The Loneliest Carver on the Loneliest Road in America
Not only do I pursue some marginalized niche snow sport where I can be the only carver at any given resort on any given day, but the route I'm taking to the next venue has been nicknamed the "Loneliest Road in America." I'd never taken US 50 across Nevada before, so I thought I'd give it a try. On Saturday I drove all day from Silverthorne to Eureka, NV, where I was overtaken by the sunset and crashed for the night. The drive isn't too bad in snow season, as the temperatures are pleasant and some snow-capped range is always in view. I've seen worse, like the 60-mile unpaved run to the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
On Sunday around Noon I made it to Carson City, then drove up to the town of Stateline, on the NV/CA border where some casinos and the Heavenly gondola are located. I wasn't prepared to actually ride, but I had some time to kill so I hopped on the gondola and bummed around at one of the lodges, just studying the trail map. The snow looks pretty good. The four feet of snow from a week or two ago has certainly helped things out. Back down below I walked around the base village and casinos until my condo was ready.
The goals for this trip are simply to familiarize myself with the three resorts in the area that my pass works at: Heavenly, Northstar-at-Tahoe, and now with the recent acquisition, Kirkwood.
On Monday I went up to Northstar, way above the north end of the lake. My condo is near the Nevada Heavenly lifts towards the south end of the lake, so it is actually something of a drive. It snowed a few inches overnight and snowed lightly the whole day, so the roads were covered. On the drive out here I was thinking what a waste it was to be wearing out my soft snow tires on warm, bare pavement, but they were paying off on this morning. The roads that go around the lake are windy and sometimes narrow, so one has to pay attention. When I made it to the north end of the lake and started driving up into the hills, there was a checkpoint where the cops were verifying that each vehicle had at least traction tires or AWD. All commercial vehicles had to chain up. I made it up to the pass no problem, then down to the Northstar access road. Further up the highway connects to I-80 at Truckee, so Northstar is generally easy for people in the Reno area to visit. Northstar is a little upscale in terms of facilities, and normal people park in the free lots then take a shuttle to the village. This all worked out well, with the shuttles coming around very frequently. At the village I get in the Big Springs gondola, which has those smallish, older cabins.
This is not a carving day. I go up the Arrow Express first then Comstock and Vista looking for anything that might have been groomed right before open. If such a thing existed, it was only the lower green trails like Village Run. Everything else was in some state of being cut up. Drifter was the only blue I found that was marginally carveable. There is plenty of nice terrain here, and it will have to be revisited on a good groomer day.
Tuesday was Kirkwood day. There has been a brief lull between weather systems, so yesterday's snow has been groomed in, and the weather is just a bit cloudy and windy. From the Heavenly area, Kirkwood is to the south, the opposite direction from Northstar. I drive down through the city of South Lake Tahoe, then take highway 89, and 88 up to Carson Pass and down to Kirkwood. This is a very picturesque drive of around 50 minutes. Kirkwood is remote. It lies on a tiny highway that connects Armpit, Nevada to Lymph Node, California, and isn't near, nor is it convenient to, any population centers. There is no electric grid in the area, so the entire operation runs on its own diesel powerplant, providing electricity to the resort and many residences. Don't go there if you are against the burning of fossil fuels for your wasteful recreational activities. Arriving early, I was able to park right next to the Cornice lift at the main base. Normally a pay area, this lot was free on a low-attendance weekday.
I started on the Solitude lift, going down Lower Zachary. The snow is a little soft, some six inches of new, fine packed powder on its first overnight groom. Some spots are softer than others, making for occasional scary episodes of near nose-stuffing, but overall it is a great slow, soft carving surface, worthy of all the bad form and fully extended toeside turns I could muster. I went over to the Timber Creek lift to try the easier blues there, but I found that given the soft snow, these runs weren't nearly steep enough to even maintain speed while carving.
