Some ski areas come with a reputation. Squaw Valley has a reputation for great terrain ridden by great skiers and snowboarders; you know, all that Squallywood jazz. My 22-year old son Vince and I skied it for the first time ever on a crisp, sunny day in early January 2013. This place does indeed have the goods and was a tremendous experience. I think the thing that impressed us the most about Squaw was that the super expert/extreme terrain was not confined to one lift, one cliff, or even one mountainside. It was all over the place!
Everywhere you turned, around every major lift at Squaw there were heart-stopping steeps. As a pair of tourists with commonplace skills we had no intention of hurtling off any of the huge cliffs, but you couldn’t help skiing some very interesting black diamond terrain just by being in proximity with all that alpine awesomeness. In the interest of accuracy I should also state that a big percentage of Squaw’s 3600 skiable acres very happily accommodates the intermediate masses with tons of wide open groomers woven throughout the layout. There is even a large and scenic beginner area at the High Camp Lodge complex high up on the mountain at 8200’. Squaw has something for everyone and draws destination visitors from around the world.
Our beautiful and full day at Squaw started with a ride on the KT-22 Express Quad (~1760’ vertical). It rises out of the main Squaw Valley base area/village (elevation 6200’) and soon climbs just left of a steep cluster of rocky chutes called The Fingers, the first of many famed Squaw Valley steeps we’d see this day. The terrain served by the KT-22 chairlift alone could entertain an expert skier for years. During Squaw’s 64 years of operation it has been the proving ground for numerous greats from racing, freestyle, freeride, and extreme skiing including the likes of Scot Schmidt, Tamara McKinney, Jonny Moseley, Julia Mancuso, Shane McConkey, and the Backstrom siblings - Arne, Ingrid and Ralph. The list goes on. Several of these folks have local ski trails named after them.
The endearing thing about Squaw for lesser mortals is that for every steep line there is often an intermediate bail-out and from the top of KT-22 Vince and I used a blue square run called Saddle to begin a survey in the northwesterly direction across the huge expanse of the ski area. We took a ride up the Headwall Detachable Sixpack (1750’ vertical) and gaped at the cliffs called Palisades, site of many an extreme ski film stunt. We continued to tap blue square and single black diamond terrain as we rode the Siberia and Big Blue Express Chairs and finally reached Squaw’s highest lift served point, the summit of the Granite Chief Triple Chair on the far western border of the ski area.
We then took a black diamond run down the skiers left side of the Granite Chief Chair (~1000’ vertical) called Hidden Bowl. As this run tumbled down the hill it exemplified for me the playful undulation and abundance of amazing terrain features at Squaw Valley. You could have hucked a cliff, boogied the bumps, straight lined a chute, ducked into the woods, or carved a steep face all within 200 yards.
By the time we made a couple more runs around Granite Chief it was mid-day and our stomachs told us to return where we started at the KT-22 base for our stash of brown bag lunch materials. On the way back we took mellow runs off the Gold Coast Detachable Six Pack (~560 vertical), passed by some of Squaw’s terrain park and half pipe features and continued on a long run-out called Sunnyside paralleling the Gold Coast Funitel all the way to the Squaw Valley base area. We dined al fresco on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches among Squaw’s illuminati on a sunny patio while scanning the trail map to figure out where in the heck we’d ski next in this epic playground.
After lunch we rode the Funitel (~1740’ vertical) for the first time and used it to access the Broken Arrow Double Chair. The Funitel holds up to 28 passengers and is an especially wind resistant gondola system designed with two loops of cables. From the top of the Broken Arrow chair we took Broken Arrow run. This slope passes under the Funitel and skirts some scenic rock spires that look like something from a western film by John Wayne, or maybe that was Jimmy Stewart.
Then we caught the KT-22 lift again, but headed in a new direction to the looker’s left upon disembarking. This took us across Red Dog Ridge, down a short mogul field, and out to a traverse above some steep tree runs. Following the traverse further we came to a huge rock known as Heidi’s. All of this was pretty hearty black diamond terrain and when I stopped for a breather and take in the scene an instructor swept by leading a flock of giggling 12 year old girls. Ho hum, this wasn’t the first time during the day we had seen youngsters training on very challenging terrain. Squaw is surely the type of place where ski stars are born and made.
Then we rode the vertiginous Red Dog triple chair (~1240’ vertical). It joins my personal list of all time acrophobic chairlifts and at points seemed to be 200 feet off the ground. It led to the summit of Snow King the easternmost peak in the Squaw domain at an elevation of 7550’. From there we took a few cruising runs and used the Squaw Creek Triple Chair (~1300 vertical) to return to the main Squaw Valley base area.
We had heard several accounts from lift companions during the day that the trails served by the Silverado Chair had some of the best snow on the mountain. At this point we had just enough time to check it out and used several lifts including the Squaw One Express Quad (1660’ vertical) to catch the Broken Arrow chair for a remarkable run down Landbridge Canyon trail. Landbridge was a long, multi-tiered bump run interspersed with flatter sections and indeed held great snow in a canyon shaded from the most intense afternoon sunshine.
After Landbridge we rode the Silverado Triple Chair (~1370’ vertical) and skied past the High Camp Lodge one last time. It’s an extraordinary upper mountain complex served by the Squaw Valley Aerial Tram (1886’ vertical) with a beginner’s ski area, dining, swimming, skating, shopping, and an Olympic museum (Squaw was the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics). Non-skiers can visit High Camp via the tram and enjoy pretty views of Lake Tahoe and the ski slopes. We saw a lot of folks skating on the outdoor ice rink and even one lady strolling with a fat-tired baby carriage on the snow.
Our last run was back again on beautiful Broken Arrow crossing under the Funitel. And then, all too soon, the day was done and we were walking through the base village. Vince stopped to honor Squaw by making a quick souvenir sweatshirt purchase. He has skied 50 different ski areas in the last five years. The only other times I’ve seen him cough-up his own money for a hoody with a ski area logo were Taos and Arapahoe Basin.
I’ve skied at about 80 ski areas in North America and Europe. My resume for steeps is certainly incomplete, but in my experiences Squaw Valley had the most inbounds double black diamond and extreme terrain I’d ever seen in one place. While Vince shopped I hung out in the village for a few minutes and savored the majesty of one of the world’s great ski areas, awe-inspiring reputation fully intact.
Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.
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