Skiing Stoke from Lake Tahoe

Category: Articles (Page 4 of 5)

International Heli Skiing

By Susan Schnier

Portillo Helicopter Skiing
Portillo, Chile

La Parve, Portillo, ChileIt’s August 23 and I’m standing atop 4,100 feet of cold, dry powder. The highest peak in the Americas, 22,841-foot Aconcogua, looks close enough to hit with a snowball.

Five days into a week-long ski trip to Portillo, and 12-days into a snowless corn cycle, I met heli guide and North American Ski Training Center (NASTC) instructor Don Roth, pilot “Tinto” in the parking lot. We flew into neighboring Ojos Valley, landing at 13,860 feet on top of Pancho Mama.

Next I’m sinking into 10 inches of soft pow and carving endless fall line turns. The snow is so unexpectedly plush that I can’t stop despite burning summer legs.

It’s a relatively cheap thrill – heli skiing at Portillo is one of the least expensive ways to fly, since you commit only to a minimum of one run. The first costs $241, and if you like what you get, additional lifts are $170.

One the second run, we made Portillo heli history with a first descent. Landing on the other side of the valley, we got a centerfold view of our last conquest. The slope below us began with a 45-degree spongy chute, widening at the bottom. I let out the GS turns, screaming to the bottom of the 3,050-foot face. We named the run, Honeymooners Sweet, after the newlyweds in our group who claimed it first.

Skiing Portillo is an all-inclusive resort experience. Tahoe, California-based (NASTC) runs a trip each August with ski lessons from experienced PSIA instructors and guides, combined with a heli excursion that’s empowering rather than intimidating.

Max Elevation: 13,500
Max Vertical Drop: 5,000 feet
Average Vertical/Day: 7,000 feet
(based on a half day, full days are also available)
Price: First run: $241, additional runs: $170

Himachal Helicopter Skiing
Kullu, India

It’s a long journey, but for the devout skier it’s a religious pilgrimage to India’s Kullu Valley, known as the Valley of the Gods. You’ll take a 16+ hour flight to Delhi, transfer to the domestic airport for a propeller plane ride to Kullu. A 45-minute drive through narrow streets – past samosa vendors, school children and holy cows – delivers you to Span Resorts. From there, Llama helicopters fly you off the lawn and into the snow drenched peaks. After a few days acclimating around 13,500 feet, you’ll get high – up to 17,000 feet.

The terrain ranges from north-facing open powder fields to creamy corn slopes to steep couloirs, skiable later in the season when avalanche danger diminishes. Birch tree dodging at lower elevations keeps you nimble.

The only 5-star hotel in India, Span sits at 5,000 feet, nine miles from Manali, on the banks of the Beas River. Indian food like Allo Panner and Masala is served buffet-style in the glass-paneled dining room facing the river. There’s mini-golf, tennis, a pool, gym, library, yoga, massage and email access. The bar serves apps at happy hour, but watch your tab, as New York City priced drinks quickly pad your bill.

1. Drive up to snowline at Rohtang Pass and see how the locals ski. Ski shacks accommodate weekenders outfitted in bright one-piece suits, faux-fur coats, skinny skis and antique rear-entry boots.

2. Stop by the Solang Valley Resort where a local engineer is installing a gondola that will service 500 vertical feet of terrain and replace the rope row built in the 70’s. The only ski area in the region, it is 13 miles from Manali.

3. To lower the cost, earn your turns with a ski touring package. Alison Gannet guides a week-long, heli-accessed touring trip in the spring that brings the cost down.

Max Elevation: 17,000 feet
Max Vertical Drop: 3,000 feet
Average Vertical/Day: 10,000 feet
Price: $6,000 – $7,500

Harris Mountains Heli-Ski
Queenstown, New Zealand

From aqua coastline to lush green forest to towering mountains, every acre of the country is bursting with natural beauty. The size of Colorado, New Zealand has more goats than people, more farms than strip malls and some of the most scenic heli skiing in the world. The biggest kiwi operation, Harris Mountain, operates out of Queenstown, Wanaka and Mount Cook. Heli skiing here comes with flexibility; you’re not locked into a pre-paid package so you can choose your days and make your vacation as you go. A large helicopter supply mean there’s always room.

You’ll ski a mix of glaciated and non-glaciated above-treeline terrain, overlooking Lake Tahoe-like large blue lakes and green valleys.

The region gets maritime snowfall, and the heli operation averages five flyable days out of seven. Mid-July through mid-September is the best time for powder.

Harris Mountain coordinate transfers and accommodations in Queenstown and Wanaka, the preferred base. Whare Kea Lodge and River Run Lodge are secluded private lodges with helipads while the Minaret Lodge and Te Wanaka Lodge are more intimate and town-based. Fine restaurants like Missy’s kitchen or Relishes serve local meats and produce – don’t miss the venison. Their wine lists include the local Central Otago Pinot Noirs.

Take a scenic fixed-wing flight from Queenstown to 12,316-foot Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. You’ll meet the helicopter there for five to seven high-elevation runs. After lunch you’ll have the option to add extra runs before flying back to Queenstown.

Max Elevation: 8,000 feet
Max Vertical Drop: 4,000 feet
Average Vertical/Day: 15,000 – 50,000 feet, depending on the package
Price: $695-$1245/day

Greenland Heli Skiing
Kangaamiut, Greenland

More than just powder indulgence, this heli ski trip is also a cultural immersion. Based in one of the most remote locations in Greenland, in a tiny fishing village in the western part of the country, you’ll stay in the houses of local Inuits and gather each night for a meal prepared by local cooks. You’ll take a boat to meet the B3 AStar helicopters at the operational base in Kangaamiut. Hans Sampson and Hugh Barnard are you UIAGM-certified guides.

Three trips are scheduled for May; before that the weather is too fickle and after that it’s too warm. May skiing is usually phenomenal – with a range of spring and powder conditions IN 20+ hours of daylight. 6600-foot runs take you from the top of peaks to the water’s edge at sea level, starting with steep couloirs and funneling into long flat glaciers. “We are still doing first descents every season,” says Barnard. Hundreds of glacial runs drop into three fjords behind the Island of Kangaamiut.

