The Iceman Cometh

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Last year, Mother Nature got a little carried away. It snowed and it snowed. And then it snowed some more. The result? Record-breaking snowfalls at Sierra ski resorts, with most resorts reporting snowfalls of between 650 and 850 inches. Skiers and boarders were in powder heaven.

La Niña—a weather pattern that occurs when sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific are lower than normal—historically results in greater than average snowfall in the Sierra. This weather pattern is what caused last season’s bounty. This winter, forecasters are predicting another La Niña. But while we can’t know how much snow will fall, we do know Sierra ski resorts have implemented improvements to complement whatever Mother Nature brings. Here’s the lowdown on what’s happening in the high country.

Joined at the hip
Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows have merged, meaning season passes or lift tickets from one resort are good at the other. Already purchased a season pass at either resort prior to the September merger? You’ll be reissued a new one good at both resorts. Ski or ride on more than 6,000 acres of varied terrain spread across eight Sierra Nevada mountain peaks.

Happy Feet on the Slopes
No, you’re not in Antarctica. But you might see a penguin waddling around the slopes of Diamond Peak. OK, so the resort’s mascot isn’t a real penguin. But it’s still cute and cuddly and poses for photos. At Diamond Peak’s Bee Ferrato Child Ski Center, children (ages 3 to 7) pro-gress through five levels, each named after a type of penguin. When a child graduates to the next level, he or she receives a Penguin Power bracelet.

Explore New Terrain
Catch some big air in the new boxes, rails, jumps and snow features at Squaw Valley’s terrain parks. The new features, part of $15 million in improvements, also include enhancements to the beginner learning experience such as three magic carpet lifts, new rental gear, progression-based terrain features, and a remodeled and refurbished 17,000-square-foot Squaw Kids facility.

Step Into the Adventure Zone
At the top of Heavenly’s gondola, children can explore a new adventure zone called Black Bear Hollow, a meandering, low-angle skiing and riding trail with groomed whoop-de-dos, wood carvings of local animals and wildlife fact signs. In the adjacent entry-level progression park, kids can enjoy small rails and gentle jumps and boxes. They then can take a break from the action to devour fresh, wholesome food that’s both healthful and tasty in the new, 2,022-square-foot kids’ ski-and-ride school facility.

Visit the Promised Land
At Northstar at Tahoe, hop aboard the detachable express quad chairlift, Promised Land Express, with a vertical rise of 1,440 feet. The new lift doubles the resort’s lift capacity on The Backside, known for its long, uninterrupted advanced trails and gladed tree skiing, and provides access to two new intermediate trails.

See the World Through the Eyes of a Flying Squirrel
By spring, Granlibakken expects to open a new Treetop Adventure Park, featuring canopy tours for adults and children. Ascend to a tree platform, then travel through a series of bridges and ziplines on an aerial ride through the forest. Kids 4 and older will have their own Flying Squirrel canopy tour. Riders wear climbing harnesses and helmets and are connected to a continuous belay system, ensuring safety.

A New Galaxy Is Formed
Skiers schuss down three new trails at Heavenly’s Galaxy “trail pod” on the resort’s Nevada side. These intermediate trails provide 20 more groomable acres on one of the mountain’s less-traveled portions. Two of the new trails connect the top of Stagecoach Express Chairlift with the bottom of Galaxy Chairlift, allowing the resort to open more terrain on its lower portion on days when the upper mountain is on wind hold. Heavenly also is widening five of its core California trails.

Rub Shoulders With an Olympian
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White now calls Northstar his home mountain. The snowboard superstar helped design Northstar’s new 22-foot halfpipe.

Magnetize Your Kids
Your little bundle of energy isn’t going anywhere but up thanks to a technology called Magnestick installed on the Quail triple chair at Homewood. Chairlift seatbacks are equipped with a magnet, which holds a child wearing a Magnestick vest securely in place for the lift ride. Last year, Homewood’s sister resort, Alpine Meadows, was the first ski resort in North America to install the technology.

Napa Arrives at the Ski Slopes
While dining on a Napa salad, gourmet pizza, and specialty soups and sandwiches at Northstar’s new on-mountain restaurant, Zephyr Lodge, gaze out a huge window wall offering spectacular views of the crest.

Ski and Ride All Year Long
Skiing and riding indoors? You bet, thanks to the indoor ski/ride ramps you’ll find inside Boreal’s Woodward Tahoe, a youth action sports “freeride” and “freeski” instructional center and camp program, to be built in a new 33,000-square-foot facility, the largest of its kind in the United States. The bad news? Kids have to wait until summer 2012 to experience it. The good news? When it opens, Woodward Tahoe at Boreal will offer weeklong summer camps for snowboard, ski, skate, BMX and cheer/gymnastics including on-site lodging for campers. Also included: an indoor skatepark, foam pits, trampolines, and outdoor park and pipe riding into summer. In winter, kids will enjoy drop-in and
daily programs.

