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We had not skied Heavenly since 2011, although we had visited in both of the intervening years.

In 2012, a planned three day break slotted between visits to San Francisco coincided with both of us contracting flu and being physically too weak to ski. And last June, logs, pipes and assorted wooden debris were all that lay on the mountain.

And for much of this winter the signs were ominous.

The guaranteed snow levels normally associated with Tahoe, and Heavenly in particular, had failed to materialise. Every day since Christmas, we scoured the webcams and weather forecasts, only to discover that many of the lifts and trails remained closed and the famed snow making operation was being pressed into overdrive.

We have always skied late in the season in the expectation that a) the snow would be plentiful and b) spring sunshine would dominate. So when we heard when we arrived in San Francisco at the beginning of the week that the long awaited snowfall would be pulling into town at the same time as us, and staying for the duration, we had mixed feelings.

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But we have been incredibly lucky.

We had purchased a four day lift pass, taking the Saturday off when the worst (or best depending upon your point of view) of the storms was projected to arrive.

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And it worked to perfection.

Although, with the exception of our final day, sun was in short supply, the wind that often affects resort operations, closing the higher lifts and restricting the capacity of skiers and riders to travel between the Nevada and California sides, was equally ineffective.

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The intermittent gloom and smattering of snow flurries of the first couple of days enabled just to take some satisfyingly moody photographs.

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We were able to ski virtually the entire mountain over the four days. Only on the first day were we prevented from cruising both states, being confined to the California side due to the closure of the Tamarack chair. This was welcome, however, as we tend to spend more time on the longer trails in Nevada. With the Sky Express chair leading to the highest point in the resort open, we were allowed to spend time on our favourite trail, Ridge, which arguably provides the best views of the lake, and the High Five trail that we had not skied before.

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We also managed morning hot chocolate stops and lunch breaks at all the major mountain lodges – California, Tamarack (pictured), East Peak, Sky Deck and Stagecoach – that were open.

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My only regret?

Not having the presence of mind to reach for the camera as Janet struggled to get to her feet, having fallen on the Galaxy trail only minutes after she had joyfully proclaimed ONE NIL when I had suffered a similar indignity.

Ah well, you can’t have it all.

We may not have seen the last of the snow as we look set to grapple with the next big storm on our return to San Francisco tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It was March 2002, a mere half year since that brilliant, terrible morning in New York City that changed our lives forever. The world, and especially the United States, remained in a state of anxiety and foreboding about the direction in which it was moving.

Security was tight, therefore, as we landed at San Francisco International Airport on a damp, dismal Tuesday afternoon.  With an eleven hour flight and early check-in, we had been travelling already for eighteen hours. We were already regretting the decision to drive the 180 miles direct to South Lake Tahoe that evening for our holiday in Heavenly ski resort.

After dragging our heavy luggage from the arrivals hall to the car hire centre at the far side of the airport, we were informed that a large storm was approaching Tahoe, and advised that we should seriously consider upgrading to a 4×4 vehicle.  Whilst subsequent experience has taught us that this is a regular ploy to extract a significant chunk out of our holiday spending budget before we have even left the terminal, this appeared a more plausible scenario on this occasion.  However, we declined the upgrade but collected our obligatory snow chains before searching for our car.

We drove away from the airport at around 4pm, the beginning of the evening commute, just as the rain that had been threatening since our arrival set in.  Experience had taught us that rain at this level meant snow at much higher elevations.  How would we be able to attach the snow chains to the car?  We had never done it before.  And when would we know it was the right time to do so? Fortunately, at a small price (this is America after all), these decisions were made for us later in the journey.

The run to the Bay Bridge was frenetic, and, as the rain got heavier, so did the traffic.  Our wipers were working overtime through the stretch of the I-80 from the Oakland end of the bridge past Emeryville, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, Vallejo, Bernicia, Fairfield, Vacaville, Dixon, Davis and all the way to Sacramento when we joined the US 50.  Between Folsom and Placerville the incessant rain turned to sleet and then full-blown snow, obscuring the intermittent views of the Sierra Nevada mountains that we would customarily enjoy.