Guests stay in houses on a hill above the wharf where the heli parks, and they eat together at a home in the village. The fabulous Regina, a local denizen, serves up quality home cooking, mostly game and fish. Musk Ox is the highlight.

Max Elevation: 7283 feet
Max Vertical Drop: 6560 feet
Average Vertical/Day:
Price: $8900 Euros

Krasnaya Poliana Heli Skiing

Based out of Krasnaya Poliana, one of the biggest ski areas in Russia, you’ll ski the West Caucasus Mountains, which rise out of the Black Sea. It’s the northern-most subtropical environment in the world and the wettest place in Russia – coating the high slopes with plentiful snow for deep heli turns. Base elevation is 1,804 feet, the summit is 10,171 feet, and most runs are between 8,200 and 4,900 feet. The choppers are Russian-made MI-8’s – monstrous machines that can carry up to 25 people. For heli skiing, each carries 12 clients and three guides.

Some terrain is glaciated, but most runs combine steep, narrow alpine lines at the top with skiing along creeks, amidst standing and fallen deciduous and evergreen trees lower down. Typically, when it snows it dumps. Up to three feet of sticky, maritime snow overnight is typical. With warmer storms, it sometimes rains at lower elevations.

One of the finals candidates for the 2014 Olympics, new hotels and restaurants have sprouting up over the past five years. Lodging is in a small, private hotel-chalet in the center of the village, ten minutes from the lifts and the helipad. The restaurant serves bortch, uha (fish soup), local trout, and bliny – pancakes with red caviar. Vodka is the après-ski drink of choice, served frozen with cucumbers, tomatoes and cabbage. Warm up with a Russian Banya – a traditional “massage” with birch oak or eucalyptus branches followed by steam from a wooden stove or heated rocks.

Take a tour of Sochi City, the closest major town where you will fly in and out. The Russian St Tropez, many Russians take summer vacations in this sea town. In winter, visit the “Dendrari” park on no-fly days to see a collection of trees from all over the world.

Max Elevation: 10,171 feet
Mex Vertical Drop: 4,900 feet
Average Vertical/Day: 18,000 feet
Price: $2450-$2500 Euros

Truckee, California

By Susan Schnier
November 2006

Truckee, CaliforniaMany transient ski bums have been suckered in for life by Truckee’s old mining town feel and primo ski access. Thirty-somethings with car seats in Subarus share the town with their former selves – teens and twenty-somethings in sticker-plastered beater sedans. 2.5 hours from San Francisco and 35 minutes from the Reno/Tahoe airport, easy urban escapes complement small town living.

Skiing: Truckee is flanked by Northstar-at-Tahoe, 6 miles southeast, Squaw Valley, 10 miles south, Alpine Meadows, 13 miles south and Sugar Bowl, 9 miles west. Squaw and Northstar have sprouted self-contained villages.

Green Living: An electric car charging station makes Truckee part of California’s “Electric Highway,” extending across the state along I-80.

Nighlife: The downtown strip ranges from the beer-soaked dive bar flavor of the Tourist’s Club to Moody’s pseudo-San Francisco swank.

Gastronomy: Cottonwood, overlooking the Truckee River, used to be a warming hut for a ski area that shut down in 1969. Jalisco serves authentic Mexican food for the budget-conscious.

History: The Donner Party became infamous for cannibalism in Truckee in 1846 when a blizzard prevented the pioneers from crossing Donner Summit. The Emigrant Trail Museum on Donner Lake commemorates them.

Must Do: Take in a 360-degree view from Rainbow Bridge, above Donner Lake on Old 40. It’s near the China Wall, a large rail bed retaining wall with ancient petroglyphs below.

The Year of the Snows

By Susan Schnier
November 2005

Dumping in the SierraAt the east end of Donner Lake, just below Donner Pass, the 20-foot Pioneer Monument stands as a reminder of the extreme snows that stopped the Donner Party from their migration westward in the winter of 1846-47. Freezing and starving, some of the intrepid explorers died, and some who didn’t resorted to cannibalism.

A century and a half later, Donner Lake is now a fixture of the town of Truckee, where around 15,000 people live comfortably with more than enough snowplows and Mexican restaurants to keep them from eating each other. But as 2004 began to roll over into 2005, a series of back-to-back-to-back Sierra storms pounded the region, leaving 20 feet of snow in their wake. Twenty feet in 12 days. The overwhelming accumulation led to unusual behavior… and unfathomably good ski conditions.

But first, a word about Buddhism.

Buddhism teaches that the key to enlightenment lies in avoiding extremes, in following the Middle Path. But as Zen-like as we diehard skiers feel in the peak of a powder turn, we’d never take the concept of moderation to the extreme of applying it to snowfall.

Most visitors to the Lake Tahoe area during the Christmas-New Year holiday would have preferred a fresh infusion of a few inches here, a foot or two there. That way, the roads could open and they could actually get from the airport to their hotel, gas up their car, drive to the resort and do some skiing.

But this holiday period, the snow gods took one too many hits of ecstasy at the planning party, and moderation wasn’t on the agenda.

North Lake Tahoe ski bums rang in the New Year getting hammered somewhere cozy while the snow hammered outside. It dumped two feet overnight, on top of three feet that had fallen over past three days, and they set the Middle Path aside in favor of raucous all-out indulgence.

When it comes to relentless dumpage of juicy fat flakes, skiers have a hard time knowing when to say when. Which raises the question, when it comes to snow, can there be too much of a good thing? Most real skiers would say no, but when resorts are closed and backcountry is out of the question because of avalanche hazard and you can’t shovel out your driveway because you can’t launch the shovel’s contents over the nine-foot banks, well… the issue becomes a little grayer.

As the drifts started to creep up toward the top of the Pioneer Monument, even hardened snow warriors began to fret. There was just no place to put all of the snow. Towering piles of dirty snow chunks commandeered parking spaces and entire traffic lanes, making actually seeing while driving physically impossible. Going to school or work would just have to wait; all the gas stations were dry since the trucks couldn’t get into town.

