The snow's here, even if winter isn't, and that's been good news for snowsporters - skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and cross country skiers. The mountains are deep; snow is what draws visitors from the Bay Area, the Midwest, Texas and Europe to the Sierra Nevada. And we're lucky to live here right in the middle of all this splendid terrain.
So for those of you who haven't yet enjoyed the wintery slopes of the Sierra, here are some thoughts, tips, observations and general information.
Why do people risk their necks, not to mention other parts of the anatomy, to ski and snowboard? After all, those are recognized by courts of law as sports with inherent risk of injury.
I don't know about the 10,000 snowsporters who roam the hills of Squaw Valley daily, or the equal number who slam around Heavenly. But for this writer it's the freedom in beautiful surroundings that lure me up to the hills every weekend. It's the sensation of speed under control, of exercising a mastery over natural forces - gravity, friction, ice and snow, moguls and couliers. It's the kind of freedom all too rare in this over-civilized, prettied-up world. It's like trampling barren fields without a gun to see what kind of game is out there. (I hunted until some nasty experiences forced me to sell my rifle and shotgun.)
Yes, I've been hurt - broken leg, cut-up knee, sprained ankle. But you can suffer those walking across an icy street. In return for those minor injuries I've skied the world, from the old Soviet Union to Japan to Korea to Western Europe and across the USA. And met wonderful people.
But in essence, I ski because of the downright thrill of it. (I snowboard too, but not as well.)
How has snowsporting changed in recent times?
It's more open to everyone. Snowboarding is easy to learn, strap 'em on and after a lesson you can hit the blue (intermediate) runs. Most snowboarders take one lesson and enjoy the hills.
Skiing, because of the complexity of the two boards, is more difficult and a couple of lessons may be needed. But one lesson and most can do the green runs. Today's equipment is designed to make skiing easier than ever, turning less of a chore. Today's safety bindings make broken legs rare, although the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament is with us. Skis and boards to fit every level of skill are common and while the prices for advanced boards takes the breath away, well, so do the fees on the golf course.
In both sports, clothing has come a long way toward comfort. "Miracle" fabrics let the body breathe, keep hands and feet warm. The sleek, body-tight suits of fashion have yielded to looser, more comfortable wear. Snowboarders led the way into more sensible and comfortable garb.
What's different on the local slopes?
The onetime beginner's fear of riding a chairlift has been greatly eased by the new detachable lifts and gondolas. The detachable units slow to a crawl when it's time to unload, and lifties are by law at both ends of the lift. Getting on and off is no longer a challenge.
Ski runs are now manicured to remove much of the dangers, such as rocks and logs, although early in the season the snow isn't deep enough to cover it all. But mechanical groomers cover the runs daily, smoothing the snow, except where moguls (those are mounds of snow that advanced skiers snake through) are wanted. Signs warn of difficult runs, point to easier ones.
Snowmaking by compressed air and water steps in where the sky gods have been lax. Natural snow gave this season the earliest opening in years, but then snowmaking came to the rescue when the dry spell hit. Thus, better snow, placed right where and when you want it.
If you haven't been in on the slopes for years, there's a whole new category of action: terrain parks. These came about because the snowboarders wanted to get some of the kicks that skateboarders enjoy. So half-pipes (a half of a pipe of snow with high walls) mushroomed, along with hits, rails, boxes and other structures that allow boarders (and skiers) to flex their jumping and riding skills.
Where do I go to fit my skills, or ambitions*?
There are many resorts in the Tahoe area. Here's a quick capsule on each:
• Alpine Meadows: Off highway 89 past Tahoe City. Big resort, vast parking lot, shuttle service to lifts, all levels. Big lodge, condos. An all-levels area. Tickets: $39 for adults.
• Boreal, off I-80 at Donner Pass. Beginner to advanced, night skiing, boarding, big with Bay Area visitors. Lots of room to play and a ski museum on site. Inexpensive, lift tickets start at $5 and go up.
• Diamond Peak, off Highway 237 with a turn up Country Club Road. Locally owned, big with Incline Village people. Modest lodge but excellent learning area serviced by beginner chairlift. Close to Carson City. Tickets top out at $44. Inexpensive, family oriented.