The road narrowed from a relatively straight freeway to a constantly twisting single lane, and the tyres struggled to cope with the ever-thickening snow.  As quickly as they had created a groove it was covered over again, awaiting the next vehicle to attempt to carve through it.  We had only, in terms of distance, a sixth of our journey left, but we feared that this would be the most challenging and potentially frightening part of the journey.

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We passed a handful of “lookouts” with their signs warning of “snow removal equipment” and of snow chain installers at work. It was only, however, when we reached the distance marker denoting that South Lake Tahoe was twenty nine miles away, that we were brusquely hailed down by the abominable snowman who installed the chains efficiently if a little grumpily. We may have been another $20 light but a small measure of reassurance had been restored.

After all, it was “only” twenty nine miles wasn’t it?  How bad could it be?

We’d negotiated steep mountain passes in the Alps before, hadn’t we? Of course we had, piece of cake then.

Oh, but hold on a minute, we’d been sat on a coach whilst an experienced native of the region took the wheel. Not so simple then.

Yes, but, once this was over, we had a hot meal and a stiff drink awaiting us on our arrival in South Lake Tahoe. And just think how exciting it will be to ski on all this fresh powder tomorrow morning.

British stiff upper lips notwithstanding, we both silently fought our fears.

The snow was now pounding against the windscreen, at least that is what we assumed was accounting for the only sound assaulting the silence high in the mountains. The intermittent cracks in the white darkness, were the headlights of oncoming trucks hurtling past in the opposite direction. The drivers had seen it all before.
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Although we could hardly have been moving more slowly, no other vehicle passed us on the entire journey. There had been seven others at the lookout when our snow chains had been installed. Where could they have gone? There was no other road to take. Perhaps they had given up for the night – something we had not for one second contemplated, however bad it got, because that would have been even more dangerous.  We had to press on – we may have been doing barely ten miles an hour at this point, but every rotation of those snow chained gripping tyres got us a little closer.

We may not have been able either to rationalise or articulate it in such terms at the time, but we had both adopted an, at least outwardly, calm, practical demeanour – Janet maintaining a steady, straight course, building fresh, deep grooves in the snow whilst I, as much by intuition than calculation, assessed our proximity to the side of the road, instructing her to make slight adjustments to the car’s position as necessary. Hearts skipped a beat every time I recommended a small movement to the middle of the narrow road just as a truck sped past, or what seemed, directly at, us!

The alternative was worse. The slightest twitch to the right would have had us plunging into the Eldorado National Forest. The sporadic fencing would not only have failed to prevent our fall, but also it was not visible as a guide to our proximity to the edge.

Height markers were barely decipherable on the hairpin bends, though we managed to make out Strawberry at 5,800 and Camp Sacramento at 6,500 feet respectively, providing comfort that we were closing in on the highest point of Echo Summit at 7,377 feet.

But our journey was not over. The snow chains had done their job so far, but now we were beginning our steep descent towards South Lake Tahoe.  Would the brakes work?  Would the chains grip the road sufficiently to prevent us running away?  Again, these thoughts went simultaneously through our minds, though nothing was spoken other than the now customary “steer slightly towards the middle” and “keep straight” admonitions from the passenger seat.

Our unease was unwarranted.  The chains performed impeccably as we descended smoothly towards our destination, braking at regular intervals.  The final challenge was to negotiate the steep, twisting hill that drops down to the lake basin. Relief, even euphoria took hold as the “Y”, the intersection between South Lake Tahoe Boulevard and the continuation of I-50 up the western side of the lake came into view.  Never had we been so grateful to see the welcoming neon of McDonald’s and Starbucks.

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During the descent the snowfall had relented, and the home straight into Stateline was just wet.  That final twenty nine miles had taken four hours to negotiate which meant that, by the time we had checked into the Embassy Suites resort, there was no hot food available.  But after 25 hours travelling we were too weary to venture out, so decided to just have a drink before retiring.

Over a glass or two we spoke for the first time of our ordeal, and how composed and worried at the same time we had been. We resolved that we would make tomorrow our non-skiing day.  As it happened, that decision was academic as the four feet of snow and high winds closed the resort anyway, allowing us to spend the day recovering and re-acclimatising ourselves to the area.

