day in the dizzying five-resort tour the way I had every other: exhausted and exhilarated and wishing for one more day.
Northstar had delivered textbook spring skiing: few crowds, dazzling sunlight and forgiving snow on the marked slopes that got softer as the sun crawled across the sky. The trees could have used more coverage — but resorts can always use more snow.
I sat on the resort’s back deck bathing in the warm sun. Soon, I’d have to make the drive to Sacramento and crash near the airport before my early flight back to Dulles. The less exciting necessities of travel.
But at that moment, with the late-March sun warming my skin as I watched a few skiers getting in a few last turns on the mountain, it was clear that my gamble — spring skiing in Tahoe — had paid off big.
Except that I didn’t get to keep those awesome ski pants.
Borchelt is a freelance writer and photographer in Washington who skis as much as the weather and his meager budget will allow.