“Oh, so you’re going to Kirkwood tomorrow? Man, that place is steep.”
I was surprised. Up to that point, all the chat had been about how snowy Kirkwood is: about its snowfall average (12 metres, 476 inches a season) being the highest of the Lake Tahoe ski areas; and about its record-breaking season of 2010-11, when it was walloped by a mind-boggling 20 metres/63 feet of the white stuff. But steep? “What’s the big deal about that?” I wondered. “Isn’t every ski resort steep, in places?”
And then I got there, and Owen Lund, my guide, took me to the top of the Cornice Express chair-lift for a warm-up run.
“Now, before we get started, I want to discuss a couple of techniques for dealing with these slopes,” he said.
I thought we were going to chat about making fluent turns on steeper terrain. But instead, he briefed me on how avoid serious injury if I fell over. You know, stuff like turning your body so you don’t slide head-first down the mountain and head-butt a tree. And how important it is to arrest your progress before you pick up too much speed. He even gave me a little demo with his ski pole.
And this was on the warm-up run, first thing in the morning…
Now, I’ve skied pistes which are, technically, steeper before – Harikiri in Mayrhofen, Austria, springs to mind. But Harikiri is short, and only properly steep for about four turns. The two trails we skied under chair six in Kirkwood Ski Resort were at least three times as long, with a pitch that was more sustained. The snow wasn’t exactly soft, either. We’ve had a couple of warm days and cold nights here in California, and the freeze-thaw cycle had left a coating of what Owen calls “noisy snow” on the surface: the kind of snow that requires sharp edges and steady nerves.
Needless to say, I was warmed up nicely by the time we got to the bottom of the second descent. Which was a good thing, because then Owen took me to Kirkwood’s most famous in-bounds terrain, called Wagon Wheel Bowl. It was even steeper.
So yes, Kirkwood Ski Resort is steep. Over half its ski area is to be found on a long north and north-east facing slope that is – along its entire face – vertiginous. Sometimes, it’s cut with chutes and gullies. Here and there, it’s sprinkled with trees. But for the most part, it’s just one long snowfield – and because this is an American resort, all of it is secured against avalanches. When one of its legendary snow storms blows in – the kind of storm that can bury a cabin – it must be mind-bogglingly exciting. No wonder the Freeride World Tour is making a stop here.
But even on a hard-packed day like yesterday, it was a fabulous place for a day trip. The weather was gorgeous. The drive to get there took us through a beautiful and deserted landscape of forests, mountains and snow-covered lakes. And the laid-back, rootsy, middle-of-nowhere vibe was perfect.
I’m sucker for places like this – Telluride in Colorado, Bonneval-sur-Arc in France, Grand Targhee in Wyoming, Kicking Horse in British Columbia. I love them all, and now I can add Kirkwood to the list. It has an extra, slightly wigged-out Californian atmosphere too – nowhere more evident than in the Outback mountain grill, which is the kind of place in which you could easily spend half a day, with your feet up, drinking beer and talking nonsense.
Oh yes, and there’s one more great thing about it. Once you’ve skied really steep terrain, anything of more moderate pitch seems p*ss-easy: even when it’s not. Late in the day we skied one of the “gentler” off-piste slopes in Kirkwood, and even though the snow was pretty crusty, it was – for the most part – a blast.
I can’t wait to go back.
For more information about Kirkwood Ski Resort, visit kirkwood.com: it makes a great day-trip from South Lake Tahoe and you can ski it for free if you buy a three-day (or longer) lift ticket at Heavenly. Check out my skiing in California blog, too. 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. The car hire is crucial – because that way you can turn a ski holiday into a ski safari.