This was not to be the only harrowing experience of this particular holiday, though the week’s skiing went relatively smoothly after that. We have made the same drive six times since that night, but, sensibly, only during the day after a night’s rest in San Francisco.  And the weather has, ironically, been fine on each occasion.

But there’s always the next time.

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If you’ve had the doubtful pleasure of reading my recent post about Heavenly ski resort (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/heavenly-thoughts-returning/), you ‘ll be aware of my love of skiing, particularly on the snow rich slopes of Lake Tahoe. But had circumstances been different a quarter of a century before on my first winter vacation, that may have been a pleasure forever denied me.

Encouraged by another couple, already experienced skiers, my girlfriend and I agreed to accompany them on a two week holiday to Austria in late February 1987. But before that, we had to locate our ski legs and take the first tentative, or in my case, petrified, steps on snow, or rather, artificial Dendix mesh.

The ordeal began with a course of evening lessons at the Crystal Palace Sports Centre dry ski slope in south London. Sadly, I recollect little of the first lesson other than it took me more than half of it before I was able to a) wedge my feet into the concrete boots, b) stand up and c) begin to tramp around in them in a manner reminiscent of Boris Karloff in the early Frankenstein movies.

The “slope”, if it could be dignified with such a noble word, was a terrifying 60 metres long and of a gradient that would barely have qualified it to be called a green run i.e. virtually flat, in any self-respecting European resort. But, for me, the distance from top to bottom resembled a pit of writhing, seething snakes.

Half way down, in the middle, stood a menacing, 8 foot high tree that called to me, like the Sirens luring sailors to shipwreck in Greek mythology, every time, and there weren’t many, I had managed to plod back to the top to make my next descent. Either side of this monster were run-outs to the bottom. It was not until the third lesson that I succeeded in routinely reaching the end without having had an intimate encounter with that tree along the way.

A couple of long, agonising months later the fateful hour arrived when we set foot – blessedly freed, for now, from those concrete blocks – on a flight to Munich, praying that the worst of the winter conditions were over and that we would catch some spring sunshine. Our destination was Auffach – notoriously difficult to pronounce after a couple of glasses of schnapps or jagertee (a potent mix of overproof rum and black tea) – in the Wildschonaü region of Austria, an area allegedly ideal for beginners.

My girlfriend and I spent the first week in ski school whilst our friends enjoyed themselves.  She was marginally, well much, better than me in the initial test, which amounted to nothing more than being able to stand up in the skis for more than 3 seconds, and was, consequently, placed in a higher standard class.

I was consigned to the lowest group which comprised one Austrian girl and half a dozen boisterous (is there any other type?) Dutch men. The instructor, who at least had the decency to be gorgeous, even in a pink Michelin (UK) or Stay Puft (US) Man outfit, spoke Dutch fluently and used it as the default language for the week. 

Unfortunately, the only Dutch I knew, other than the names of the national football team that came so close to winning both the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, was of the double variety, though I do profess to being quite fluent in that. At least I had found a ready made excuse for my ineptitude.

And that spring sunshine? Forgeddaboutit. Snowfall had been a stranger to the area since Christmas and it was conspicuous by its continued absence during our stay. Whilst the weather was generally bright it remained cold, rendering the surface thin and icy.

My “progress” was tortuously slow. When I wasn’t trying to step off the precarious button lifts prematurely, obliging me to climb the remainder, inevitably slipping back with every other step, I was sliding down an icy incline in a permanent and deeply uncomfortable “snowplough”. I did, however, become highly proficient at trudging down the side of the run with a ski tucked under each arm, having surrendered any belief in my capacity to achieve the same result with them strapped to my boots.

My girlfriend’s experience was equally disappointing and we agreed to forego the final day’s test run, and the life-changing opportunity to dribble down the hill in front of the entire ski school and any other sadists residing in the village, in the forlorn hope of earning a certificate (that was probably written in Dutch anyway). 

Exhausted from the miles, or rather metres, we had carved up in the previous 5 days, we decided to take a coach trip to Salzburg, city of Mozart, chocolate and The Sound of Music. An otherwise enjoyable day was marred by the news of the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry shortly after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge en route to Dover, resulting in 193 deaths. Skiing seemed even less important on that day.

