It’s the sort of name a ski resort wouldn’t use nowadays, fearful that it would promote violence among children or express tacit support for the NRA. But it was on this run, a crazed vertical scar right down the face of Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly Valley, that I learned to ski many winters ago.
This wasn’t one of those sweet “the kid could ski before he could walk” scenarios. I was, embarrassingly, already in Grade 5 and my father, far from being there by my side, was in the main lodge, reveling in a new discovery of his—a local cocktail called the Hot Apple Pie. The task of teaching me the ropes fell to my two much-older brothers, both expert skiers, whose Dead Poets Society moment was skiing wherever they wanted as fast as they wanted and telling me to catch up. “O Captain! My Captain!” this was not. This was Gunbarrel.
The vista from Heavenly Mountain Resort may be the best in the business. And the skiing? It's even better. Photo by Mabble Media LLC/Vail Resorts.
On my return I start up the Stagecoach lift up the backside of Heavenly far from Gunbarrel, but even as a full-grown man, I am full of trepidation. Not that Gunbarrel will continue to bedevil me, but that I might discover my memory is overly tinged with the fog of nostalgia, and that Gunbarrel, far from being the Great White Whale of skiing, is simply another ho-hum mogul run. But as I amble up to the run’s start, my fear dissipates at the sight of a huge red-sign caution: EXPERTS ONLY. Then I look down the run—1,700 vertical feet of what appears to be snow-covered Volkswagens, the lift and the tram flanking either side for maximum viewing capacity—and a more practical fear starts to creep back in as it dawns on me that my knees ain’t in Grade 5 anymore.
Truthfully, my entire return to Tahoe is inflected with worries that the modern-day reality can’t possibly live up to the memory of the greatest ski trip my family ever took. To be fair, it was the only ski trip my family ever took, in large part because my dad didn’t love skiing. In fact, after polishing off a number of the aforementioned Hot Apple Pies, he hopped on the chairlift and took it down the mountain, never making a single turn. A downloader. But we were all in a big house on the water; nights involved seeing Boz Scaggs in concert, feeding the ducks on the lake and the adults heading to the casinos of South Lake Tahoe.
It’s these magical memories that I’m holding onto halfway down Gunbarrel with my legs barking and my lungs desperately sucking air. To extend one break, I regale my skiing pals with stories of the view. Normally, we’d be enjoying the full expanse of the lake in what has to be the most beautiful vista in all of skiing, but today there’s a big storm blowing in, so we can’t see much of anything. “But,” I say between hard breaths, “it’s amazing.” Once at the bottom, we have the option of skiing it nine more times and thus qualifying for the Bumpy Ridge Badge, awarded to those who conquer Gunbarrel 10 times in one day. (I consider asking what you get for conquering it twice in 30 years, but think better of it.) But the storm keeps moving in, so we opt to spend our last few runs in the trees, where the visibility is better and the snow wonderfully soft. By 3 p.m. the snow keeps pressing, so we heed the call of Tahoe’s legendary après ski scene and, while there’s no Boz Scaggs (the “Lido Shuffle” singer is now 75 and a winemaker in Napa), we do end up behind a false cooler door in a nondescript delicatessen, drinking with eight different nationalities in a tiny speakeasy while a boyfriend/girlfriend duet plays on an even tinier stage. Tahoe, you still got it.
In bounds powder skiing at Heavenly. Not too shabby. Photo by Vail Resorts.
The next day we head to Northstar, a resort that was barely on my radar the first go-around, but that has seen some of the largest capital upgrades of any resort in the U.S. over the past decade. It’s on the north end of the lake from Heavenly, and what’s normally a picturesque hour-long drive along the shore turns into a slow-moving affair in conditions that are nearing white-out. By midday we limp in, knuckles in varying degrees of white, but there’s something about a slope-side Ritz-Carlton that causes the shoulders to relax ever so peacefully. It’s an early dinner around the roaring fireplace so we can hit first tracks in the a.m.
“The hill’s closed.”
Three terrible words that derail our early morning plans for greatness. We fire off probing questions to anyone with a name tag. Turns out, the cause for concern that has shut the mountain is not the massive amounts of snow, but a series (as in hundreds) of lightning strikes in the area. (The concern is quite legitimate, given the number of huge metal poles sticking out of the ground at the average ski resort.)