In the eye of the storm, I was trying to sell my condo, conveniently located at the top of a long walkway at the highest elevation in town. The door was completely buried by at least 10 feet of windblown snow, and I had to climb in through the back porch. Several potential buyers who wanted to check out the place during the big holiday called, but they mysteriously changed their minds when I described the access route.

Still, with all this snow, how was the skiing? Well, when you could get to it, it was fantastic. Pretty often, you couldn’t. High winds forced mountain closures and extremely low visibility. The flip side was that the wind filled in your tracks as soon as you made them, so every single turn was creamy fresh luxury. And since sketchy roads and rugged conditions kept the crowds away, the ski areas were the private backyards of the hardcores who could best appreciate them.

When the clouds finally cleared and the mountains emerged, blanketed in snow, the superlatives started flowing. Every Tahoe skier had a least one, and probably more like four or five, “best ski days ever” last season.

So was it too much? In retrospect, not at all, but at the time, the never-ending flakes were tinged with a slight uneasiness. Rarely did a conversation go without a reference to the Donner Party.

Alpine Meadows, California

By Susan Schnier

Alpine Meadows MapThe freeheeler Mecca on North Lake Tahoe, Alpine Meadows is smaller than neighboring Squaw Valley USA, but it’s the hands down winner for hike-to terrain. Alpine also enjoys a more mellow vibe that appeals to lower key locals and families.

Marquee Route

The High Traverse leaves the crowds behind, accesses many of Alpine’s best off-piste runs and winds up at the bar – what more could you ask for? Check out the views of Lake Tahoe and the peaks in Granite Chief Wilderness and Tahoe National Forest along the way and drop in anywhere that looks good. The descent averages 35 degrees in pitch and is mostly open-bowl turns with old growth forest interspersed. The High Traverse ends at the Sherwood lift, where you can shed some layers and sunbathe at the Ice Bar while enjoying tunes, barbeque and an extensive selection of microbrews.


D8 chute is the obvious, 100-foot wide, 45-degree slope underneath the Summit Six Chair, about three towers before the top. D8 Chute gets hammered, but the trees to its right are often overlooked. Duck into the trees to find fresh powder. Even if the snow has been skied, it stays light and dry because it’s protected by the trees and north-facing.

Powder Day

The Buttress is a haul, but its well worth it. Go right off the Summit Six chair and traverse past Idiot’s Delight, Beaver Bowl, Estelle Bowl and Bernie’s Bowl. It takes about 20 minutes, but you’re rewarded with lots of vertical and continuous powder turns that will be the envy of all the onlookers in the parking lot. The top section is steep and technical and the bottom mellows out into a huge powder field. Rock drops from five to 35 feet challenging the aspiring hucker and the pro. The area is south-facing so it’s best to hit it in the morning before the California sun has its way with it.

Three Days Later

Keyhole’s 1200 vertical feet can be intimidating, but the snow stays cold and dry because of its north-facing aspect and high-elevation. It’s steep, but since the snow is usually soft and chalky, it’s highly edgeble.

Park and Pipe

Alpine has three parks (small, medium and large) just above the base area. There’s a halfpipe in the large park, accessible from Kangaroo Chair. A poma services the small park for speedy access, and the medium park is serviced by the Roundhouse lift. The TK area is lit and open at night.

Advanced park riders should head to Kangaroo Run and Nick’s Run (accessible via Kangaroo Chair) and solid intermediate jibbers should make for Kangaroo Ridge. The Ridge is about 15 degrees, and has a top-to-bottom flow of roller jumps, 20-foot table top jumps, rails, and boxes. There’s just enough space between features to regain control, or stop, and then jump right back into the flow of the features.

Backcountry Access

Turn left at the top of the Scott triple chair, and traverse out toward the Promised Land. Pass by the Broccoli Tree (very old Juniper tree and a common pit stop for local crowd) and “Lower 40” slope, and you’re in Gentian Gully! It’s fairly steep, faces west, and is sprinkled with interesting lava rock formations. The lower half is a beautiful tree run through huge pine trees. Pop out at the Subway Double Chair/Tahoe Adaptive Ski School. Take the chair back to the main lodge or walk up the parking lot.


California sunshine and Sierra cement. Wet storms moving in from the Pacific often dump feet overnight. The moisture in the snow means that it doesn’t take much to fill in rocks and bumps and put a fresh coat on the mountain. If it’s not snowing, make sure you’ve


If the weather is nice, the Main Lodge Sundeck has beer on tap at the outside bar and one weekends, starting in March, there’s usually a live band playing. Unwind there before driving down the road to the River Ranch, for has heaping nachos, every kind of après drink imaginable, a roaring fire place, and a warm, welcoming group of employees and locals. In the spring, their deck provides a great place to kick back and watch the Truckee River roll by. Happy Hour at the “Ice Bar” at bottom of Sherwood Chair has music, munchies, and cheep beer, plus a sweeping view of Ward Canyon.


River Ranch on the Truckee River has a surprising selection of game and rich meals on their menu: elk, bison burgers, lamb, filet mignon… as a vegetarian, I order their portabella mushroom steak with sweet potatoes that are mashed. Also served with asparagus.

Up All Night

Just across the state line in Nevada, the Tahoe Biltmore never closes. You can cash your paycheck, gamble it away, and still find 99 cents in your friend’s car cushions to buy the famed “Bilty Breakfast.” Dine in faux tropical comfort. Greasy eggs, bacon, and toast will soak away the night’s boozing.

There’s no lodging at Alpine, but Sunnyside on Lake Tahoe’s west short is a five minute drive from Tahoe City and a 15 minute drive from Alpine Meadows. Right on the lake, they have a great sushi bar and fish taco night every Wednesday (cheep all you can eat fish tacos – a local’s favorite). The lodge only has 23 rooms, but that’s part of the cozy Tahoe appeal.

Homewood, California

By Susan Schnier
March 2006

Dubbed Homiewood for its insider appeal, Homewood is an old-time ski area on Tahoe’s West Shore. With one short slope visible from the road, the best terrain remains the secret of families and locals escaping the pretension of Tahoe’s larger resorts. The views are striking, even for seasoned residents. Lake Tahoe spans out behind you from the lifts, and the runs plunge you toward its blue expanse. The four chairlifts are sluggish, but Homewood realized a long time dream and installed a high-speed, detachable quad this season. And then there’s the powder – Homewood gets 450 inches a year and stays open when winds shut other areas down; it hasn’t had a wind hold since 1994.


