Tahoe, Here I Come

tahoeY’all probably remember the terrible snowboarding accident that cut short my budding career as the world’s worst snowboarder. Well, that was three years ago, and I am still not fully recovered: there isn’t much to recover when tendons snap off, is there? But I am pretty much functional as I was, if more cautious at times.

While I’ve been good about keeping active, and even added surfing as a new and all-consuming sport, I didn’t snowboard as much any longer. By “as much” I mean that I hadn’t been snowboarding since the accident, with a single exception.

But after three years, I felt like going again. Cautious not to cause injury, I booked a trip to Lake Tahoe. Turns out the season pass cost as little as four day tickets, and I figured even a moderate snowboarding trip would take four days.

I decided in favor of South Lake Tahoe, my old staple. What I really like about the place is that it’s a real town, with real people that live here year round and have their own needs. Other resorts, like Squaw, or Kirkwood, or even Northstar, are little worlds to themselves. There, you are restricted in the things you can do. In SLT, there are grocery stores, gyms, even a K-Mart.

Looking at places to stay, I realized there was an amazing selection of hotels near the gondola. By near, I mean less than three blocks. I knew how important that is, being able to get up, get out, and to the snow without first managing a major hike or bus trip – or even worse, having to deal with parking at the resort.

I settled on the Stardust Lodge. It is reasonably rate, and it’s on the other side of the street (Lake Tahoe Boulevard) from the gondola. It takes me literally more time to get from the room to the hotel exit than from there to the gondola!

I chose a one bedroom condo. It just seemed like a good idea to have a separate bedroom, more space, and a kitchen. It was only $20 more a day, for a lot more comfort. (They have “upgraded” rooms. Having peered into one of them during cleaning time, I would strongly suggest you get those: they have real kitchens with ovens, while I only have a microwave and an induction burner.)

As far as the trip was concerned, I checked flights and quickly dismissed the idea. To fly into Tahoe means to land in Reno, which is still an hour away from SLT. The cost was strangely high (over $350), there was a stop involved, with resulting chances of missed connections, and nobody ever knows what they are going to charge you for luggage and snowboard. Add to that finding transportation to the airport and from the airport to the hotel. It was really not worth it.

Given that my old Subaru wasn’t really in the mood for a trip into the snow, I checked for rental cars. A four wheel drive for the entire stay (10 days) would cost me only $255, so I went with that. Sadly, I couldn’t go with Enterprise across the street in Pacific Beach, since their cars were twice as expensive (showing an incredible lack of planning on their part – the cars at the airport were much cheaper).

For the trip I chose the safe and scenic route: US 395 all the way. I had done it before, on my way to Shasta, and I remembered the gorgeous vistas until you hit Nevada (after that it gets dull). It was an easy trip, a beautiful trip, and there was only moderate risk of snow. I was so confident about that, I didn’t even pack tire chains after checking the weather report.

I left early Saturday morning, after my usual breakfast. The car was packed in no time, and the trusted Android phone mounted on the charger dock. I spoke the destination into the Maps search, and off I was. (The phone routed me on the 215, which was a mistake, but otherwise was reliable.)

The drive itself was largely uneventful. There were a few rude people on the road, but all in all it was tranquil. I marveled at the sights, wondered about the lady that was asking for a lift right in front of the Juvenile Correctional Facility, chuckled at the boarded up ghost town that had been replaced by a trailer village. 

I didn’t eat lunch in Lone Pine, as I had done the last time. I filled up the car (a Jeep Liberty with surprisingly decent gas mileage). I was almost ready to leave when an older man on a bicycle came by, his right arm clutching something, a dog on a leash tagging behind. I heard a loud noise and clanking. Turning around, I saw empty beer cans rolling all over and the man wringing on the ground in pain, the dog licking his face. A bunch of us ran over to check if he was fine and were greeted by a cloud of beer smell that could have resulted in DUIs for the rest of us.

I stopped for lunch in Bishop, which turned out to be a really neat place. From my brief stay, I would think it’s an up-and-coming liberal stronghold, a San Francisco of the Eastern Sierras. I stopped at the McDonald’s, couldn’t find anything I wanted to eat, drove a little farther and found a tiny cafe with the most amazing hot sandwiches.

After Bishop, it’s time for Mammoth. When the mountain showed up, it was alone in the whole range to bear a pennant of clouds. Mammoth gets regularly more snow than any nearby mountain, some of the biggest snow pack in the Sierras, and it showed. It was also a mere six hours from San Diego, which makes it too far for a day trip, but a really rewarding destination for a snowboarding weekend: leave Friday evening after work, snowboard Saturday and Sunday, and come home Sunday night.