Cabanas? At a Ski Resort?
Olympic House’s sundeck, known for its spectacular views of Squaw Valley’s iconic peak, KT-22, and its epic après-ski parties, is completely redesigned. Warm up by new outdoor fire pits and dine on appetizers, flatbread pizzas and burgers while relaxing in the new K-banas, cabanas with views of KT-22.

Where the Pros’ Kids Learn To Ski and Ride
Many Tahoe-area Olympians send their little ones to Tahoe Donner’s Tykes Midweek Sessions to get them off to a good start on the slopes. Children 3 to 6 participate in 10 lessons from the second week of January through March. Participants meet every week for 2 ½ hours of instruction. Beginning skiers also will find grading improvements to Mile Run, with easier access to Walt’s Run and Bite Size Terrain Park.

The Need for Speed
Soar up Mammoth Mountain on the new High-Five Express, a Doppelmayr high-speed quad chairlift replacing Chair 5, a fixed-grip, three-seat lift. The new lift whisks 2,400 people uphill per hour (600 more people per hour than the old chair) and cuts ride time in half. Reach more terrain on one of the mountain’s highest access points and most popular locales.
At Dodge Ridge, a new Doppelmayr T-Bar surface lift carries skiers up to the second summit. The new lift opens more than 20 skiable acres in bounds and provides access to 1,000 feet of north-facing vertical black diamond runs, doubling the length of the shots.

Picasso-Inspired Terrain Park
Conquer the rails, boxes and other features of Art Park, which returns to Mammoth Mountain for a second season, while admiring the creations of artist and snowboard designer Jamie Lynn. He created custom terrain park features incorporating his art, so skiers and boarders experience the first-of-its-kind gallery in the snow.  Or release your inhibitions at Mammoth’s Unbound, rated the top terrain park in North America by SKI Magazine, and challenge the half pipes at Main Lodge and Canyon Lodge, where extensive dirt work this year ensures the earliest possible opening.

Snowboarding for Tots
Children as young as 3 can enroll in the new Dodge Ridge/Burton Snowboards Learn to Ride program. It caters both to new riders and experienced snowboarders by using terrain-based teaching methodology on equipment specifically designed for riders first learning or finding the rhythm to their ride.

Sierra-at-Tahoe, meanwhile, is now the only resort on the West Coast where kids can find a Burton Riglet Park, a mini snowboard park designed to introduce kids as young as 3 to snowboarding. Using Burton’s Riglet Reel technology, a specially designed attachment is secured to the nose of youth snowboards and allows instructors to tow kids onto features and around obstacles.

Terrific Tubing  
At Soda Springs’s Tube Town at Donner Summit, kids get more tube time and spend less time in line thanks to the addition of extra lanes.
Slide down the groomed slopes of Mammoth Mountain’s new snow tube park just above The  Village at  Mammoth.

The Dog Days of Winter
Bring your pooch along when you cross-country ski at Royal Gorge, where dogs are welcome midweek.

Why Wait for Mother Nature?
Thanks to new snowmaking on the lower section of Silver Dollar run in the Slide Bowl at Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe, skiers can enjoy good coverage from the start of the season.

If the Snowshoe Fits . . .
Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort is partnering with REI to bring back its free mini snowshoeing and cross-country skiing clinic on Jan. 7 as part of Winter Trails Day, an annual event that involves almost 100 resorts and Nordic Centers nationwide.

A Sign of the Times
For the first time in Squaw Valley’s 62-year history, the resort has christened its ski runs with formal names. New signs announce the trails’ identities and designate which runs were groomed overnight and are the “Easiest Way Down” at the top of main lifts.

Lodging: Something Old, Something New
The Mountain Club at Kirkwood underwent a $5 million face-lift, upgrading on-slope lodging accommodations from hotel-style units to two-bedroom loft condominiums. Other highlights include a full workout room, spa, sauna, steam and massage treatment facilities, plus the new Monte Wolfe’s cafeteria, home of the double-stuffed burger.
Cozy up to one of the gas fireplaces recently installed in the Piñon, Aspen, Redwood and The Chapel cabins at Sorensen’s Resort. Guests also will find new carpet in some of the cabins and a remodeled bathroom in Wagon Wheel.

For the ultimate in convenience, stay at Marriott’s Timber Lodge on South Shore. The property, located steps away from Heavenly’s gondola, has converted its sales center into additional two-bedroom lodging units.

Working Out the Kinks
Sore from a day of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing? Visit Granlibakken, where Tahoe City’s Lighthouse Spa opened a satellite location with three treatment rooms and many wellness packages. Just in time for cold and flu season, try the Blissful Retreat, a 60-minute sinus and head-clarifying hot-stone massage. By reservation only.

The Little Skier Who Could
At Sugar Bowl, children 15 and younger compete in three Caboose Kickers competitions throughout the season. Kids battle it out on Mount Judah in the Caboose section of The Switching Yard Terrain Park, named for the historical transcontinental railroad route that crosses the resort’s boundary. The Switching Yard is divided into three progressive parks, all featuring jump lines, boxes, rails, spines, mini boarder-x and more.