Firesign Café serves hearty breakfast and the huevos rancheros are a foolproof choice off the large menu. After skiing, Sunnyside is just down the road, serving lake views and juicy fish tacos. For pizza, try Pisano’s, in Homewood. In Tahoe City, swanky, lakeside Sol y Lago is Latin American/ Spanish fusion. Their large Tapas menu features apps like chicken mole tamales and marinated artichokes. Treat yourself to a protein feast across the street at the West Shore Café – their tender Kobe Filet Mignon with Cabernet Sauce is made from the highest grade beef.


Sunnyside has 23 lakefront rooms ($100-295). The Norfolk Woods Inn bed and breakfast in Tahoma has seven rooms ($60-$80) and three two-bedroom cabins ($100-$150). You’ll walk to the lifts if you stay at the West Shore Inn, directly across the street. The new, high-end lakefront hotel has six suits ($250-$750) above the West Shore Cafe.


Order beers from the snack bar and enjoy them on the sun deck. The wooden corner bar upstairs has been around since 1962 and is illuminated with antler chandeliers. Down the road is the rustic Black Bear Tavern. In Tahoe City, Pete and Peters remains the classic watering hole with pool and air hockey. Late night, Sol y Lago’s Luna Lounge showcases DJ talent.


Well-spaced glades cover most of the mountain. Powder takes days or weeks to get skied and you won’t feel a pack of testosterone-fueled snow fiends breathing down your neck while you try to enjoy it. Quail Face is the steepest, most challenging zone and requires uphill traverses to get in and out. Unlike the rest of the mountain, it’s not treed so you can open it up.


Homewood’s open boundary policy has been in effect for 10 years and Ellis Peak is a popular destination. Look west at the top of the Quad and you’ll see Ellis Peak at about 1 o’clock. The summit is 8,990 feet, a 1,100 foot elevation gain. The north-facing Fourth of July chutes lie beyond, in Blackwood Canyon, and stay skiable into summer.

Mt Rose Chutes

by Susan Schnier

Mt Rose ChutesWhenMt.Rose opened the chutes last season, the mountain rocketed from family status to become one of the most hard core ski areas in Tahoe. Highly avalanche prone, the tantalizingly steep couloirs were closed and frequently poached since the 1960’s. Now intrepid skiers have free reign of the 200 acre area. Offering 1500 vertical feet of the driest snow in Tahoe, the chutes hold powder for days and stay chaulky throughout the season. Patches reaching up to 55 degrees are enough to speed the pulse of the most seasoned big mountain skier, 35-degree sections give the advanced skier a chance to build up to the big stuff, and plenty of sustained 40-45-degree sections offer all-day leg-burners.

Line 1 – Cardiac Ridge

For adrenalin pumping, cornice hucking, hit the chutes on the ridge line under the Northwest chair, entering through the Jackpot gate. Cardiac Ridge has the highest heartbeat factor, requiring a crux first move. To avoid having to make an important first move and the potential lift humiliation if you blow it, go lower and ski Cutthroat where it’s still steep, but wider – be prepared to get your zipper line on, as it often gets bumped up quickly. Good carnage in this area is usually visible from the lift.

Line 2 – Captivator
The El Cap gate accesses the steepest, longest section of the chutes. To avoid the mainstream rush and find some privacy, go straight through the gate and you’ll be at the top of the El Cap. Angle right into the 45+ degree Captivator – this is the only entrance. Unlike the saddle and El Cap, Captivator is not a dished-out natural half-pipe; it’s more level and it gets tight through the trees (about four ski-lengths wide) before opening up at the bottom.

Line 3 – Saddle
Enter through the El Cap gate and wrap around the flat area to the top of the Saddle. It starts out as an open bowl and then funnels you into the 40-degree chute, narrowing to about two ski lengths at the throat. Like all of the chutes, you can see the pinch and choose to go around if you’re not up for sweating out hop turns – there’s nowhere you’ll be closed in, you always have options. Getting east from the Saddle is hard, so choose a lower gate if you’re headed that way.

Line 4 – Dragon Lady
The most confining and the challenging chute, this line is sandwiched between two small spines. Accessed from the Yellow Jacket gate, it’s to the skiers left of Fuse and skier’s right of the Saddle. From the gate, hike to the west (left), start at the top of Fuse and angle left toward the Saddle. There’s a sign on a tree about 50 yards from the ridge. In the pinch, smack in the middle of the chute, is a tree with a barely a ski length on either side.

Line 5 – Beehive
Take some groomed warm up turns down the Mine Train traverse to get to the Beehive gate and head in any direction from there. The terrain is 30-35 degrees and it’s relatively wide open in either direction. This chute is shorter than the others, since you loose vertical by dropping down the ridge and ending in the flats. The upside: you can’t be seen by the lift so you can be out of sight while building up your “chute legs.”

Line 6 – Venom
Go through Hornet’s Nest gate and stay to the left and on top of the ridge while you ski down the top section of Hornet’s Nest – don’t slide down into the throat or you’ll miss it. Halfway down there’s a small cliff band – one of the few in the chutes. Two or three mini-couloirs split the rocks below the cliff. Come out though the tight trees at the bottom.

Line 7 – 09’er
Go in the Nightmare Gate (the lowest on the east side), ski about 100 yards down the ridge, and angle left to Chaos, a cut chute sandwiched by glades. Chaos was cut in 2004 and the mountain did more cutting this past summer to open it up even more. 09’er, to the left of Chaos, offers Coloado-esque tree skiing. Though you’ll lose vertical on the traverse down the ridge, this run is almost as long and steep as the bigger chutes because it has a consistent pitch all the way down to the lift instead of funneling into the flats.

