An Englishman in Tahoe

The story of an English snowboarder in the Californian mountains.

  • Background

  • The Trip

  • The First Four Days

  • The Powder Days

  • The Rest

  • Conclusions

  • Background
    After three seasons of snowboarding, amounting to a heady thirty days on snow, I decided that it was time I visited the good old US of A, home of snowboarding, cheap Levi’s and plentiful powder. An eleven day trip was duly booked with UK operator Chalet Snowboard, purveyor of upmarket snowboard holidays to those who are past the age of sleeping on each others’ floors. Departure was set for the 29th of December, and being a little too old to believe in Santa, I treated myself to a shiny new Burton Supermodel 168 for Christmas.

    The Trip
    Some people get all excited about flying. Not me. I think flying is dull, dull, dull. A three hour drive to the airport, two hour check-in, eight hour flight from London, five hour wait at Minneapolis, three hour flight to Reno, wait for baggage collection and one hour drive to Tahoe City makes for one long day, enlivened only twice by the momentary rush of the pilot unleashing several tens of thousands of pounds of thrust down the runway. Add in an eight hour time difference and we were not at our best when we arrived. But much, much worse than this was the news about the weather. Although five feet of fresh had arrived the previous weekend, the weather had turned warm, and it was now raining.

    The First Four Days did nothing but rain. On the first two days we spent a couple of hours riding soggy slush in a howling gale before packing it in soaking wet and depressed. Meanwhile Europe was getting the best snow in twenty years. Then the weather turned really nasty and the roads got blocked and the ski areas closed. So, as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. We went to Reno and worshipped in a modern shrine to America’s secular religion - the mall. Just about everything in the US seems cheap to European eyes, so we overdosed on Levi’s, CDs and other
    neat stuff.

    But on the fourth day, the rain turned to snow. The resorts were still shut, so we hiked the hill behind our house and rode through the trees. Then we built a hit, and things didn’t seem quite so bad after all.

    The Powder Days
    The only area open on Friday 3rd of January was Northstar. We got there late, and it was crowded, but at least it wasn’t raining. The top of the first run told the good news - the skiers were sticking to the few groomed runs, and everything else was powder. I couldn’t believe my luck as I cruised fresh turns by myself down the middle of a half-pipe ripe with two feet of new snow. We rode fresh all morning - there was indeed a God. The Super 68 proved itself as a superb powder tool, being perfectly balanced in the fluff on a neutral stance. By afternoon we had to move into the trees to find untracked snow, but that was OK by us. Northstar almost made up for the rain, but was a bit flat (I later found that the locals call it FlatStar).

    We were ready the next day. As we drove into the Homewood car park half an hour before the lifts opened, I let out a shout when I saw that there were less than twenty other cars there. We were first on the lift behind the ski patrol, and we really hit the powder that morning, carving deep turns, floating over beautiful rollers, and even landing some of them. Good though the riding was, it was challenged by seeing two black bears, casually checking out the people, while I was riding the lift. I’m glad I didn’t meet them while riding the trees though.

    On Sunday 5th we hit Alpine Meadows. Although it had opened the previous day, a little hiking gave access to some great snow in Alpine’s back bowls. On the groomed trails, I discovered that the Super has superb edge hold and stability - I ran faster and harder than I’ve ever done before.

    The Rest
    The remaining four days were spent at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. Although most of the powder was gone, a little hiking got us to a few pieces of good stuff. Squaw suffered a lot more in the rain storms than Alpine - the low level snow was in real bad condition, and the groomed runs were pretty solid and icy. Both upper lodges were closed due to floods and mud slides. The fun park was open though, and there were some pretty hot guys going big, including a couple of skiers pulling smooth 360s. I spent most of the time at Alpine Meadows which had better snow conditions and more lifts open.

    American ski areas are efficient and well run. The lift tickets are actually more expensive than European resorts, but everything else (food, drink, gear, etc) is better value. They are more regimented, however - lots of ‘ski fast, lose pass’ signs, and closed runs enforced by the Californian Penal Code. Also rather weird is the absence of a ‘guard rail’ on most chair lifts - I would have thought that in the home of the lawyer, safety would be paramount. This also means that there is no ‘rest rail’ to rest your board on during the ride. Alpine Meadows is new to boarding this year, and it is a superb area, well run, with snowboard friendly staff and access to some great off-piste (sorry, ‘back-country’). Best of all it has an ‘open boundary’ policy - if you want to go outside the patrolled area, you can, at your own risk. This is much more like the European policy for off-piste riding, and refreshing after the up-tight ‘we know best’ policy of the other American ski areas.

    The whole trip was worth it for the powder and tree running, both of which eclipsed anything I’d done in Europe. The only real downer was the long trip home, and then getting caught by customs with two pairs of mountain bike forks in my luggage...but that’s another story.