By Ingrid Backstrom
Near the end of November 2000, I rounded a bend in Squaw Valley Road for the first time. Squaw Creek and the meadow sprawled lazily ahead, and then oomph, there was the Tram Face with its majestic granite spires. As I drove, the vertical relief unfolded to my left, all peaks and ridges.
I arrived with a college degree and a Buick borrowed from my parents. A friend told me Squaw had the best skiing, but that was my only connection to the place. I found a job, ski pass included. After work one night, in no hurry to get back to the couch I was crashing on, I took a detour to the Squaw Valley parking lot. I stepped outside, took a deep breath, and looked up at the extra bright stars and the illuminated Tram Face. My loneliness and worries dissolved. I knew I was in exactly the right place.
Early that season, before the KT-22 lift opened, I followed new friends Mike and Katie the long way to the steeps from the top of Siberia. After a last little uphill, I was still catching my breath when they disappeared over the edge. I peered over and saw their tracks running straight down toward a chute bookended by orange granite. Old, gnarled trees dotted the run, their bark weathered silver. “Wow, Katie rips,” I thought, and then dropped in, trying to keep her in sight. Trees whizzed past and the run stepped down onto a series of benches before giving way to a powder field. I skied faster than I ever had off a groomer, and yet somehow I was able to turn exactly where I wanted. We shot out onto corduroy, and Katie asked what I thought of Rock Garden. I could only shake my head in awe.
That was the first time I truly experienced the magic of Tahoe snow. Here, the storms originate in the Pacific and then move inland to spackle the Sierra Nevada. Squaw’s granite faces and that coastal snow then work a magical symbiosis. Unlike the Rocky Mountain West, where the powder is too dry to adhere to steep slopes, here the snow bonds to 45-, 50-, and even 55-degree inclines. Whether on a groomer or in a bowl, it’s spongy, springy snow—the kind that rebounds a bit beneath your edges and inspires confidence. That consistent buoyancy enables warp speed control. It also means that—especially with today’s rockered skis—even a few inches of the glorious stuff skis like a full-on powder day.
And now that Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows have merged, a free shuttle ride gains you the magnificence of yet another gargantuan mountain. Beyond the endless network of intermediate and beginner groomers, Alpine is a fantasyland of broad, inviting bowls and short hikes with a friendly, laid-back vibe. Ski the Pacific Crest Bowls even once, and your outlook changes forever. Squaw is famous for its steeps, but it’s at Alpine that advancing off-piste skiers and riders will find California’s best back bowl skiing. And whether it’s cold, leftover powder in the north bowls or spring corn to the south, there’s always good snow somewhere on Alpine.
I’d planned to stay in Squaw for a year. But in season two, a day came along that kept me in Olympic Valley for another decade. It had already snowed a foot a day for 20 straight days. (It was an El Niño year like this one is shaping up to be.) The Buick, which I bought from my parents, was hibernating beneath the snowpack. I could now click into my skis at my house and skate to the parking lot. It was Christmas Day, and the resort was deserted. We lapped KT-22 and Headwall relentlessly in light, blower powder over that perfect, bouncy Tahoe base.
Until that point in my Squaw career, I had avoided the notorious Fingers, hesitant to ski the near-vertical spines of snow with an audience. But on our last ride up KT-22, my boyfriend at the time mentioned them. We made steady work of the intimidating Middle Knuckle while a small group of friends cheered from the cat road below. I felt as if my family was there, even though they were just sitting down to Christmas dinner nearly a thousand miles away.
I was living the history, the community, and the spirit of Squaw Valley. Skiing here means being part of something bigger. Just stare up at the Tram Face under winter starlight and you’ll feel it too.
How to Ski It
Start the perfect day at Wildflour Baking Company in Squaw’s Olympic House. Grab coffee, a fresh bagel, and a chocolate chip cookie to stash. Strong skiers and snowboarders should line up at KT-22—despite the rabid enthusiasm, the locals are a friendly lot. Lap Oly Bowl’s wide-open expanses and the West Face’s sustained fall lines, but keep an eye on the Headwall lift. Once it’s spinning, take the roly-poly trees of Enchanted Forest for first tracks on Headwall Face. Crest the rollover with a few ultra-steep turns before shooting out the apron below. Next, hit North Bowl to the Gold Coast chairlift just in time for Granite Chief’s opening. Roll a few powder laps on Granite, and rejoice when you recall the hidden cookie. Take Shirley Lake back up, and follow mellow groomers for a relaxing lift ride to Broken Arrow’s summit. Snap shots of Lake Tahoe, then shred top-to-bottom past granite formations lining the upper bowl like giant drip sandcastles. At the crack of noon, grab a quick sandwich in the village to eat on the free shuttle over to Alpine Meadows. Begin by cruising a few Wolverine Bowls to Waterfalls off the Summit Six chair—it’s less steeply pitched and obstacle strewn than Squaw’s version of Waterfall. Then hike Beaver Bowl and ski the main gut for sun-warmed snow on a south-facing aspect. Earn your last run with a short bootpack to Estelle, but savor the views first. Rip down skier’s left, a wide, shrubby spine into a chute and across the flats to the playful knobs around Poma Rocks at the bottom. Hop on the shuttle back to Squaw for a beer at the Chamois, followed by some well-crafted aprés snacks at [email protected] Later, over burgers at PlumpJack, plan to do it all again. —I.B.
As Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadow’s $50-million Renaissance rolls on, the resorts continue to invest in grooming and expanding family friendly terrain and adventures. Explore Alpine Meadows on snowshoes and dine at The Chalet. It’s a short stroll to the mid-mountain lodge, which seats 50 for a homey Swiss-style dinner ($69/person). Come back the next day for a meal at Stoked Oak, a new barbeque joint at Alpine Meadows. The restaurant combines the spicy smokiness of Santa Maria Valley BBQ with the sweet, pork-based style of St. Louis. Every dish features a recommended beer pairing. Skiing or snowboarding with a young family? Most parents want to teach Junior how to ski—only without the hysterics and mishaps of a viral video. Now you can sign up for Teaching Tykes 2.0, where certified instructors show parents how to teach their kids. Grommets aged three to seven, plus parents, head out with a Squaw Valley pro for a two-hour tutorial ($339) in loading chairlifts, making turns, and other first-time challenges. Later, let the young ones cut loose in the Kid Zone during Squaw’s three-day WonderGrassTahoe festival. The event serves up craft beer, local wine, and foot-stomping bluegrass from midday through evening and starts March 20. squawalpine.com —Cody Blum