Line 8 – Goat Track

The Northwest Magnum 6 and the Blazing Zephyr 6 lifts get you to the top of the chutes. If you ski all the way to the bottom, you have to take the Chuter lift and make a two-lift circuit. The bottom bowl area of the chutes has a groomed loop that’s makes a fairly long, low-angle run. It’s spackled with natural terrain park features like wind lips, whopdee-doos and dishes. Speedy skiers can make a full two-lift lap in less than 15 minutes. Often, a traverse track develops below the western chutes and you can do single-lift laps on Northwest, accessing everything from El Cap west. Make sure the track is in place, or be willing to put in the effort to help set it.

Squaw Valley’s Avy Team

The Bomb Squad: A Day in the Boots of the Squaw Valley’s Snow Safety Patrol
By Susan Schnier
March 2006

Squaw ValleyIt’s Friday, March 3, 2006 and a storm has been building off the Pacific for four days. Squaw Valley’s weather stations report 38 inches of new snow at 8,000 feet. Gusts on the ridge topped out at 152 mph this morning. It’s 18 degrees at the base of the mountain. In the last 12 hours, 18 inches of snow with 7 percent density have fallen at the sheltered snow plot at High Camp. It’s flat out puking.

The lift line at the KT-22 chair starts forming almost three hours before the lift opens. Skiers in full-face helmets and fat skis peer up at hucker-friendly coastal snowpack sticking to everything, but most notably to the Fingers—a 40-foot diving board in full view of the lift line. It’s a powder day at Squaw.

Today is the most powerful weather event of the season and the locals know it. Many of them also know that all that new snow sits stacked atop a four-day-old rain crust—textbook conditions for one mother of an avalanche cycle. But only a handful know that a dedicated, 32-person snow safety team started their day six hours before the lifts open, scrutinizing weather maps, gearing up, shoveling out, assessing, ski cutting and throwing bomb after bomb after bomb to make the mountain safer.

If it sounds like a military operation, that’s because it virtually is, from strategic planning, detailed logistics, deployment of highly coordinated patrol units, and the use of live ammo. The following is fifteen hours in the lives of the Squaw snow safety team.

Friday, March 3, 2006

0300: Will Paden, Squaw Valley avalanche forecaster and battle-tested 10-year veteran, pours a cup of coffee and powers on his home computer to check snow plots at the base (6,200 feet) and High Camp (8,000 feet). He reviews wind speed and temperature beta and studies data collected from an bucket on mountain that melts snow to calculate its liquid equivalent, and therefore, the weight of the snow (found at He steps outside and kicks at the snow accumulating on his deck.

0310: Paden, age 36, calls grooming director Tom Boxler, who’s been combing Squaw’s slopes all night and has a good feel for the stability of the snow. Boxler reports that it’s still dumping and that Headwall Face slid naturally to Mambo Meadows. It’s going to be a big day.

0330: Paden phones avalanche control director, Bob Cushman. They’ll need all of their team’s human and explosive resources to open the mountain by 0900. They set the dialing tree in motion, rousing all 32 patrollers from bed.

0445: Sleepy patrollers shovel out driveways and navigate Subarus through snowy darkness. Two arrive early and drive a snowcat to collect explosives from the secured magazine in the meadow, 1,400 feet from the Patrol Room.

0520: Patrollers like rookie Will Brown, 44-year veteran Wes Schimmelpfennig, and Matt Calcutt file into the Patrol Room. The avalanche control command center is a crowded, dank space, lined with wooden lockers and benches littered with gear. Avy dogs scamper about. Patrollers buckle boots, strap on beacons, and load packs. They stuff their jackets full of crimpers (for cutting fuses) igniters and PowerBars.

0545: Assistant patrol director Curtis Crooks reviews route assignments with the team. Today, six teams of two will tackle 23 control routes on KT-22, Red Dog, the Slot, Headwall Face, Tower 16, and Broken Arrow, each pair heading to a different section of the mountain. On each team, one patroller is a licensed blaster with a “K” (known) rating on the assigned route, while their partner is rated “F” (familiar). A “K” rated patroller is so intimately familiar with a route that he or she could practically bomb it blindfolded—which is what it’s like in today’s whiteout.

0600: Eric Lowell, 32, heads out to lead a route. Lowell had the drive, references, and a lucky connection to break into Squaw’s tightly knit crew three years ago. He also nailed his hour-long interview with Crooks and Cushman. “Everything I learned about avalanche control, I learned at Squaw,” says Lowell. On his first day, he took his “rookie walk” with Paden, where he armed shots, assembled a cap and fuse, clipped a fuse, and put on an igniter. Squaw later sent him to Avalanche I class and provided problem-oriented beacon training. Last season Lowell got his blaster’s license and earned a “K” designation on two routes. He doesn’t plan to leave the Squaw patrol anytime soon.

0610: “Today is the biggest avalanche hazard day we’ve seen all season,” reports Paden as he takes over the meeting. He pulls down a projector screen and shows a rainbow-colored weather map and warns of a deep weak layer in the snowpack. It will take 16 cases of hand charge explosives to control the slopes today—the most the team has used all season. Squaw Valley is one of the single largest users of high-charge explosives, even more than most mining operations. Today, 30 patrollers will toss almost 500 hand charges—880 pounds and almost $3,000 worth—of Ammonium Nitrate emulsion, the same explosive used in the 1993 Oklahoma City bombing.

0620: Paden ends the meeting and suits up his third-generation avalanche dog, Roscoe, in a harness-vest that matches Paden’s jacket: Red with a white cross. Two other dogs, Boon and Jonson, flap their tails. The stereo cranks out a song written and sung by ex-patroller Peter Charles about Squaw’s patrol team, to the tune of Johnny Cash’s “In the Jailhouse Now.”

0630: Dawn. Patrollers load cases of unarmed bombs into their packs and onto the snowcats that will crawl to the upper mountain. Patrollers in groups of six click in, grab a long rope and a snowcat tows them through powder to the base of Red Dog and KT-22.

0640: The corral is deserted, except for a lift-op and two eager locals waiting for first chair, almost two and a half hours before it will open. Over the next two hours, the KT line will swell beyond the ropes. When the upper mountain is closed because of high winds and avalanche danger following a storm, the default ski zone is the 1,500 vertical feet that KT and Red Dog access. On days like this, skiers will race for freshies or first boosts off the Fingers, the prominent cliff band right under the lift. The line erupts as veterans like Scott Gaffney or Shane McConkey hit a drop. Still, the crowds in the KT line are notoriously pushy. Elbows will fly as skiers squeeze through the choke and onto the chair.

