South Lake Tahoe, CA – Okay, I’ll admit it. Heavenly wasn’t
exactly at the top of my list of gnarly places to rip the slopes prior to our
family’s recent tour of the Lake Tahoe area. I’d heard the hotshots at our
local mountain sneering all the way back to my hometown near Niagara Falls.
“Crawling with European tourists.”
“Get ready to do a lot of pancake-flat traversing.”
I was not psyched.
The trip started with a long, long
Southwest Air flight from Detroit one very early morning last March. Nobody
warned me that those $99 Internet flight specials dock at every whistle stop
during the long haul west. We picked up our AWD Subaru Outback at Reno Airport
(about as handy and pleasant an airport as you’ll ever experience, by the way)
and made the hour or so drive south along the east shore of beautiful Lake Tahoe
to the twin cities of South Lake Tahoe, California and Stateline, Nevada.
Slopes on Heavenly’s California side rise above the city of Stateline
Upon checking in at the modest Tahoe
Tropicana Lodge with the kids, Jacquelin, 14, and Jonathon, 10, and with my
dutiful partner Briar in tow, one could be excused for feeling a tad jaded even
before our six day whirlwind family tour got off the ground. However, it took
only one long look at the giant massif that constitutes Heavenly to dispel those
thoughts. Slowly turning orange in the alpenglow of late afternoon, its majestic
head reared over city and lake. I sensed that tomorrow might be a very good
day for skiing. As it turned out, it was indeed a very, very good day. That
supposedly intermediate mountain beat me to a pulp.
Our family lives to ski, especially
when we travel west. Call it hardcore family ski-vacationing for lack of a
better term, because when the Dabolls do a family ski trip, we really rip.
I had long wanted to plan a ski week in the Tahoe area – one where we would
ski no less than six resorts in six days. Naturally, when I mentioned the plan
to the rest of the family, there was a speedy and unanimously affirmative response.
Briar, in particular, had yearned to ski Heavenly for years. As I said earlier,
I was a bit more reserved due to my preconceived notions about the supposed
character of the resort.
A HEAVENLY HISTORY
One of only two resorts in the continental
United States that span two states (the other being Catamount in New York/Massachusetts)
Heavenly Ski Resort commenced operations in the mid-sixties with the usual small
tows and lifts. Heavenly slumbered for years under a series of independent
stewardships until it was purchased in the early eighties by a Japanese conglomerate
that also owned Steamboat, Colorado. Heavenly Ski Valley showed steady, if
not spectacular growth during the eighties, as it was the first – and still
the major – Tahoe area resort to market heavily in Europe, Britain and the Orient.
Les Otten and his American Skiing Company
(ASC) purchased the two areas in 1997-8 during the great industry conglomeration
of the late nineties. Surprisingly, the industry buzz was that Otten really
wanted Steamboat, and was literally forced to take Heavenly as part of the deal.
ASC was handsomely rewarded in 1998-99 when, in its first full season of operation,
Heavenly was blessed with near record snows and surpassed Steamboat in skier
visits. In the process, it became one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal
year of post-expansion pain for the company. Noting that three of the last
five years have been record ones at the resort, it would appear that Heavenly’s
newfound status as one of ASC’s crown jewels seems assured.
It’s not that ASC didn’t help its own
cause in this regard. In typical Otten fashion, ASC began the laborious task
of modernizing the mountain’s somewhat antiquated lift system and infrastructure.
The burgeoning lift deficiencies were, frankly, magnified as a result of the
mountain’s inefficient terrain layout itself. However, within a single year,
ASC replaced or upgraded no fewer than six lifts with new high-speed quads and
a high-speed summit six-pack. Heavenly now has a lift system to rival the best
in North America, with nearly thirty lifts including a very cool aerial tram.
Overall, the resort plans to spend at least $250 million dollars over the next
five years to modernize the area.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
As I’ve said above, Heavenly is a tough
mountain to service efficiently. There are three widely separated bases in two
states, and the front face of the mountain is split in two by a big chunk of
north facing watershed managed by the U.S. Forest Service on a “hands-off basis”.
