Thar be dragons – Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows can intimidate, educate beginners
There comes a time in every new skier’s life where you have to strap on your goggles, get a firm grip on your poles, look down the wind-battered slopes below and say: “Aaaaaaaaaaarrrhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! What am I doing here, and please tell me that lift thing can carry me back down!”
For me, that first warm-and-fuzzy moment of terror came at Alpine Meadows, where I ventured for my first real ski excursion in May 2003. That was the time the Sierra got hammered by snow late in the spring, leaving great skiing for the only resorts still open – Squaw Valley and Alpine. Only problem was, no beginner lifts were running, so I thought, “Hey, I paid for this ticket, right?”
Well, I paid for it, that’s for sure. Diving down the blue run with no idea what I was doing, I quickly turned into that part of the “Wide World of Sports” intro when they say “… and the agony of defeat.” I think one boot made it to the bottom before I did, but I still had to climb back up to dislodge the ski impaled through a Douglas fir. Good times.
So on this past Super Bowl Sunday, I made my MacArthur-style return to Alpine, knowing that with all the lifts open, it would this time be welcoming to beginners.
My findings were similar to those at the neighboring Squaw Valley just a week before. Though a few green runs are available to newbies, these are not mellow mountains for first-timers.
These are the kinds of places that, were you to meet them in a bar, would poke you in the chest and say, “I don’t take kindly to that look you gave my dog out front.”
But don’t tuck your tail and skulk home just yet. There’s good news. If you’ve gotten a few ski trips under your belt – and I really mean just a few – these might be two of the best Tahoe-area resorts for you to target.
Getting Zen at Squaw Valley
Squaw Valley, a sprawling resort overtly proud of its Olympic heritage (*cough* 44 years ago *cough*), is an immense and spectacular place to advance from unconfident wretch to mildly cocky ski goon.
The green runs, nestled in one giant bowl in the resort’s high elevation, are actually pretty nice. While they’re wide enough to give you a lot of options on the way down, they’re little more than big practice runs.
And when you’ve plunked down the $59 or so for a lift ticket, you would probably want more than that.
Now, assuming you’re not a first- or second-timer, you will probably find a full day at Squaw a tremendously rewarding experience.
I took a “Level 3” lesson, which focuses on upgrading you from green runs to blues. Where the first lessons focus on getting you balanced and teaching you to plow your way to a stop, this two-hour training was aimed at keeping your skis parallel while taking on tough terrain.
Ever watch the great skiers come shooting down the mountain? Ever seen them plowing with their ski tips together like the doofs coming off the greens? Exactly.
Moving up to intermediate means learning to cut back and forth, shifting your weight as naturally as possible between skis, and taking advantage of that balance you’ve been working on.
“You’re always moving. You want to feel like a bucket of water someone poured down the mountain,” my instructor, Bobby, told us.
Until then, I had more resembled an old typewriter someone tossed down a bowling lane.
Alpine Meadows: one tough lady
Though a bit less awe-inspiring than Squaw, Alpine Meadows is its volleyball-playing sister. She’s pretty, but she’s got a grudge and could kick your butt while changing the carburetor on her pickup.
Like I said, when I first met Alpine, she slammed my head in the snow, tossed my flailing body around, and twisted my leg like Hacksaw Jim Duggan.
After a few quick trips to Tahoe and Donner in the past few months, I was back and ready for more.
But after just those three trips, what I found was a party instead of a brawl. That run that had petrified me a year ago was a relaxing stroll now.
Again, I should stress this is not where you want to get started. Other resorts offer a wider array of green runs to enjoy.
But once you’re comfortable on those lanky planks, make a date with one of these two. In the words of the 9-year-old girl sitting next to me on the Squaw gondola, “It’s not so bad, once you get the hang of it.”
Rookie report card: Squaw Valley
Parking A- Close parking, but with few markers to help find the car.
Lines/crowds B+ No crowds for the few green-run lifts, except during lessons.
Green run variety C+ About 5 similar runs are clustered together. Little diversity.
Green run quality A- Wide runs give you many ways to go down at your own pace.
Price D An adult lift ticket is $59, but it’s just $5 for kids.
Lodge C Packed, poorly organized, and overpriced. Not a good combo.
Overall B- An amazing place to advance out of the beginner phase.
Parking C It’s like a theme park, without the cartoon signs to help find your car.
Lines/crowds B Hectic at the base, but easy to get on the higher-elevation lifts.
Green run variety D There are really just 3. Good practice spots, but that’s about it.
Green run quality C Short and straight runs get old quick.
Price B Lift tickets are $39 every day but holidays. Not bad.
Lodge B+ I love the main lodge. Good prices and good food.
Overall C+ Not for first-timers, but a blast for intermediate skiers.
David Griner is city editor for The Union. Got a question or column idea? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4230.
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