Skiing into the unknown
“What’s down there, Dude?” I asked the shadowy figure who materialized from clouds thick as soup atop Squaw Valley’s Emigrant Peak, 8,700 feet above sea level.
“You got me,” said the unknown skier, who took the cat track down after thinking twice and disappeared in the billowy mist.
I’d skied Squaw Valley once before two years ago, but last Thursday, socked in by clouds, the mountain was a mystery to me.
Looking down from the top of Emigrant, I could just make out the swirl of the cornice where the run rolled over the ridge top, but it was a white blur beyond that.
But I’ve skied in clouds and blizzards before, my foolish ego told me, as I pointed my boards downhill and dropped into a haze so thick I could hardly see the skis at my feet.
Two ragged cowboy turns into the run and struggling to find my edges, I haphazardly felt my way down the mountain like trying to avoid a piece of furniture while walking in the dark.
But halfway down and a couple dozen turns in the back seat later, the clouds cleared, I found my feet and the strange, spinning feeling of vertigo left me.
It was drizzling rain at the bottom of the mountain when we arrived earlier that morning at legendary Squaw Valley USA, site of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games and perhaps California’s best known ski resort.
Just before boarding the High Camp Cable Car, the sun peeked briefly through parting clouds as the storm raced across the Northern Sierra mountaintops. But that would be the last we’d see of the sun all day.
“Get ready for a swing at the first tower, folks,” said Jake, a cable car operator from Massachusetts.
“One more swing,” he said at the second tower as the cable car climbed into the mist toward a cloud-shrouded High Camp.
When we exited the cable car at 8,200 feet, the rain had turned to snow, transforming High Camp and the surrounding bowls into a snowy winter wonderland.
My previous visit to a sunny and crowded Sugar Bowl New Year’s Day was a totally different world compared to the stormy conditions at Squaw Valley last Thursday.
At times it seemed like we were alone on the mountain.
There were virtually no lift lines and a lot of empty chairs due to the blustery weather, which dropped about a half-a-foot of new snow on top of the 11-foot base at the upper mountain.
Riding the lifts through the clouds above High Camp we could hear the scraping of edges, the clanking of ski poles and the hoots and hollers of skiers – but we couldn’t see them through the thick fog.
It definitely wasn’t a day for the blue sky, sunshine crowd – just your basic hardcore skiers and boarders who will ski in anything and love it.
There’s still people out there every day, sunshine or snow, said Squaw Valley’s media and public relations specialist, Katja Dahl.
“Skiers and snowboarders are pretty passionate about their sport, so if the conditions are good, they’re not generally concerned about the weather,” Dahl said.
Feeling our way around the mountain, we didn’t get to all of Squaw Valley’s 4,000 acres of lift-served terrain, which would be a stretch on a sunny day.
But the runs we got in were all good and even though we couldn’t see at times, it was a pleasure skiing in the clouds.
Squaw Valley is definitely a great mountain stacked with plenty of heavy duty expert terrain and great open spaces.
The KT-22 Express lifts skiers to a bunch of black diamond runs, which offer everything from chutes and groomed high speed cruising runs to bumps and big bowls.
The Granite Chief, Silverado and Broken Arrow lifts are the places to find Squaw’s most sought after pitches and stashes of powder.
“We’ve got lots of big bowls, steeps and wide open spaces, which is nice,” Dahl said.
On the light and easy side, Squaw Valley also offers plenty of skiing for intermediates and beginners.
Beginners can ride the cable car up to High Camp and take it easy on lifts like Bailey’s Beach, Belmont, Links and East Broadway, all of which are lighted for night skiing.
“Beginners get the same full mountain experience and a little taste of what it’s like to be on top of the mountain,” Dahl said.
Next week I’ll be skiing at Squaw’s neighboring ski resort, Alpine Meadows.
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