I was prepared to come home at that point. However, we had paid for a second week, and there was a limit to the number of sleigh rides, bowling alleys and “authentic” Tyrolean evenings a man with his pride still narrowly intact could take, so I resolved to give skiing another chance.

And it proved an altogether more enjoyable experience. Our friends were very patient and supportive, escorting us around the whole mountain (much of which we had only dreamed of seeing before), and providing us with one to one tuition – in English! Whilst conditions underfoot were little better, it was much more fun, and we improved accordingly – though my propensity for leaping off button lifts before reaching the top continued well into my third Alpine season.

By the end of that second week, we were hooked and did not want to leave! Had the vacation only been for a week we may never have skiied again – and our subsequent holidays – and life – may have taken a completely different course.

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Firstly, if you have landed on this site expecting subject matter a tad more racy or devotional than skiing, please leave now!

After spending our formative skiing years in Europe, we decided in 1999 to try America for our winter vacation. Lake Tahoe caught our imagination, not only because of its innate beauty and impressive snowfall record, but because it could comfortably be combined with a trip to San Francisco (and other parts of both California and Nevada).

We fell in love with Heavenly and the unique California / Nevada Stateline atmosphere instantly, and despite acknowledging that we should expand our skiing experience to the Rockies or Canada, we have remained loyal to it ever since.  We were even on the verge one year of booking Whistler or Banff and spending our “city time” in Vancouver, but when push came to shove, we hadn’t the heart to abandon Heavenly.

Nor, in the face of numerous recommendations from people on chairlifts, in restaurants and on the street, have we skiied a single day in any of the other Tahoe resorts. Lame excuse though it may seem, we have, in a sense, not wanted to “waste” one of our precious skiing days at Northstar, Squaw Valley or Sierra-at-Tahoe.  And where would we get a better breakfast than at the Driftwood Cafe in the village centre, or seafood dinner at the Riva Grill by the south shore of the lake? 

 

After our initial vacation we returned in 2002, followed by further trips in ’04, ’06, ’08 and ’10.  With a mountain that rises to over 10,000 feet and the largest snowmaking and grooming operation on Lake Tahoe if Mother Nature should fail to deliver, snow conditions have always been excellent. The weather during our stays has, however, been less predictable (for example, warm sunshine in ’04 and incessant snowfall in ’06, including 4 feet the night before we were heading for Vegas).

The biennial strategy collapsed last year when we went again just 12 months after our last trip. This appeared at first to be a smart move as a record season was already in full swing when we arrived in early March. Now, we confess to being fair weather skiers, always going relatively late in the season, initially in late February, more latterly in mid March (and now April!). The theory is that there will not only have been substantial accumulations of snow already, but that the weather will have warmed up. Spring in San Francisco can be very pleasant too.

So we scanned the web cams and drooled over the daily Another Heavenly Morning broadcast on the internet, watching the snowfall count escalating. Surely, this will have abated and Spring will have arrived with a swagger by the time we pitched up in the resort, allowing us to enjoy several days cruising on a deep snow base in balmy, sun-soaked weather?

No chance! As the travel diary on this blog demonstrated (links below) the only thing we saw was snow, and, in the words of A.A. Milne, it just “kept on snowing”, even after we had left for San Francisco towards the end of the month:

www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/western-diary-day-3-janet-falls-over/

www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/western-diary-day-4-Janet-falls-over-again-and-Tony-gets lost/

www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/03/22/western-diary-day-5-the-more-it-snows-tiddley-pom/

www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/03/22/western-diary-day-6-i-fall-over-and-Janet-loses-her-backpack/

The year did, indeed, turn out to be a record one with a total 0f 529 inches snowfall (the average is anywhere between 300 and 500). But, after such a disappointing experience, we vowed that we would now leave it a couple of years before returning to Heavenly, perhaps even going back in the interim to getting our skiing fix in Europe again.  

