It was just our luck to be invited on a press trip, during one of the largest series of blizzards in the region ever. The snow has surpassed the totals of 1911, which had been the landmark. The first series of storms brought about 9 feet of snow; the second have been bringing about 6 feet in 24 hours. A third round of snowstorms is expected. The weather is in the mid-thirties, but the wind is ruthless. It averages about 25 to 40 mph, with occasional gusts of 80 mph. Squaw Vally recorded winds of 163 mph!
My husband Charles and I were on top of Mt. Rose during some of those wind gusts. Combined with driving snow and whiteout conditions, it was frightening. Even the pros admitted concern. At times, we felt as though we were about to be blown off the mountain, into the unknown grey skies or down a cliff. I was so scared, I was hyper-ventilating and thought I would have a heart attack. This happened to me once before in Utah — also in high altitude and whiteout conditions.
Despite the magnificent powder, most of the areas had to close while we were here. The high winds made the lifts too dangerous to run. The snow and extreme avalanche danger closed the main highways. In the ski areas, the frequent sound of cannon fire blasting for avalanches could be heard — it never fails to startle. But, even with the patrols, some avalanches did block the highways. The good news is, the record amounts of snow will stay in the mountains for months. In addition, the lodging rates are relatively low, and you can fly from the Washington, D.C. area for about $100 dollars one way. Gambling is so pervasive in Nevada, that many of the casinos offer low-priced packages which combine with airfare, fine hotels, and ski lift prices. I suggest you look into the packages, but refrain from the gambling. Just being on the slopes is a gamble enough.
From the Reno-Tahoe region, there are a variety of excellent areas close by. But, they are still a drive of a few hours, so it is better to stay at them than in the city. The major areas include the dramatic Mt. Rose (closest to Reno), Heavenly, Squaw Valley, Northstar, Alpine Meadows, Sierra, and Kirkwood. Some of the resorts are in California. There the lodging is much more expensive, because tourists are invited to ski and golf, fish and boat, rather than to gamble.
Our first venture into the Nevada mountains was to Mt. Rose. We had actually stayed at Squaw Valley California the night before, but did not ski there. Conditions were bad, and only the lower part of the mountain was opened. That was windswept, with wet snow coming down. We sadly decided to skip it, and drove about two hours in the blizzard to Mt. Rose. Thank God we had an experienced bus driver! Chains were mandatory, but many of the vehicles got into trouble while driving over the mountain passes.
Mt. Rose is a must for a return trip. They had just opened an important new area, “The Chutes,” which had been used by backcountry skiers for years. Since it was the 70th birthday of Elvis Presley, anyone dressed in an Elvis costume received free ski passes for the day. Some managed to ski down the daunting chutes — costume and all. But, free fall “flying Elvis” competitions and a “mass descention” were postponed.
Mt. Rose is a terrific, rustic, no-frills ski area for serious skiers and snowboarders. The people are warm, friendly, laid back, and serious about their sport. Top elevation is 9,700 feet. In fine weather, Mt. Rose probably offers the best view of Lake Tahoe at 6,229 feet. We could not see it at all, since we could barely see our own skis in the whiteout conditions. There are about 16 chute runs, and they are all extremely steep — double and single diamonds. I am so thankful we did not get blown into them. Still, it is something to look forward to in a future trip.
Just another word about the excellent public relations firm which invited us. They faced a herculean task, coordinating about 40 reporters from across the nation. How could they know the weather conditions would be so extreme? Kudos to Ronele Klingensmith, her husband Christopher, and top assistants Jenny Frederito and Bethany Drysdale. They had to constantly change plans, dig out buses, alter hotel and entertainment arrangements for us, and think on their feet. Thanks also to Erin Wallace, of Reno-Tahoe. They deserve a big party, and thorough rest when this trip is over. Maybe Elvis will even drop in to congratulate them.
When she wasn't skiing, Connie Lawn covered the White House as a reporter since 1968.