Go sell it on the mountain
In the Squaw-vs.-Heavenly duel to become Tahoe's destination resort, skiers are the winners
Bill Fink, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, November 6, 2005
Lake Tahoe -- They stand at either end of Tahoe like Otos and Ephialtes, the mythological Greek giants who tried to storm heaven by piling mountains on top of one another. But in this case, these titans are piling money on top of mountains as they bank on opposite sides of the theme: "If you can't bring the party to the mountain, bring the mountain to the party."
Heavenly is Tahoe's South Shore goliath. Standing 10,067 feet tall, towering 3,500 feet above its base, it straddles the California-Nevada boundary like a colossus, with a body of 4,800 acres of skiable terrain -- by all measures the biggest of Tahoe.
Squaw Valley is the giant of North Shore. With a pedigree of the 1960 Winter Olympics, dozens of extreme ski movie appearances and more cliffs than a "Roadrunner" cartoon, Squaw is no gentle giant. But it still can comfortably carry 49,000 skiers per hour on 34 lifts from its foothills to its Headwall and other Squaw peaks.
These are impressive mountains. But nowadays it is not good enough for a ski area to have a variety of terrain, vertical drop and all the lifts to get you to the top. This is because we have entered the age of the "destination resort."
Nothing against San Francisco weekenders, but both Squaw and Heavenly would gladly trade in their commuter-visit status for "destination" status. Both hills are desperately trying to become the bring-the-whole-family, stay-the-week type of place, home to the stars and all the hip bars -- California's answer to Aspen or Vail. Not surprisingly, the Vail Corporation now owns Heavenly, and the Intrawest ski conglomerate (Winter Park, Colo. and Whistler Blackcomb, B.C.) is developing Squaw's area facilities. Vail has spent more than $36 million on Heavenly improvements since 2002, while Intrawest has thrown a comparable amount to develop the Village at Squaw. (Both resorts are scheduled to open Nov. 18, weather permitting.)
So what should skiers expect in these destinations: topnotch skiing with all the frills, or a couple of winterized Disneylands?
Squaw, on Tahoe's North Shore, has always had the reputation as a ski-first, party-later type of place. Ski bums were doing extreme skiing here way before anyone had coined the phrase, hucking themselves off hundred-foot cliffs with nothing more than twine and raw wood planks as skis (at least to hear them tell it). Squaw brought the winter Olympics to the mountain in 1960 and continues to attract the best skiers in the world. But since it is tucked a couple miles off Highway 89 -- 15 miles from Truckee, the nearest town -- Squaw has not had much to offer as a "destination" aside from excellent skiing and a few on-mountain bars.
The Squaw folks figured they couldn't move the mountain to a destination, so they created a destination at the mountain, the Village at Squaw. The recent development, begun in 2000, is a self-contained bubble of a ski village, with an instant "traditional" Irish pub, Hawaiian spa and a total of 286 slope-side condos, 34 places to eat and 22 (!) bars now on or around the mountain. Combined with live bands in the plaza and the rocking scene at Bar One on weekends, Squaw is becoming the destination of its dreams, living up to its nickname of "Squawllywood."
Heavenly, at South Lake Tahoe, is a snowball's throw away from a half-dozen major-league casinos, including Harrah's and Caesar's, that line the shore. But not enough people were making the trip from the strip to the slopes. So Heavenly has brought the hill to the destination: They installed a direct gondola to ferry skiers between the mountain and the main street of South Lake Tahoe. Now you see people wearing ski boots while walking the strip of casinos, as if some kind of global cooling trend had hit Vegas. The complex built around the gondola includes a huge hotel, two dozen shops, eight restaurants, an ice-skating rink, movie theater and video arcade.
Oh yeah, and there's skiing. One starts to forget these destinations started life as just a couple of excellent ski mountains.
Heavenly has the reputation as the friendly giant, the big softie, with wide ski runs and the best views in Tahoe, stuff you just want to relax and enjoy. The family-oriented activities on mountain include tubing and snow biking in the midmountain park, as well as an extensive ski school.
But don't be fooled by Heavenly's reputation as a beginner destination. It has plenty of advanced terrain. The recently opened Mott Canyon section has tight, steep, rock- and tree-lined runs in a roped-off section with dire warnings. The High Roller terrain parks at Heavenly boast halfpipes and jumps as big as any on the World Cup circuit.
Last winter, I was flying through the advanced park, and my friend jumping behind me sailed slightly askew on one takeoff. He landed about 90 degrees off the vertical, fracturing his back and rupturing his spleen. Which led to two questions: Why was he in the advanced terrain park, and what does a spleen do, anyway?
