For 2 hours, as we raced down the Golden Gate Bridge and on to Route 89, Bob Lee and I talked jargon. Or, rather, he talked and I listened. Terms such as vast bowls, steep face, cornices alternated with gradient, etiquette and depth. The only time speech took a back seat was when flakes of snow began powdering my cherry red Toyota Camry. Barely exchanging a glance, we pulled off the highway, clambered out of the car and ran into the adjoining field slowly turning white under the steady onslaught from the skies.
Like the first monsoon rains, a snowfall manages to press all the “child” buttons in an adult—yes, even in one who had never witnessed snowfall as a child. It was only when our all-weather shoes threatened to sink into the soft white mass that we returned to our heated car, consoling ourselves that there was more snow where we were headed. Our destination was Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, which also lends its name to the surrounding region, known for some of the finest winter sporting action on the continent.
Winter’s heart: The pristine slopes of Squaw Valley. DK Bhaskar
Yet it was fire that greeted us at Squaw Valley, on the north of the lake, not snow. The Olympic flame has burned here since 1960, when the valley hosted the Winter Games. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that this is hallowed skiing ground, where the best in the world have been tried and tested. “Squallywood”, as it is popularly known, sure has the game of one-upmanship down pat.
Despite our roadside gambol, it was still just 2pm; we could still look forward to a few more hours of daylight. After a quick cup of hot chocolate, Lee and I joined the colourful queue for the aerial lift. For all their similar attire—oversized UV-protection goggles, layered leather gloves, woollen caps and insulated jackets and pants—I noticed that the crowd had skis of varying length. “Beginners and amateurs use skis that are shoulder height at most, while the more experienced prefer longer skis for the greater speed and manoeuvrability,” explained Lee, the one-stop shop for skiing insights.
Also See Trip Planner / Lake Tahoe (PDF)
Once aloft in the cable car, the 360-degree view literally took my breath away. Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada mountains, Lake Tahoe is fantastically picturesque. The scenery is not its prime attraction though—the average 600 inches of snow it receives every winter is. The lake is too big to ever freeze, making it one of the few places in the world where you can snow-ski and water-ski on the same day. Perhaps more importantly, Lake Tahoe gets ample sunshine, more than three days out of four—making it the haunt of serious skiers from across the country.
Did I just say serious? Alighting from the cable car at 8,300ft, all I saw everywhere were kids, pants hanging way below waistlines in a manner sure to earn a rap from President Obama, leaping off granite bluffs or careening down particularly tricky bits of wooded slopes to wild whooping.
I, meanwhile, was having a tough time telling the right ski from the left. Finally, I gave up and rigged myself up anyhow (I’d later realize skis were feet-neutral)—and then discovered exactly what a chore it was to walk with skis, boots, bindings and poles.
Feeling a new respect for the anti-gravity show-off kids, I lined up to listen to John Mukavitz, a ski veteran with 17 years of teaching experience. “There is no better student than the one who doesn’t have any fear and does everything the first time around,” he said. After a beat, during which I found myself holding my breath, he added, “Unfortunately, most people are not like that.”
As I exhaled again, Mukavitz explained that skiing, like most sports, was an athletic endeavour and most people were “naturally inclined” to pick it up. It didn’t look like I was one of them, however, as I tried getting used to my 54 inch-long appendages and felt like a child again—only now, I was learning to walk. Lee manfully held his laughter, but finally abandoned me with Mukavitz as he took off for the slopes.
Over the next 2 hours, I learnt to balance myself, turn around and, what do you know, even managed to ski short stretches without falling flat on my face. In that time, Lee had skied down the slope twice, zipping past outcroppings of rock and wooded patches with the insouciance of a teenager. There is a grace, an artistry, to the experienced skier’s movements that has much in common with the ballet dancer or the expert swimmer—the same perfect timing, a sense of rhythm and concentrated energy that creates a fleeting work of beauty. Moments after he has zipped by, all that remains is his trail and a gust of infectious exhilaration.
It was that sense of sheer joy, of being at one with nature and all like-minded human beings, that brought me back to the slopes the next morning. Another lesson, and I was skiing well enough not to feel guilty about wandering away from the trail. But no go: A snowmobile patrol stopped us, warning us that a black bear had been spotted in the vicinity and it wasn’t advisable to move too far away.
But go we had to—this time, back on Route 89. Much has been made of summer and autumnal landscapes in North America, but it perhaps takes an Eastern pair of eyes to see the astounding beauty that ice, snow and the rushing Truckee river can create against a backdrop of moss-covered alpine trees. “All these areas were destroyed completely in a forest fire a couple of years ago,” Lee told me.
Somehow, it was reassuring, this tale of renewal amid winter. Later, as I absent-mindedly tried to crunch some loose snow into a ball, I remembered reading long ago that no two snowflakes were ever alike. I don’t know if it’s true, but that bit of myth seemed to gel perfectly with the magical landscape.
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