Family Fun and Chocolate, Too
Parents love children’s ticket specials at Donner Ski Ranch, which include two hours of tubing along with time on the slopes. When the little ones tire of snow play, bring them inside for brownies and hot cocoa by the fireplace.

A Buffet of Skis
Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe has a new Summit Pro performance ski fleet including the Salomon Lady and Salomon Lord skis, the fat Moment Night Trains, the fast Rossignol Avengers, and the Salomon Mission and Salomon Divine ski boots. Reserve the Summit Pro performance  fleet online. 

Wing Your Way South
Board a United Airlines flight from San Francisco International Airport to Mammoth Lakes. Air service to and from San Francisco now includes additional Friday-to-Monday flights to complement the daily flight service already in existence, making it easier for Sacramento residents to reach Mammoth Mountain.

Crawling Around on a Cat
Expert skiers and riders can explore Sierra-at-Tahoe’s wild side on backcountry snowcat tours to the edge of Huckleberry Canyon. The tours eliminate the 1 ½ mile trek to the canyon, saving time and energy so they can conquer the deep powder turns, cliff drops, cornice drops, rock chutes, open bowls, gladed runs and powder pillows. The tours will run on select days throughout the season (weather and conditions permitting). In addition, a new snowcat escorts kids and parents from Sierra-at-Tahoe’s base to the snow play and tubing area at Blizzard Mountain.
Kirkwood’s backcountry also is yours for the taking. The launching point is the new $1 million Expedition: Kirkwood Outfitters facility. Located across from Village Plaza, it includes a classroom/conference center, high-end retail and demo gear. Kirkwood expects to triple the number of snowcat tours during the season, also offering under-the-stars expeditions.

 

Aprés Ski Culinary Adventures

After a few years’ absence on the North Tahoe restaurant scene, the popular Hacienda Del Lago reopened in Tahoe City in The Boatworks Mall. Try the chile Colorado: cubed beef in red chili sauce served with guacamole, rice and beans, and corn or flour tortillas.

Craving a carb load after a day on the slopes? Two new restaurants serve a tasty pizza pie. Best Pies New York Style Pizzeria & Restaurant in downtown Truckee serves thin-crust pizza as close as you’ll get to the real thing from New York, thanks to the chef, who is from the Big Apple. Favorites include the Garbage Pie (with sausage, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, mushrooms, olives, bell peppers and onions) and the Meatball Parmigiana specialty roll (meatballs and Parmesan wrapped in pizza dough).

For pizza served in a more elegant atmosphere, visit Zia Lina Ristorante in Tahoe City. The restaurant specializes in pizzas baked in a wood-burning oven along with other Italian entrées.

Fuel up with breakfast before hitting the slopes at Hyatt Regency’s Sierra Cafe in Incline Village, which underwent a $1 million remodel. Or stop in for lunch, dinner or late-night dessert and coffee while warming up by one of two new fireplaces.

On the way to and from Kirkwood, visit Sorensen’s Cafe, which revamped its menu to include items such as roasted chicken with gremolata, New York steak with salsa fresca, and Kobe burger with applewood-smoked bacon and cheese. Fans of the resort’s berry cobbler may now have to switch their loyalty to a new dessert: bread pudding.

On South Shore, sushi lovers gather at The Naked Fish, which recently doubled its square footage to open a lounge with 60 additional seats. While waiting for a table in the main restaurant, enjoy appetizers from the lounge menu. When this restaurant says it serves fresh fish, it really means it, sourcing its seafood from a place that doesn’t deliver to Tahoe, so staff drive 200 miles to pick it up.

Another South Shore option? Black Bear Inn, which opened a restaurant in December 2010. Choose from culinary creations made with seasonal produce—local and organic when possible—served in a mountain-lodge atmosphere. The chef creates a new menu every month.

Tahoe Grille is another recent addition to South Lake Tahoe dining. While enjoying the historic ambiance, dine on such favorites as the house specialty appetizer, lobster ricotta gnocchi with basil cream sauce or slow-braised baby back ribs, served with housemade barbecue sauce, coleslaw and fries.

 

Pet-Friendly Palaces

After a day on the cross-country trail or ski slopes, relax with your pooch at one of the area’s many pets-are-welcome hotels or vacation rentals. Tahoe Moon Properties in Tahoe City offers more than 50 dog-friendly rentals, from cozy cabins to ski-in condos. On the West Shore, you and your best friend can stay at Tahoma Meadows Bed & Breakfast Cottages, a winner of the Golden Bone Award for exceptional service from DogFriendly.com. The owners at Tahoma Meadows also will post your dog pictures from Tahoe on their website. At Cedar House Sport Hotel in Truckee, your dog may meet a new friend: Baxter Baird, the owner’s Border collie. Baxter’s furry friends are welcomed with special treats, dog beds and bowls. Many other North Shore properties also welcome dogs; visit GoTahoeNorth.com to search for lodging.

In Mammoth, at The Westin Monache Resort, four-legged travelers are welcomed as eagerly as their two-legged human companions with the Heavenly Dog Welcome Pack. Pampered pooches relax in luxurious dog beds with miniature duvets, and enjoy food and water bowls and a few tasty treats.