Don’t be put off by Gunbarrel. It’s the first thing most people will tell you about in Heavenly Ski Resort, and for many skiers it’s an intimidating prospect. Dropping through 1,800 vertical feet (550 vertical metres), it is, from top to bottom, a never-ending, knee-mashing mogul field. And it will eat the energy and the confidence of all but the most athletic skiers.
But the fact is, it’s just not representative of the kind of skiing Heavenly has to offer. I’ve just spent a couple of days ranging across the ski area with local instructor Owen Lund, who’s been skiing the mountain all his life; and here’s what really lurks behind the image of all those moguls.
Heavenly is home to superb beginner-level tree-skiing
Finding somewhere to make your first turns through the trees isn’t easy. In the Alps and the Rockies most of them grow much too close together for comfort – and weaving through the forests is an expert-only pastime.
But not in Heavenly Ski Resort. Virtually the whole mountain is covered by trees, and many of them are Jeffery Pines. Natives of the Sierra Nevada, they’re big, muscular things, and they like a bit of space to grow in. Add the easy-going gradient of some of Heavenly’s slopes into the mix, and – hey presto – you’ve got a remarkably stress-free environment in which to make your turns. Okay, so you could drive a truck through many of the glades – but that’s exactly what you need at this stage of your tree-skiing career. Pretty soon, you’ll be slaloming about all over the place, and having a blast in the process.
Of course, not all of Heavenly’s forested slopes are so easy. But that’s a good thing: because it gives you plenty of terrain to progress to as your confidence and ability increases. Lund starts his first-time tree-skiers in a little area he calls “Orion’s Belt Trees” just to the right of the Orion’s Belt trail, which is the perfect tree-skiing nursery slope. From there, it’s on to a steeper run called The Pines under the Olympic Express chair, and so on – until they end up on black-diamond runs like Aries, which are just as demanding as those you’ll find in other resorts.
There are secret powder stashes right next to the trails
There’s only one open, Alpine-style bowl in Heavenly Ski Resort – Milky Way Bowl, right at the top of the ski area. Everywhere else, its off-piste terrain is hidden from view. You can thank all the trees for that: so too the multi-faceted nature of the mountain which never once yields a big panorama of all the terrain.
In other words, you’ve got to pay close attention to the trail map – or better still, hire a guide/instructor – if you want the best of Heavenly’s powder. If you do, you’ll find it hiding right under your nose. Take for example the first day skiing with Owen Lund. Mid-afternoon, he said he’d show us a secret powder stash which wouldn’t be skied out – even though it was 2pm, and there’d only been a dusting of fresh snow. It was off the top of the Olympic Express chairlift if you’re interested, and the “hike” – round the top of the ski patroller’s shack – lasted all of…two minutes. And then there we were, at the top of an disused stretch of trail, with 20 turns of perfect powder beneath our skis. It was untracked. UNTRACKED. Heaven knows how the snow got there. It must have been 20cm deep.
So now I can add “Top of Bonanza” to two other bits of secret powder skiing which I was shown on my last visit, back in March 2011 – Maggie’s Canyon and the Pinnacles. None is hard to get to. All are well worth the effort.
The groomers will boost the most fragile egos
Heavenly is well-stocked with well-groomed intermediate-rated trails; and many have a very gentle pitch. The Nevada side of the mountain is where you’ll find most of them, and a second or third-week skier will enjoy them all. What’s more, because they’re edged by trees, you can enjoy them on flat-light days as well as sunshine: because the low-lights cast by the forest add definition to the snow.
Gunbarrel isn’t the toughest place to ski in Heavenly
It’s funny how Gunbarrel has become the signature heavy-duty run in Heavenly. It’s probably because it’s tough, but not so tough that the average plucky-but-not-expert skier can have a crack at it without risking life and limb. The same can’t be said of Mott and Killbrew canyons. They’re set within the ski area boundary fence, and avalanche protected – but the skiing is going to provide a much sterner test of your nerve than a bunch of moguls. This video will give you a taste of it.
So there you have it – there’s a lot more to Heavenly Ski Resort than Gunbarrel. In fact, the sheer variety of terrain here is one of its defining characteristics – and that’s before you’ve factored in the other ski areas around Lake Tahoe which are in easy day-tripping distance. It’s this more than anything that constitutes the appeal of skiing in California.
For more information about Heavenly Ski Resort, visit skiheavenly.com. With Virgin Holidays, a week skiing in California, based in South Lake Tahoe – which is linked to Heavenly by gondola – starts from £785pp, room only, including flights and hire car.