Heavenly literature likes to talk about the resort covering 4800 acres; a truly
massive chunk of real estate. This figure probably overstates the usable terrain
somewhat. However, I can assure you that there are more lines available than
the hardest hardcore can navigate in an entire season. And, because the real
hotshots tend to gravitate to other areas such as Squaw Valley or Kirkwood,
much of the good stuff at Heavenly can remain untracked for literally days after
Click image to open a full-size Heavenly trail map in a new browser
It’s probably easiest to visualize
Heavenly as a giant cone-shaped massif or pyramid. Then, envision some alien
force shoving down on the central peak of the massif until the perimeter buckles
inward about halfway down the sides, thus creating a series of gullies, flats,
sub-peaks and ridge lines around the entire perimeter of the area. The mountain
claims a total of 3,500 feet of vertical drop, the most in California. It is
possible to ski it all in one chunk in several locations leading to each of
the three bases. However, for all intents and purposes, the mountain is best
skied in two halves, each about 1,800 vertical feet in total, as the gullies
are often served by lifts running “backwards” up and over the mountain, or else
require a nasty traverse to get around. Likely for this reason, Heavenly has
developed the reputation that the trail network consists of little more than
long, boring flats and traverses, which is a real shame. With a good guide
to show one where and how to ski the mountain, Heavenly offers several large
pods of thigh-burning, sustained vertical.
We checked in at the California lodge
area and were greeted by Monica Bandow, the pert and knowledgeable public relations
manager at the resort. Monica was pleased to reveal that the resort’s master
plan had at long last been approved after several delays. Upon completion of
the development authorized thereunder, the biggest complaint against the area
– that there is no real base area -would be resolved. The base redevelopment
is key to the area’s continued growth, as the percentage of destination visitors
has already grown from approximately 30 percent to nearly 70 percent of total
skier-days under ASC’s tenure. Of this figure, some 6 percent of all skiers
arrive from the UK alone.
For such a large mountain, Heavenly
makes do with three relatively tiny base areas. The California base houses
the aerial tram and a high speed quad, each running approximately 1,800 vertical
feet up the mountain to the first sub-peak. California base serves as the staging
area for most of the Bay Area weekend crowds, and, accordingly, it can be a
zoo during those times. The much quieter Stagecoach and Boulder bases on the
Nevada side are reached by traveling east around the base of the mountain.
Each area is served by its own high-speed quad.
A huge, new base area complex has been
approved smack-dab in the north facing central watershed area, complete with
a high speed eight passenger gondola ferrying skiers nearly 2,900 vertical feet
up to a previously un-serviced frontal area known as Vongchmidt’s Flats. Additional
trails as well as two new upper-mountain lifts are planned in the high peaks
area above the gondola to connect with the existing system. There are further
lifts planned in the immediate future as the approvals are completed.
Monica explained that about 70 percent
of the mountain is groomed nightly. Heavenly is also at the forefront of the
“half-cut” grooming process. In this system, one side of the trail is allowed
to grow bumps, and the other side is groomed nightly. This has proven extremely
popular with the skiing public of late.
TIME TO EXPLORE
After our interview, Monica hooked
us up with Michael Allen, head of the Heavenly Ski Patrol since 1991. A proud
new dad, Michael is 42, looks 32, and his attitude and personality speak volumes
about how much he enjoys life at the resort. Apparently, his level of reverence
is such that he owns a chalet at the base of Pyramid Peak, which is located
somewhat to the southwest of the resort. After a few perfunctory introductions
on the first ride up, Michael queried the kids about the extent of their abilities
at the top station. Kids being kids (and me being myself), we were off like
a shot down legendary Gunbarrel, a steep double-black – groomed crosscut style
– running straight down the front face overlooking the town.
Although it was a bluebird day, it
had snowed about six inches of new powder overnight on top of several feet over
the past two weeks. Frankly, for us eastern hardpack skiers, the conditions
were nothing short of magnificent. Eighteen hundred continuous verts of Super-G
turns later, we were already marveling at the beauty of skiing Tahoe. And while
the mogulled half of Gunbarrel looked soft and enticing, we went off with Michael
for trails further afar.
Some of Heavenly’s tree skiing (image courtesy Heavenly Ski Resort/Scott
As I have alluded to earlier, there
is an art to getting the most out of Heavenly and avoiding the long traverses
between pods. Remember, these pods each contain about the acreage of a goodly-sized
eastern resort. Heavenly is thickly forested over much of its acreage, with
the massive Jeffrey pines ubiquitous to the area running to about the 8,500
foot level. The top 1,500 feet are mostly dotted with scrubby white pine, which
become progressively stunted as one nears the very peak. Anyone looking for
great glade skiing need look no further. I would conservatively estimate that
Heavenly has at least 1,500 acres of absolutely terrific glades, located mostly
on the north-facing and on the upper reaches of the mountain. Adding to the
appeal of the glades is the fact that the destination crowds that frequents
the mountain tend to stick to the blue groomers. Seriously, even at the end
of our day, there were vast – and I mean vast – expanses of gladed terrain with
nary a track cut through them.