So, we hurry up and wait. And wait. By 1 p.m., it’s clear that the day is a wash, so some saviour orders a bottle of Dom Pérignon, and then another, which we enjoy with an epic seafood lunch. We’re snowbound, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining except with more Champagne and fewer creepy twins. But in the midst of this well-appointed pity party comes some selfishly wonderful news. The hill will be open tomorrow and the ongoing insane snow dump has closed all roads to Northstar until at least midday tomorrow. So we’ll have the hill to ourselves. Well, cheers to that.
Sometimes good things happen to good people. That’s what I’m thinking as I open the curtains to a bluebird day the next morning. A quick coffee and muffin and we’re out clicking into our bindings. There are only a few dozen hotel residents milling about—hundreds of skiers with weekend reservations are waiting at road-closed signs on both the Nevada and California approaches to the hill—and we’re all laughing at the difficulty of doing anything in the deep snow. Finally strapped in, we pole toward the green run that takes us down to the Comstock Express lift. But, nothing. The snow’s so deep that on this modest slope, we’re not moving. We ultimately have to lean way back on our skis to gather any momentum. We’re giddy as we ride the lift up, looking at the fields of untouched powder in every conceivable direction. We’re in heaven.
The big news over the past few years has been the opening of the Ritz-Carlton Northstar Tahoe, the luxest ski-in, ski-out lodging in the state. It's helped turned the once-moribund hill into a major destination. Photo by Elizabeth Carmel.
We spy a pristine black diamond called Springboard as our jumping-off point into the deep stuff. Taking a groomed run down to its entrance, we pause for a moment of reverie at the massive amount of snow we’re about to jump into. We deserve this, I think to myself as I push off into absolute mayhem.
You know when people come into the lodge and say they found a run with waist-deep powder? Those people are liars—and I can say this confidently, given what happens on Springboard. One turn in and the snow is so deep that any other turn becomes impossible. One of our group, an exceptionally accomplished snowboarder, makes it 10 feet down the run before putting the brakes on and climbing back to safety in snow that actually is waist deep. The rest of us are literally in too deep, and we resort to leaning back and pointing our tips dead straight in order to not sink—on a black diamond. We congregate two-thirds of the way down to nervously giggle and figure out how the hell we’re going to get off the run—it flattens out at the bottom, and there is zero chance we can get up enough speed to make it out. My pole, all 135 centimetres of it, is up to the handle when I test the snow. For the first time, it dawns on me that the Donner Party had been stranded not very far from here. Okay, then. Between the four of us, we collectively have more than a century of skiing under our belts, and none of us has ever seen conditions so deep.
Tahoe has long been legendary for the storms that blow off the Pacific and deposit epic amounts of the white stuff on the area's mountains. But even in that reality, last year's dump was an entirely different breed of crazy. As in crazy good. Photo by Jason Doiy.
No one is quite panicking, but we are thinking very hard about what to do. And then an angel appears, in the form of a ski patroller who schusses down the outside of the run in a pair of massively fat powder skis, waving as he passes us. His ski tracks are our salvation. One by one, we pole our way to those two lines of freedom, and ride them back to the groomed run. Safe and sound, we immediately ski to the bottom and hightail it to the nearest rental shop: “We want the fattest skis you have.”Properly outfitted, the rest of the day at Northstar unfolds like a dream. I’ve been heli-skiing twice, cat skiing once and I’ve never experienced snow conditions as deep. And there are so few of us on the hill that it never gets skied out. It there ever was a day to inspire poetry—we few, we happy few, we band of brothers—this is it. But we don’t venture back to Springboard. We pass it each ride up the chair, tracing the minor drama that unfolded in our ski tracks (still the only ones, even by the end of the day) and counting ourselves lucky that our day didn’t consist of a three-hour on-piste hike out in waist-deep snow.
This aerial shot of Heavenly shows not only two states (Nevada and California) but also the variety of terrain the mountain has. And the views that are renowned throughout the ski world. Photo by A. Jansen.
The next day, the roads are open and we leave at noon, late enough for a few runs before heading to the airport in Reno. By any stretch, the conditions are still legendary, but with the crowds and no new snow they’re a good definition of sloppy seconds. So, after a few turns and a few stories told to those in the lift line about what they missed yesterday, we call it a day.
Driving to the airport in Reno, I have some time to recollect on my good fortune. They say you’re never supposed to meet your childhood heroes, but my reunion with Gunbarrel had been near perfect. In fact, all my rosy memories stood up swimmingly to modern reality... and I have a new memory to add.