(Before Mammoth, you’ll find Lake Crowley, famous for fishing and for the many hot springs.)

After Mammoth, you get into the more alpine section of the trip. The highway gets curvier, snow starts encroaching on the road way, and I was wondering whether I’d need chains, after all. 

i got to some of the most scenic areas of the drive: Mount Dana was looming large to the left, followed by the turnoff to the 120, the road through Yosemite (closed for the winter, as every year). Then, on the right, Mono Lake with its colonies of birds. The road got windy and narrow, following the Little Walker River. After that, the big surprise of Topaz Lake, a man made reservoir that was one of the prettiest places on this trip.

Topaz Lake marks the Nevada state line, and after that there was just the Carson Plain. Incidentally, Nevada must be terrifying with speeding tickets, because everybody slowed down as soon as we reached the “border.”

A brief excursion into side roads, and then Kingsbury Grade. Clear of all snow, it was an easy route into South Lake Tahoe. The hotel was to my right, just after the Stateline casinos. (Side note: the other option would have been to take I-5 to the 99, and then US 50 across the Sierras. According to Google Maps it would have taken the same amount of time, but I really don’t like the stretch on US 50.)

On Sunday morning, it snowed. And snowed. It looked like a million snow flakes out of my window, but it added up to only 4 inches. i was up on the mountain at the crack of 9a, and it was fun. It was also clear that as soon as the powder was swept away, we’d have to deal with a thick ice sheet. Not the best conditions really.

Not a lot is new in Tahoe, even after five years. There is a new express lift, after the upgrade of Olympic on the Nevada side. There is the new Tamarack lodge next to the gondola. There is a new half pipe in the terrain park, a fairly big thing. Sadly, it took the space formerly occupied by the terrain course, which was more fun.

Prices went absolutely batshit. A cup of coffee is $5, same as a side of fries. A sandwich is $12, a pizza $15. I wouldn’t want to feed an entire family here. It’s also crystal clear why people started using hydration packs, and I really wonder why no mountain gear manufacturer sells jackets with built-in packs, yet. 

The snow was definitely better on the Nevada side this time around. California, for whatever reason, was a single ice sheet and most of the areas I used to frequent were ice skating rinks with steep slopes and trees planted in them.

People were mostly very friendly, although you’ll still find the occasional older and grumpy skier that objects to snowboarders. I guess we’ll have to wait another ten years until they finally disappear. It did happen to me, occasionally, that a skier wouldn’t answer when I asked which way they were turning at the top of the lift, or that they would refuse to share a lift with me and rather sent on a trip alone to the top and waited another chair. 

Strangely, and at the same time, skiers seem to have taken over much of the rudeness snowboarders were famous for. While snowboarders were infamous for clogging the runs by sitting side-by-side on the snow, now it’s groups of skiers that wait at the lift exit, clogging up the passage. Where it was the snowboarder that were notorious for shooting down the runs, endangering beginners, now it’s skiers that routinely ignore the SLOW signs posted at the approaches to lifts. While it was snowboarders that were irksome for their lift line manners, now it seems that skiers have decided they have the right of way no matter what, and get annoyed if you are pushing your board while they shoot right into you in line. 

At first, temperatures were freezing. Well below freezing, as a matter of fact. We got into the teens at Sky Express, and I was happy I had so many layers and a reliable jacket. From Monday on, though, temperatures got up, and the snow got much better. We reached a thermal maximum on Wednesday, and had the perfect day. The snow was soft and powdery, the ice sheet giving way. At the same time, it was not mushy mashed potatoes, yet. A glorious day, and the first time I seriously ventured into California territory.

(Powderbowl Woods, C-; Sky Glades, A)

It’s at the very end of the day that the only accident happened. i was coming back on Sky Trail, the stupid run that connects Sky Express with the Nevada side. I had just passed the turn to Milky Way Bowl for the second cat track (grunt!). A couple was skiing on the track. She was desperately clinging to the left side of the trail, he was giving her instructions on the right side. I approached, trying to pass between them, when the guy decided to give her instruction and pushed himself off to the left, right into me. I managed to stop just in time, and nobody was hurt (but me). He gave me an icy stare and she looked even more frightened.

My shoulder was unhappy for two days, but I am finally ready to declare I will survive. I still wonder, though, why the guy pushed his girl to take that route. She clearly didn’t belong anywhere near a blue run, and setting her up on the most trafficked trail in Heavenly was not going to help. Add to that the strange habit of not looking up before making a radical change in direction – what was the guy thinking? Was he just bored on the green runs? Was he trying to push his girlfriend/wife/hookup to get to his level faster than she could? Sometimes I wonder if guys realize just how much girls hate that attitude.

That’s it for now, folks! 

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