0645: Roscoe leaps up next to Paden on a KT chair. Roscoe is assigned to KT’s top shack, and the other avy dogs are spread out at of one of five complexes at the top of Headwall, Shirley Lake, Silverado and Red Dog. If there’s a post-control release, there’s always a dog ready to search. Post-control avalanches don’t happen often, but dogs were called out last season when Headwall Face unexpectedly slid 30 inches deep at 2 p.m., burying four skiers who were all rescued by patrol. Keeping rescue dogs trained is a huge commitment, but if a skier is buried without a beacon, a dog is the best way to find him.

0655: The first patrol crew gets off the chair. All 12 pack into the summit patrol shack and form a bomb assembly line. Laying out bright yellow powder cartridges, John “Wegy” Weglarz pokes a hole in each one, Brown inserts an orange safety fuse and blasting cap, and Paden duct tapes the unit together. Everyone stuffs bombs into packs, clicks in to skis, and fans out along the ridge. It’s dumping again.

0720: “Fire in the hole!” screams Paden as he cuts the fuse off the first charge, pulls off the igniter, and lobs the bomb over the ridge into GS Bowl. He tosses another bomb. After 90 seconds, the first one explodes. Then another. Paden’s an expert at keeping track of bombs. When one doesn’t detonate, patrol has to close the area and wait an hour before they can retrieve it. Though the 2-pound bombs pack has a detonation velocity of 16,700 feet/second when ignited, they are fairly stable. “You could fire a 20 caliber bullet into the cartridge, and it probably won’t go off,” says Crooks.

0730: BOOM! Across the valley, Alpine Meadows patrol fires their howitzer. Because Squaw is linked by a series of ridgelines, patrol can access all potential start zones on foot or skis. This allows them to avoid the hassle, danger, and expense of heavier artillery. They strategically toss hand charges instead, based on decades of experience with avalanche start zones. Shot placement zones are marked on photos in the patrol room but exact placement is more art than science, changing with the season and the snowpack.

0745: “On days like today we call it our Eiger,” yells a passing patroller as Paden and Brown front point their ski boots up the backside of Eagle’s Nest, one of KT’s showcase lines with pitches up to 65 degrees. Accessed by a sheet of steep, rock-speckled ice, the footing is precarious. But they summit safely and stop to pet a wooden duck perched in a tree—a Squaw ritual that ensures continued snowfall.

0820: Clouds of smoke, snow, and debris hang in the air as charges explode all around. Paden breaks trail through deep drifts, deliberately slicing snow off the slope. Ski cutting is an integral part of avalanche control, performed after most of a route has been bombed. Deciding where to ski cut is a judgment call, but patrol never ski cuts a zone that could harbor a large avalanche. Rather, ski cutting is used to push loose snow off specific, potentially dangerous and isolated pockets. Though he has a good idea of what might slide and where, Paden never knows exactly until he’s out there feeling it with his skis. He ski cuts a few times, then rips powder turns to the bottom.

0830: The KT lifeline is swelling. Paden zips around the crowd and loads KT for another round of ski cutting and a final cleanup. For once, “cleaning-up” is fun.

0900: Release the hounds! The avalanche control team drops the rope so all of Squawllywood can get after it.

0907: Carcasses fly off the Fingers to wild applause from the lift line.

0910: The snow-covered Gore-Tex and iced-over beards cycle back for seconds, and patrol couldn’t be happier about it. “After control on a heavy snow day, we’re hoping for a big crowd at KT because ski compaction is the best avalanche control,” says Crooks. “We can’t throw bombs when the lift is open. If it’s snowing 1-3 inches an hour and we have a small crowd, we have to close the lift and start again the next morning.”

0915: Paden rides KT again and helps dig out buried signs and ropes that mark closures or cliff areas.

1400: It’s still snowing. The sky is forecasted to clear by morning and that means Paden will need to open areas of the upper mountain like Granite Chief and Silverado. They’re already under up to five feet of new. Patrollers start assembling bombs for tomorrow.

1600: The sweep is on and Paden joins all available forces to check for straggling skiers.

1645: Fatigued patrollers return to the patrol room. Paden conducts a debriefing on the day’s avalanche activity, explains what can be expected for tomorrow, and heads to the bar for a beer.

1750: Paden heads home as darkness descends, knowing that he’ll be back before sunrise. It dumps all night. Clearly, the wooden duck is working its magic.

Ski Techs and Bootfitters

These four pros will get your gear in gear
By Susan Schnier
June 2006

Graham Lonetto
Edgewise Elite Ski Service
Stowe, Vermont • 802- 253-8883 •
Lonetto opened Edgewise Elite Ski Service four years ago after spending two years traveling Europe with the U.S. Ski Team. He still does race tunes for juniors at the four nearby ski academies and for USST members, but now caters to the everyman as well. “We deal with locals, like instructors and parents, all the time,” he says. His shop specializes in vertical sidewall work called shaping that shaves off excess material to make it easier to lay a ski on edge. Tunes range from $35 to $135.

Ben Cranson
Podium Productions
Truckee, CA • 530-592-9254 •
Ever seen a 54-foot ski-tuning trailer tooling around Lake Tahoe? Chances are it was Podium Productions, a Truckee-based tuning outfit that travels to events across the country. Owners Ben Cranson and Willy Wilkes started the biz in December 2005 after Wilkes came off 23 years on the World Cup circuit. They know edges, bases and sidewalls better than any duo in the U.S.—but wax is their real forte. “Good wax lets you cut through heavy snow instead of getting bogged down, especially in Sierra Cement” explains Cranson. “A $5 belt wax is ok, but for a couple of extra dollars we can make a ski perform to its maximum potential.”