In the "do you feel lucky?" spirit of the nearby casinos, you can finish your day at Heavenly with an assault on its toughest run, Gunbarrel. This monster mogul field sits at the bottom of Heavenly's California side, in plain view of everyone at the lodge. To the great amusement of spectators, tired skiers tumble down the hill like loose socks in the spin cycle. This can actually be a good thing. One friend, after three back-jarring rolls through the bumps, found himself face down, staring at a flurry of $20 bills scattered across the slope. He recovered from his bumps and bruises in time to gather seed money for that night's blackjack tables.
On any visit to Heavenly, be sure to stop at the top of the Sky Express lift, on the catwalk between California and Nevada, to appreciate one of the best views not only in Tahoe, but perhaps in the entire ski world. Lake Tahoe spreads below you like a bright blue Oriental rug below a crystal chandelier ring of mountains, the walls between them hung with thousands of waving pine trees. Turn the corner, follow the trail into Nevada, and it's like you're on another planet. Look down past the mountain base to the burnt-yellow desert flatlands outside Carson City. You'd imagine you could ski all the way to the bottom, unhitch your mule, pack your skis and ride to the silver mines for your evening shift.
On the north shore, Squaw's reputation for advanced ski paradise is well earned. From your seat on the KT-22 lift, take a look at the inevitable ski tracks going down the vertical "slope" of the 20-foot tall, glacier-blue, frozen waterfall halfway up the mountain. How do you practice something like that? For mortals, the long advanced slopes descending from the top of this peak have earned KT-22 the reputation as the best ski lift in America. You can try to keep up with Squaw's freestyle ski team as they practice runs down the trees and bumps of "Johnny Mosely's Run" on the backside of KT.
And the view from Squaw's High Camp lodge, while not exactly giving a visitor a "heavenly" perspective over Tahoe, definitely approaches jaw-dropping status, with its panorama of jagged cliffs and snowy precipices rivaling those of the Alps. And like Heavenly, a turn around the corner from this viewpoint is like entering another world. At Squaw, the catwalk reveals a collection of bikini-clad nonskiers sunning themselves on warm spring days out at High Camp's huge mid-mountain swimming pool. When taking into account Squaw's ice-skating rink, a bungee jump (rarely open -- consider the 100-mph winter winds) and the village at the base, and you have your destination resort with a capital D.
If you're looking for an on-mountain "scene," stop by one of Squaw's terrain parks and get the latest on hipster boarding lingo. As freestyle riders sit on the slope waiting their turn to jump, they recline with their feet fastened together on the boards, lying on the side of the mountain like so many seals. They talk about sponsorship deals, video shoots and the newest tricks on the block.
"I'm going to do a truck driver," said one 16-year-old, "a truck driver with a ham sandwich."
Others nodded in approval. He then launched himself from the super-size ramp, grabbed the front of his snowboard with both hands, "steering" the board back and forth like a giant truck wheel. Before he hit the ground, he turned to face his friends up top and munched his gloved hand in what was apparently a very ham-like manner.
Trying to one-up him, one of the younger guys in the group went next, declaring he was doing a "truck driver plus egg salad." He was laughed off the slope. "Egg salad?'" said a boarder in all-Raiders gear. "Now that's f -- stupid!" You have been warned.
But Squaw is still an accessible mountain for beginners and families. It has a highly rated ski school, the sheltered intermediate ski area of Shirley Lake and the long groomers of the backside Lake View runs, so there's terrain for all.
Speaking of giant, lift ticket prices at Squaw and Heavenly continue to grow like Jack's beanstalk. Heavenly charges a you've-got-to-be-kidding $73 for adults in peak season, while Squaw will get you for $65. But deals can be had. In tune with the destination theme, visitors can practically ski for free as part of multi-day hotel packages, particularly midweek. Both resorts' Web sites, as well as a slew of booking agencies, advertise great lodging-skiing combo offers throughout the season. Both hills also have early-season ticket discounts and frequent-skier programs.
So who wins this battle of the titans? I'd say the skiers do. Whether you're looking for a weeklong trip or a weekend of gambling; if you're a beginner or a hard-core cliff jumper; a family of five or a partying single, both Heavenly Mountain and Squaw Valley can be perfect destinations.
And if they aren't? The 50,000 skiers per hour ascending the slopes of Heavenly and Squaw are 100,000 fewer people who will get in your way while you enjoy the dozen other less-trafficked hills of Lake Tahoe.
Discussion about winter adventure sports in the Sierra Nevada mountains including but not limited to; winter backpacking and camping, mountaineering, downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, etc.
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No. Skiers are the losers. $73 for a lift ticket? I can't afford that. Neither can most people. How is a family supposed to ski somewhat regularly? I guess it doesn't matter because they want to cater to the families that will come and spend $10,000 for a week of skiing or those that will buy a $2 million apartment. Goodbye to the diehards.... Welcome wealthy weekend warriors! (too bad so few of them ski)
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