Signage at Kirkwood is sparse. I found few on-hill trail maps even at the base areas, and no posted grooming information. Testament to how laid-back it is, I must have made eight runs before anybody bothered to ask me if I had a lift ticket. I had traversed back to the main cluster of lifts and was now at The Reut, where a liftie examined my Epic Local Pass and gave me a day ticket. I take "The Reut" lift up then try Buckboard, a groomed blue. It is an excellent carvable run, but even for me it is not steep enough for the conditions. I go up again and try Wagon Trail, a single black. This is merely a slightly steeper blue with one steep blackish section. It makes for an excellent variety of terrain on one run, and I end up looping down this run over and over.
I wanted to try the Happiness Is and Elevator Shaft runs on what they call the "Backside," but that whole area was closed due to the high winds of the approaching weather system. On the front side the winds didn't seem so bad, but I didn't take any of the lifts that go to the top of the hill.
Kirkwood has a nice vibe. It is not convenient to get to, but I like it.
Wednesday: First Day at Heavenly
In the morning the weather looks reasonable. Heavenly is reporting 1" of new, and from looking out the window of my condo, very near the base of the Stagecoach lift, it seems like an accurate representation. I get to the Stagecoach lot early and take some time to check out the lodge there. At 9 the lift opens and up I go. Quickly I find that there is way more than an inch of new up here. It seems like six inches in places. Now it is starting to snow again, and the wind is picking up as I go higher. I make my way over to the Dipper Express which goes to the top of the Nevada portion of the resort. My plan was to go down the California Trail to check out the CA side first. I go by a red warning sign but only read a few words... "Lift Closed... Not be Able to Return..." Suddenly panic sets in and I stop and skate back uphill some 50 feet back to the sign.
Now I read the sign carefully. The Sky Express (and the gondola from Stateline) were both shut down because of high winds. If the Sky lift goes down, the resort is effectively split into two distinct regions. While it is possible to go down the California Trail from the Nevada side, without the Sky lift there is no way back. Similarly, people who entered from the California Lodge area are stuck on the California side. If I had gone down the California Trail, I would have had to go down to the California base and endure a 10-mile bus ride to get back to my car.
The snow falls all morning, varying from light to heavy, with the wind constantly blowing things around. There aren't many people around, because all of the people on my side of the resort came from the smallish Nevada-side Stagecoach and Boulder bases. I bomb down a number of blues, all groomed last night and now covered with 2 to 8 inches of powder, depending on how the wind blew it around. Everywhere the snow surface has those scallops that the wind creates. After going down Big Dipper, I continue down Galaxy, getting first tracks on it. All turns are big surfing powder turns. At the Galaxy load I figure out why no one had come down here yet. Galaxy is an old, slow triple and I was the first customer of the day.
Next up the Comet Express. The Comet run early in the day was the most carveable thing around. Maybe it was groomed later, and maybe its positioning in the wind blew much of the fresh snow off of the top. The groom seemed to be only a couple of inches below the fresh, and it was possible to feel "hooked up" when making turns. Next down Crossover, which is just a slow cat track except for the very end, and this takes one down to the Olympic chair. The Olympic Downhill run isn't very steep at all, and despite the thick powder on it, I managed to make carved turns down the whole way. Thank goodness for the new snow over the past couple of weeks; it has really saved this trip for me. The supports of the Olympic Express base lift terminal are sitting in a frozen pond. Things must have been pretty bleak before the recent wave of new snow.
After making a couple of loops on the Stagecoach lift I went back up and dove into the East Peak Lodge to unpack my lunch. It is snowing hard now, and visibility is poor. I must have sat in there for almost an hour waiting for things to clear up. Finally around 1 PM the snow lets up a little and I go back out. First I try Comet again, and find that at least three inches of new had fallen on it in less than a couple of hours. It felt bogged down in new snow compared to earlier in the morning. I go back down to Olympic and make my last run down to the Stagecoach base. When I get to my car it is around 2PM, and the sun is starting to come out.
Heavenly lodges have the most expensive food I've ever seen at a ski resort. I think it is more expensive than Vail, and easily rivals Aspen. So far, the terrain here is impressive but I'll be packing my own lunch. No pictures yet. I misplaced my camera for a couple of days and today was nothing but blowing snow.