Larry Houchen
Larry’s Bootfitting
2709 Spruce St, Boulder, Colorado • 303-402-6733
With 26 years of experience and a knack for fitting hard-shell boots like they’re Air Jordans, Larry doesn’t need to advertise. His Boulder, Colorado, shop has two insole stations and one canting station, plus several couches filled with customers reading ski mags or watching old ski movies on TV as they wait. Houchen and his two employees handle all aspects of boot work from footbeds to buckle work to stretching and grinding. “We show people what their feet look like properly supported,” he says. “When we bring that support to ski boots, feet cramp less and energy is transferred more easily and in less time.” Got hotspots? Go see Larry.

Bob Remeger
Taos Boot Doctor
Taos, New Mexico • 505-776-2489 •

When Bob Remeger started his Taos, New Mexico, shop with Bob Gleason in 1986, they were cutting insoles out of big sheets of head moldable plastic; there was no pre-formed footbed blanks, cushioning or cork filling. Things have come a long way since, but several of the staff members still remain. “On our 20th anniversary, we have staff that’s been with us for up to 15 years,” he says. This synergy helps Remeger’s seven-member team tackle tough foot problems and concentrate on polishing fit and balancing stance. To achieve a balanced stance, he adjusts canting, places wedges, and grinds boot soles. “People spend thousands on ski lessons, but part of the problem may be that they’re out of alignment and always compensating,” explains Remeger. “When your standing flat on your ski and your skeleton is aligned over it, muscles move better.”

To South America with NASTC

Ski Far Away, Don’t Miss a Day
By Susan Schnier
September 2006

Portillo with NASTCI was getting my fair share of sideways glances as I rummaged ski gear out of the garage on August 17. Assessing my stash of long underwear, ski socks and down jackets while wearing shorts and flip flops, I had a flickering moment of uncertainty about whether this mid-summer ski trip to Portillo in far-off Chile was even worth the hassle. But after leaving the next morning and clicking into my skis the following afternoon, all doubts were exorcised with the first creamy turns of the season.

A self-professed ski junkie, I subscribe to the cliché that if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing right. And I’ve found that even if you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to make a commitment and follow through, it will reawaken your sense of adventure and make each future day that much more rewarding. So I was headed to Portillo with the Truckee-based North American Ski Training Center’s (NASTC) team for one of their instructional immersion trips.

Portillo with NASTCJust an hour and a half outside of the capital city of Santiago, Portillo provides an all-inclusive ski-in, ski-out vacation that leaves out nothing. The time change is minimal (EST, just three hours later than in California). A three-hour flight to Dallas and an overnight flight to Santiago have you on snow the day you arrive and the day you return.

Portillo’s main European-style, mid-mountain hotel is a bright-yellow building at 9,450 feet. Thirty-two switchbacks climb up a vertical mountainside on the approach while 22,841-foot Aconcogua, the largest peak in the Western Hemisphere, looms in the distance.

Don’t worry about changing money at the airport; you won’t have any use for it during your stay, because you’ll never leave the resort grounds. You can ski in or out at any time, but you may forget this upon entering the full-service lodge. Four gourmet meals, included in the package price, are served daily in the dining room. Take a yoga class, work out in the gym, or use the pool, then sauna or hot tub before heading up to the bar for live music and Pisco Sours, the trademark, souped-up Margarita cocktail. Movies play every night at seven, and the disco has live DJs nightly at 11. A game room, library and computer room, retail shop, travel agency and first-aid clinic seal up the cocoon.

With all the indoor amenities you could almost forget this is a ski resort. But skiing is at the heart of it. “Portillo is the most soulful place to ski in the world,” says Michael Rogan, director of the Portillo ski school for 16 years.

Founded in the early 1930s, Portillo is the oldest ski area in South America. “The World Cup was invented here and the first medals are framed here,” Rogan explains. The World Ski Championships were held in Portillo in 1966. The Chilean National Ski team trains on its slopes as do the U.S., Canadian, Austrian, Italian, Japanese, Chilean, and German teams.

The mid-mountain restaurant, Tio Bob’s, is named after Bob Purcell, who Nelson A. Rockefeller sent to Chile to look for copper or oil. Bob discovered the perfect spot for a hotel instead. Rockefeller wasn’t interested, but told Bob to go for it, and he did. Bob soon hired his nephew, Henry Purcell, as General Manager. Henry graduated from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, and moved from the States to take the job at age 26. He later bought the resort with his brother, David. Henry’s son, Michael, is now the manager. “He would rather tear the place down than sell it,” says Rogan.

For NASTC, Portillo is the ideal place to hold a camp because it exudes history, offers diverse terrain and fosters a social atmosphere where relationships easily develop and grow.

Co-founders/directors Chris and Jenny Fellows started NASTC in 1994. Chris Fellows, is a Level III ski instructor and member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) National Demo team. The rest of Chris’ ski resume would swell this story off the page, but what is not on the list is his 1000-watt smile and the incisive and intuitive way he coaches top instructors from around the country, knowing exactly when to back off and when to crack a joke and/or a beer. His immersion program uses instruction, freeskiing and lectures to help you meet specific goals as well as become a better all-mountain skier. Skiers travel from all over the country, including San Francisco, Maine and New York to train with NASTC’s seasoned staff. “The NASTC experience is successful because of the group,” he said. “It’s your week to make the jump to the next level.”

For a week, we literally eat, sleep and breathe skiing, with a few cutthroat ping pong and basketball tournaments thrown in between meals, Chilean massages, dancing and small doses of sleep.

The nine-day itinerary includes five full days of training and two free ski days. Trainers break the crew into groups based on ability and goals on the first afternoon. Members of the top group, led by Chris Fellows, are instructors and instructor trainers, many of whom are preparing for the 2008 National Instructor Tryouts at Snowbird. I team up with them and their collective ski ability is astounding as we dive right into technical drills. Putting image aside, we “dolphin” across the slope, lifting our ski tails off the snow and landing on our tips repeatedly, to feel balanced fore and aft motion in our lower legs. Starting on groomers, we soon veer off-piste to apply our skills. We lap the Roca Jack lift – a five-person Poma that speeds up the same steep slope where Michel Prufer set a 134.5 mph speed skiing world record in 1987.

After a two-hour lunch we walk across the road to the Bajada del Train (Train Run). The snow is thick, but smooth with a sustained pitch to the bottom. Then we ski the steep Garganta (throat) run, mixing in two long fun runs before we each are videoed doing the dolphin for a technical review that evening.