But here we are in mid January and the itch needs scratching again (problematic when you are plodding around with several layers of clothing on, including an esapecially fetching pair of tights). The lure of both Heavenly and San Francisco has become too much, causing us to alter our vacation plans for the year. The four weeks travelling around the canyons and National Parks of the West to celebrate my 60th birthday later in the year has now contracted to two.

We are undaunted by the uncharacteristically puny snowfall so far this year. Although the resort has been open every day since November 18th, the total snow for the season has only reached 13 inches (lower slopes) to 22 inches (upper elevations), and the base depth is just 18 to 24 inches. Only 215 acres out of a total of 4800, and 27 of the 97 runs (trails), are currently open.  

Limited terrain aside, the resort has still managed to provide high quality, if limited, snow in fine weather, with the army of “midnight riders” (groomers) putting in more than 1,200 snowmaking hours. And we have faith that the storms will come. In fact, as I pen this article, 3-6 feet is being forecast for the next week. 

It can snow now until early April as far as we are concerned. But please, let’s have a few days sunshine after that!

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Contrary to my earlier post on this subject ten days ago it’s now 1st December and I don’t feel Christmassy at all! So this post is going to act as a short, gloomy antidote to the sense of childlike expectation that inhabited that piece.

Being English, my natural response is to blame the weather – it remains unconscionably mild, despite dire warnings in September that we would be mired in deep snow long before now, as we were last year. This morning’s intermittent squalls and drizzle add to the cheerless atmosphere that pervades our high streets and shopping centres.

Minor celebrities may have descended to earth to switch on the lights and begin rehearsals for their pantomimes, anxious retailers may be offering ever more tantalising discounts and Dean Martin may be imploring it to snow, but there is a pervading gloom that I have witnessed in four separate Kent towns over the same number of days this week.  The economic situation is, of course, an important factor.  That said, I do not see any obvious signs that people are reining in their spending, with bargains available on so many popular gift items.

No, what is most striking is the grudging, almost resentful manner in which people are going about their festive preparations.  Christmas seems an imposition, and an expensive one at that, at a time when the traditional British approach of “getting by” is what is preoccupying many people.  This is mirrored too in the paucity of Christmas trees, lights and decorations adorning domestic homes.  I cannot recall seeing so few this “late” into the season.

Despite the prompt I gave myself over a week ago, the CDs and DVDs continue to hibernate in dusty ignorance in assorted cupboards around the house.  Billy Bob Thornton will be in an especially foul mood when he is roused to reprise his seminal role as Bad Santa. I have even resisted the blandishments of the twenty four hour TV movies channel too, though that is not that difficult as it generally churns out a surfeit of bland, syrupy made for TV films, interspersed all too rarely with classics such as A Christmas Carol with the wonderful Alistair Sim.

So no wassailing or figgy pudding for me yet, nor have I sampled a single mince pie.  But perhaps it’s just me, running ahead of myself, like those young children singing Jingle Bells under their breath in my previous post.
 
Kate Rusby’s Christmas concert at the Barbican tomorrow, with its mellow mix of popular and South Yorkshire carols, may well do the trick.  The weather forecasters have indicated that a cold spell will descend upon us at the weekend, which should also add to the seasonal atmosphere.   And next week heralds the customary round of Christmas lunches, dinners and drinks, though they are likely to add more to my waistline and credit card bill than my spirits.

But I should not be complaining.  After all, I began my previous post by lamenting that Christmas forced itself upon me earlier and earlier with each passing year.  I can’t have it both ways can I?

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Snow at sea level? It could happen this weekend.

For all the picture postcard scenes that San Francisco has to offer, rarely, very rarely, are they draped in the white stuff.  But this weekend, according to the above article in the San Francisco Chronicle, there is a distinct possibility that, for the first time in 35 years and only the twelfth time since 1856, snow will fall in Chinatown and Union Square.

In one sense I am glad that this may come – and go – more than a fortnight before I visit the city, but I am equally disappointed that I will not be able to witness this extraordinary meteorological sight at first hand.  I’ve no doubt, however, that cameras will be a-clicking in all parts and I will have to content myself with seeing the photographs.

I hope this phenomenon, along with the seven feet that have fallen in Tahoe over the past ten days, heralds a mild, sun-drenched March and April!

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