Michael took us up and over a high
traverse (named, not surprisingly, High Traverse) to the Nevada side, which
mostly faces east. Seasoned local skiers, especially in the spring, try to
ski that side first, as it catches first sunlight and tends to soften up early.
The flip side is that the snow in this area often turns into soggy mush or nasty
sun crust very early in the day. We headed southeast into Milky Way bowl, the
only area of Heavenly to offer true bowl-type skiing. This large bowl is manageable
for any solid intermediate skier.
West of Milky Way Bowl lie Mott and
Killebrew Canyons. If Heavenly ever lacked steeps, the opening of these two
Canyons rectified that deficiency. The slopes there earn their double-diamond
rating honestly. Trust me – those glossy magazine promo photos aren’t trick
photography. I vowed to return later that day and attempt to avoid death in
a more private fashion. Monica had earlier advised that Killebrew Canyon often
remains virtually untracked for days after a storm, Mott Canyon somewhat less
so. Despite their steep south facing aspect, both of the canyons are generally
open by Christmas holidays, and do not close until mid-April.
Cruising over to the Stagecoach area,
Michael, Jonathon and I rode up on its high-speed quad. Passing over a modestly
pitched run, he pointed out the “Bono Tree.” Yep, I was passing right over
the spot where Sonny bought the farm. Surprisingly, the run was very innocuous,
not at all heavily gladed. Michael explained that Bono likely slid into the
tree, then slumped to the bottom of a tree well. Camouflaged by his dark clothes,
he very well may have laid there for several hours while literally hundreds
of skiers whizzed by on the busy intermediate trial not ten feet away. Michael
modestly went on to explain that he was the primary interviewee with Bryant
Gumbell of the Today Show.
One of Heavenly’s "money shots" (image courtesy Heavenly
Who says Heavenly has no steeps?! (image courtesy Heavenly Ski Resort/Scott
After several enjoyable runs down the
Nevada side and a side trip through a very excellent terrain park located in
the upper Stagecoach area, we traversed back over the peak to experience the
far western California runs. While the view east to the fertile valleys on
the Nevada side is stunning, the views of the lake and the Sisters on the California
side is absolutely out of this world. Again, the usual hype in the resort’s
literature is in all honesty exceeded by the reality of viewing the stunning
panorama of lake and mountain that reveals itself from the top of the California
side. Michael explained that photos taken from here constitute the bulk of
the resort’s “money shots.” These are the photos utilized in the resort’s
promotional materials showing, typically, a skier suspended in mid-air over
a glistening aquamarine lake surface. Folks, it’s the real deal. Michael patiently
waited while we played the role of “tourons with a camera” for a short while.
I would be remiss if I did not comment
in this report on something that became very apparent as I dealt with the resort’s
employees throughout the day. Most appeared utterly content with their jobs,
with a few lifties on the upper, more isolated lifts definitely groovin’ to
the tunes blaring out of their lift stations. If happy employees equate to
happy patrons, then ASC is definitely on the right track in this regard.
Shortly after lunchtime, Michael excused
himself due to a prior commitment. Accordingly, it was time for some unfettered
family exploring. After a quick bite in the California base lodge (not cheap!),
we hopped on the quad and six-pack to the very peak. At 10,100 feet, this is
the highest lift-served point in the Tahoe area. A vast expanse of scrubby
White Pine stared up at me from below. I headed down Ellie’s Run, long a favorite
of local bark-eaters. Frankly, in comparison to tightly spaced, eastern glade
skiing, western glades are, shall we say, “less demanding.” However, any loss
of sense of accomplishment was very quickly replaced by a sense of expansiveness
that was just as exhilarating in its own way.
Heavenly also maintains intermediate
gladed areas, as well as something rare in the east – honest to goodness blue-square
mogul runs. However, the expert bumper will never lack for challenge at the
resort. At day’s end, we returned to the top of Gunbarrel. Whereas at 9:00
a.m. there had been a silky, groomed steep slope, there now appeared a relentless
staircase of huge moguls. Many otherwise self-respecting males were queued
to download on the tram, a popular option for many less-experienced skiers.
Fortunately, it wasn’t a decision we had to make. Hopping over the lip, Briar
and I experienced a final thigh-burning, exhilarating run down the front face
to the California base lodge. Literally falling backwards into a snow bank
at the bottom, we reflected back on one of the finest ski days of our lives.
Lame mountain? No way. Heavenly rocks.