How sweet it is!
This is the first in a series on skiing in the Northern Sierra by staff writer and former competitive skier Kevin Wiser.
Back in the homeland, waiting tables by night at the foot of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and skiing 100-plus days per winter, we called epic ski days like this “the days we lived for.”
Wispy stretches of clouds, the tail-end of the storm from the night before, pushed off to the east as we headed up Highway 20 New Year’s Day.
By the time we reached Donner Summit, the clouds had burned off and Sugar Bowl, filled to the brim with 14 feet of snow, glittered under the morning sun.
A couple of lift rides later, we stood at the top of Mount Lincoln like wide-eyed kids in front of the Christmas tree, then dropped into a half-skied-out but still powdery Hellman’s Chute and let our skis go, snow flying everywhere.
The snow was so easy and creamy that our skis seemed to turn themselves – all we had to do was lean on an edge a little bit and will it.
Twenty runs or so and maybe 15,000 vertical feet later, our legs were feeling the burn, but it didn’t matter – we were in heaven, or at least as close as we could get.
Sugar Bowl’s primo conditions New Year’s Day were reflected in the faces of crowds of skiers who tempered their revelry the night before for a chance to make turns under blue skies following a series of El Nino-fueled storms the last two weeks of 2002.
“Incredible,” “awesome” and “flat-out unbelievable” were words used to describe the day’s clear skies and monumental amounts of snow.
Sugar Bowl Marketing Manager Bill Hudson said he was a bit surprised by the New Year’s Day crowds, but delighted with the early big snows.
“It’s usually not that busy New Year’s Day,” Hudson said. “But it was the first clear day in weeks and people wanted to get out there.”
Snow-base depths ranged from 10 feet at the bottom to 14 feet at the top of Mount Lincoln, which sits at an elevation of 8,383 feet.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we had the greatest base depth in the country right now,” Hudson said.
Meteorologists point to the El Nino phenomenon, a mysterious warming of the eastern Pacific, as the driving factor behind the spate of storms that slammed the Northern Sierra Mountains the end of 2002.
El Nino-driven storms usually dip down into Southern California, but instead barreled straight into Reno-Tahoe and north into Oregon.
“When there’s a weak to moderate El Nino, the storms tend to move into central and Southern California, and we’ve just been fortunate to get that (precipitation) up here in the north,” said Qwikcast meteorologist Steve Martinez.
While big storms are not unusual for Sugar Bowl, which averages more than 500 inches of snow a season, Hudson said the real deep stuff usually comes later in the year.
“We were pleasantly surprised that it came before Christmas,” he said.
Though the Northern Sierra has been dry since the first of the year, Martinez said the El Nino phenomenon should continue to bring storms Northern California’s way.
Some folks I talked to were surprised that the lift lines were relatively short New Year’s Day, considering the tons of cars that packed Sugar Bowl’s parking lots.
Lift line waits were five to 10 minutes at the most, and hardly nothing at all for skiers zipping through the singles lines.
All the skiers who went up, however, had to come down, and the soft snow was rutted-out on the more well-traveled runs by the end of the day.
But there was good cruising to be found for long-boarders on the outside edges of runs, and the powder hounds were still finding untracked snow in the upper bowls and through the trees.
“That’s the great thing about Sugar Bowl,” Hudson said. “Even a day after the storm, you can still find the good stuff.”
I started skiing in the late 1960s on wooden skis, leather boots and cable bindings on the hills around my parent’s home along Utah’s Wasatch Front.
Later, I moved up to the big mountains and started making turns at Utah ski resorts like Snow Basin, Snowbird and Alta, and others across the Intermountain West.
In 1984, I borrowed a pair of downhill racing skis to jump in the last Gelande World Championships held at Snow Basin, got hooked, got rid of my bump skis, and have been skiing on long boards ever since.
Before I came to Grass Valley in August 2000 to write for The Union, I worked for a weekly in Sun Valley, Idaho, and got to know that mountain, touted as America’s premier destination ski resort.
But I’d have to say that Sugar Bowl is right up there with the best resorts I’ve skied in the West.
Next week I’ll be skiing at Squaw Valley, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games.
Other Northern Sierra ski resorts I plan to ski this winter include Alpine Meadows, Heavenly, and Sugar Bowl’s neighboring resorts, Donner Ski Ranch and Boreal.
If I didn’t list your favorite Northern Sierra ski resort, give me a call (477-4219). Maybe we can go make some turns.
Sugar Bowl Ski Resort
Located at the top of Donner Summit, Sugar Bowl is the closest major ski resort to the Grass Valley/Nevada City area.
Follow Highway 20 east to Interstate 80, then take the Norden/Soda Springs exit and follow Highway 40. The drive takes about an hour to an hour and a half, depending on traffic.
The ski area1s seven quad lifts and three double-chair lifts whisk skiers to tons of terrain ranging from easy to most difficult.
Lift ticket prices for adults (23-59) are $54 for a full day and $38 for a half day. Seniors 60-69 pay $30 and children 6-12 ski for $13.
For the rest of the season, skiers who pay with a Visa card can ski Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for $35 a day. Kids who wear helmets ski for just $8 a day.
The resort1s Village, Main and Mid Mountain Lodges offer food and drink ranging from hot breakfast and cold cereals in the morning, barbecue and brown bags on sun decks for lunch, and gourmet dining with wine and cocktails for dinner.
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