Sitting on 3,600 acres northwest of Lake Tahoe near the California and Nevada border, Squaw Valley offers skiers the chance to take on wide open runs (groomed and not) of greens, blues and blacks, most of which are clean of trees (death sticks), allowing the average skier to be more daring with less severe consequences. This range in terrain, altitude and weather presented the perfect setting to test my new gear — a Bern helmet, Gordini gloves, and Obermeyer jacket and pants — while being guided by this veteran pro.
Having driven from San Francisco to Squaw Valley the previous evening, I spent a restful night in the cabin-in-the-woods meets four-star resort Plumpjack Inn. After polishing off my hearty breakfast, I hit up the shop for skis, suited up in my snow gear and walked to the base of the slopes, where sunny, 35-degree weather, pristine, empty runs and a few inches of nightfall powder lay before me.
We pulled up short and decided to choose between Dead Tree and Rock Garden. Those names did not help my confidence.
Most people consider themselves “beginner”, “intermediate” or “advanced” as a skier, but shortly after meeting Chris, I explained that I was more like “casual with a mild case of calculated risk while remembering my disability insurance hadn’t cleared yet, with a baby on the way”. Taking this into consideration, Chris suggested our challenge for the day would be to traverse the entire Squaw Mountain area using each lift and hitting a variety of slopes.
Squaw’s 170+ trails, six mountain peaks and 30 lifts meant we had our work cut out for us. First stop, the top — sort of. Chris led me to a 28-person gondola called the Gold Coast Funitel. It’s the only one in the U.S., and uses two cables in loop formations to travel 1.6 miles up the slope at about 13 MPH (faster than most LA traffic).
It was during this “safe and fun” way to start the day I had a minute to inspect my gear. Both the Obermeyer Ketchikan ($525) jacket and Kitimat ($325) pants use a fabric additive called Cocona, a natural particle derived from (of course) coconuts, which boasts breathability, UV protection and odor management. The jacket was insulated, needing only a dry-fit shirt underneath, and the pants were very comfortable with waist tabs (much like “my first” tux pants), thigh vents, easy-to-access pockets and reinforced double layering for your knees and butt. My “Juice” (orange) jacket and “Lightsaber” pants had me looking like a DOT worker, but just in case that radiation of color wasn’t enough to spot me in an avalanche, both items came with RECCO, a rescue system integrated into the clothing. Essentially, the search team uses a radar to send a pulse that bounces off said sensor, which can be read through 30 meters of snow, 200 meters off the ground from a helicopter.
After exiting the Funitel and being wiped by the morning air, I pulled off my detachable hood, stuffed it in my backpack (holding an extra layer, a cliff bar and my camera), pulled the gauntlet cinch on my Gordini Fuse gloves ($75) and set off on some simple runs with Chris to get back in the grove of skiing. The insulated, waterproof gloves featured goatskin leather on the fingers and a circle flex palm, making them more durable and flexible than I was. They didn’t fit as tightly as I hoped — without inserts I feared they might get wet and cold — but the breathable insulation did its job, and their extended skirts kept snow out of my jacket.
After only a handful of runs with Chris watching my positioning and technique, school was in session. Grabbing a coffee at the world’s only ski-up/ski-out Starbucks, he reminded me to always keep my shoulders square with the mountain and plant my downhill pole to turn. Ah. The face-planting, sliding uncontrollably while flailing arms and losing skis was so last year. These little tweaks cleaned me up in no time, and after a few more runs — zig-zagging with burning legs all the way and grateful for my breathable yet warm jacket and pants — I was ready for lunch. We arrived at the base in time to run (in ski boots, feeling like a broken down Iron Man) to catch the tram up to lunch at High Camp.
The clear day and remarkable view from the Terrace Restaurant at 8,200 feet made every bite of my tequila lime fish tacos and sweet potato fries that much better. It also gave me a chance to chat with Chris about his background, which I had to pull out of him. Multiple World Championships, records for skiing all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000 footers in less than a year, his role as announcer for ESPN, ABC Sports and Outside, etc., etc., etc. Yeah, but had he written a book? Two, actually.
After fueling up and trying to hang on to my last few shreds of comparative manhood, we set out determined to rock some black diamonds. As crazy and extreme as Chris is (insane vertical drops and landing 100-foot cliff jumps are no problem), his humility attention to detail keep him alive. No need to show off. No need to prove anything. He assesses situations, terrain, weather, and degree of difficulty deliberately enough to make an insurance underwriter seem careless. It was in his careful hands that I placed my life as we looked for a few daring runs.
I explained that my skill level was more like “casual with a mild case of calculated risk while remembering my disability insurance hadn’t cleared yet, with a baby on the way”.
After getting into and out of some pretty hairy situations (“It didn’t look that steep from over there”) we approached the famed KT-22 peak, given the name in the 1940s when Sandy Poulsen — whose husband discovered Squaw — took 22 kick turns to safely make it down. As the sun began to set, however, the area became less safe, so we pulled up short and decided to choose between Dead Tree and Rock Garden. Those names did not help my confidence.
Not that long ago, wearing a helmet on the ski slope was akin to you mother pinning a note on your shirt for your teacher. Staring down this tree-filled trail, which looked like Endor on a 90-degree decline, made me grateful times had changed. Sure, I looked awesome in my matte grey, fully vented visor lid from Bern ($100) with interchangeable liners for skate and snow — but all I cared about was how strong the ABS shell was.
Perched atop the run, Chris planned our route and advised me on avoiding rock clusters. I recalled my day’s lessons: shoulders squared, eyes up, knees bent, poles planted for turns. I took a deep breath. Slowly started. Quickly approached trees. Plant, turn. Plant, turn. Crash. Slide. As I miraculously missed trees, I whirled my body and planted. Pop. I was standing up and on my skis again. Stopped. Chris applauded my recovery. I bet he’s a great dad.
I reset, took notice of my next few turns — which would be around trees — and knew that confidence, not timidity, is the name of speed. Plant, turn. Plant, turn. I was getting my rhythm and finally feeling smooth. So easy.
Crash. Down again, but this time in powder, putting all the waterproofing, insulating, moisture-wicking, snow-blocking gear to the test. Once again, I reset — and this time made it the rest of the way.
If there is anything age and wisdom has taught me, it’s knowing my limit. That became our last black diamond, and we called it a day. We once again headed down Home Run to meet our group and drink some (pitchers of) beer at Le Chamois. While relaxing and toasting our master skier guide, it occurred to me that skiing is really just something you do and try not to die. And it’s fantastic. Technology makes the sport easier, more comfortable, and even more fun, but ultimately it’s you against a run — whether the diamond is blue, green or black. At the end of the day, I felt like a conqueror. A conqueror who looked like a sharp DOT employee. Bottoms up.