After video each night there’s a “Tech Talk” on topics from gear to technique to fitness. With visuals of all our skiing pitfalls burned into our heads, we head back out the next morning for more specific drills, mixed in with all-mountain skiing. After Chris gives us the basics, we split into two groups and critique each other, working on improving our own skiing and our instructional ability with our partner. Each day of skiing builds on the previous day with a balance of instruction, practice, video and exploration.

NASTC’s customized approach also emphasizes fitness, mobility and anatomy. After a few days, some clients switch groups to learn from a taller or shorter instructor who more closely reflects their own stature.

On the third day, Chris gave me a tip – to drive my uphill hand more powerfully down the slope – that rocketed my skiing out of a rut it had been in for years. Suddenly, I had more control of my turns at speed and my skis tracked more solidly and arced more powerfully.

Though I wish I had more time for backcountry hikes to classic lines like the 7,000-foot “C” couloir, the intensive instruction was an investment in the entire future of my skiing. I probably could have had the breakthrough in any of NASTC’s camp locations, but Portillo was particularly conducive to it. Without having to think about where to eat or sleep, or how to get from point A to B, I could focus solely on skiing. The August timeframe worked especially well too; without a season’s worth of reinforcing bad habits, I could adopt new techniques with less resistance. Add in Portillo’s ski history, family-style comforts, spectacular scenery and perfect weather, and it made the ideal place to step up my skiing and have a culturally unique ski vacation.

If you missed the Portillo trip with the NASTC crew, there’s always next year. But if you want it now, NASTC offers 28 trips at 15 resorts this winter, including a Squaw Valley clinic December 9 to 13; a beginning ski instructor training at Sugar Bowl, December 16 to18; and an all-conditions class at Alpine Meadows January 28 and 29. Many other local classes fill the calendar, including one at Northstar and several in the backcountry in Truckee, Mt. Shasta and the eastern Sierra. For a bigger trip, NASTC runs clinics at Aspen, Killington, Grand Targhee and St Anton, Austria.

Tips to skiing Portillo, Chile

· Drink lots of water – the stuff is good to go straight out of the faucet, so don’t waste your money on bottles

· Slather on the sunblock – 80 percent of days are sunny

· Ski all day – the mountain is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (5 p.m. on the Juncalillo side)

· Follow the sun – move across the mountain from Plateau to Juncalillo

· Have lunch at Tio Bob’s for mixed grill, salad bar and panoramic views

· Ski “C” couloir is Portillo’s ultimate backcountry line. To get to it, hike up above Roca for about 4.5 hours for 7,000 vertical feet of turns.

· Heli skiing provides pristine snow no matter how chewed up the resort. The heli leaves from the parking lot and flies up to 14,000 feet, offering up to 4,000 vertical feet of skiing per run. The cost is $241 for the first lift, $170 each additional.

· NASTC offers a 3 DVD set All Mountain Skiing Tactics by Chris Fellows or a book, Tactics for All-Mountain Skiing, also by Chris Fellows, published by PSIA.

More info
North American Ski Training Center: 530-582-4772, NASTC’s Manager Stacey Westrum helps clients coordinate logistics before and during the trip.

Interview with Tony Harrington

By Susan Schnier
May 2006


Tony Harrington, a 40-year-old Australian photographer and filmmaker, has been capturing surf and snow from the front lines since age 16. A sponsored surfer for three years and a sponsored skier for seven, Harro won the 2006 Powder Magazine Photo of the year and the 2002 Red Bull Snowthrill World-Champion Choice Award. He’s always on the road, seeking out the most untapped locations like steep lines on 50-acre islands in Greenland. He regularly shoots pros like Shane McConkey, Jeremy Nobis and Chris Davenport and has placed photos on over 80 magazines covers. But Harro is driven into the mountains by an obsession with skiing and adventure, not fame. He’s more passionate about participating in the action than his bank account or even his photos.

“I don’t know the meaning of can’t do it. Only by breaking rules and boundaries can you take life to a new level. I bought my first camera – a Minolta Weathermatic – at a local shop when I was 16. My parents were sure I wouldn’t be able to afford the film and processing. I never do anything I’m told, so I bought it anyway. I got a front cover on my first submission to a surf magazine and my second to a ski magazine. All self-taught, I’ve never taken a photography course or read any books on it.”

Jamie Sterling“Most photographers can’t ski the gnarly stuff with the athletes. I ski the same Alaskan slopes as they do, with 50 pounds of camera gear. Sometimes I’m just trying to stay alive, but it lets me get photos that no one else does.”

“My parents were injured in a horrific car accident eight years ago. It was a wakeup call to always do what I love and be 110% happy with my life because it could end at any point. I decided to end a long-term relationship. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it turned out to be the right thing.”

“It’s too easy to take a photo in good weather. I’d rather shoot on a storm day. You get to take more risk, use more imagination and think more. Engineering was my trade from 16 until 26, when I became a full-time photographer. The more I can use my brain, the more satisfying my work is.”

“I might be too soulful and not business savvy enough for this industry. Competition is healthy because it makes you stay on top of your game. But it pisses me off when photographers start undercutting rates just to get published. Small companies that promised they’d look after me when they got big have picked up the next young photographer to save money. In the last few years they’re starting to come back to the best and proven photographers are starting to get the respect that we deserve.”

“I make decisions instantaneously based on what’s happening at the moment and I’ve achieved a lot that way. Now I’m trying to learn how to be less independent for my wife, Fabienne, and some projects that will only succeed with the help of others. We’re trying to resurrect the World Heli Challenge in Wanaka, New Zealand next year. There’s still nothing like it on the planet. I have the athletes and the global media deal and great interest from big sponsors. Lots of the athletes I knew 20 years ago now have big roles in marketing, media and athlete coordination. The resurrection couldn’t happen without this passionate and knowledgeable group of contacts and their conviction that it’s possible.”

[Follow up from Harro: “The World heli Challenge didn’t get off the ground in 2007, but oh my god, it certainly looks like it has for 2008! All thanks to a team that I got around me! Visit for an update.

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