• Donner Ski Ranch, off I-80 at Norden, two-lane road of about six miles. Old-timey resort, not too much acreage but god slopes and low prices. Inexpensive.
• Granlibakken, out of Tahoe City. Small hill but lots of accommodations and shuttles to major resorts. A bit tame. Basically just housing.
• Heavenly, three base lodges: California (at Ski Run Boulevard in South Lake Tahoe); Boulder (off Kingsbury Grade); and Stagecoach (at Tramway Drive at the top of Kingsbury). One of the mega-resorts, now owned by Vail of Colorado. Newest major attraction is the Gondola village area between two hotels on Highway 50 in South Lake Tahoe. Not a whole lot of beginner terrain, but everything else in spades. Cable car at California base, high-speed quad chair. Access to both California and Nevada sides from Carson. Pricey, tops at $65 (although subject to change).
• Homewood, on Highway 88 past Emerald Bay. A family resort that is often overlooked by snowsporters driving past. Family style, low prices, good beginner and intermediate runs. A surprisingly fun place. Inexpensive, lift tickets $44.
• Kirkwood, borders Highway 89 past Hope Valley. Once the favorite of locals, but now upscaled to national resort level. All levels can enjoy. Nice village but the old Red Cliffs lodge is the base for local snowsporters. Back bowl is beautiful with Thimble Mountain lording over all. West Wall run scratchy at top but eases once you're moving. Ice rink is right in the village. Moderate costs, lift tickets $47.
• Mt. Rose is on the Mt. Rose highway off Highway 395. Locals favorite and close to Carson. Excellent beginner lifts, old-time lodge, friendly. New Chute runs offer expert skiing, new this year. Tickets go from $12 to $52 but all kinds of deals available.
• Northstar-at-Tahoe, on Highway 237 at Kings Beach. New village, new cable car. All levels. Big terrain park. Big area. Moderate costs, lift tickets tops $61.
• Sierra-at-Tahoe, sister resort to Northstar. On Highway 50 west, another locals' favorite. Excellent beginner chairlift, beginner area. Back bowl offers many blue runs and a high-speed chair. Moderate cost, lift tickets $54.
• Soda Springs, off I-80 at Norden, tubing and moderate skiing. Family fun. Adult lift tickets $25.
• Squaw Valley USA, off highway 88 past Tahoe City. The Olympics site of 1960, a vast resort with snowsporting for all levels. Funatel and Cable car take riders to High Camp and Gold Coast. Plenty of advanced sporting, Kt-22 and Granite Chief for thrills. Complete facilities, new village is awesome. Ice skating, night skiing. Upscale, lift tickets $62.
• Sugar Bowl off I-80 at Norden, old cable car outmoded by new lodge and parking area at Mt. Judah. Old lodge-hotel dates back to Walt Disney times, movies stars skied there. Now a complete resort, new lodge, new lift on Mt. Disney. Some beginner runs. Moderate costs, lift tickets $59.
• Tahoe Donner is on Donner Pass Road off I-80. Nice downhill ($34); and X-C ($21). A family resort where the hills are large and the crowds small. A fun place. Inexpensive, ticket prices not set yet.
What about snowshoeing?
This is an ideal way to see the woods in winter. You have to be comfortable hiking regular trails as even the new, lightweight snowshoes require muscle. But the terrain is free and snowshoes for less than $70 common. Do it! Spooner X-C is good place to start. Think picnic in the woods.
And cross country skiing?
Nearby Spooner Summit with Max Jones in charge offers all the gear and lessons one could ask for. The "kick" move of X-C is easy to learn. Spooner offers plenty of beginner courses. Get good and you can hit the back country, free. X-C gear cheaper than Alpine. Great way to see nature in snow. Royal Gorge near Soda Springs is gigantic with lifts and tickets are $19.50.
* Ski lift tickets are priced chiefly on age. All sorts of special deals are available. Check the Internet for specials.
Contact Sam Bauman at email@example.com or 881-1236.