"Miles of corduroy" at Tahoe
At a mountain ski resort, there's a saying when you look down from a staging area and get ready to launch down the snowy hill: "miles of corduroy."
Suddenly, winter life is complete.
"Corduroy" is the subtle grooved surface created by snow groomers on runs. At Heavenly at South Lake Tahoe, the runs are often double groomed to create the best surface possible for skiing and boarding. Take the Sky Express to the Skyline Trail and then cruise for 5 miles. That is why Heavenly is the best destination for intermediate skiers.
Sugar Bowl near Donner Summit at north Tahoe is often prized for the same thing. Miles of corduroy.
This is the payoff for an intermediate-level skier or boarder. It makes the sacrifice worth it - the cost, the time, the drive, and even dealing with the occasional knuckleheads.
In the past two days, 6 to 18 inches of snow fell across the high Sierra, depending on the location. For the weekend, sunshine is forecast for the Tahoe region with afternoon temperatures rising to the 40s following very cold mornings.
Add that up in your mental cash register: New snow has refreshed the high country, the resorts will have Thursday and Friday nights to get operations wired for the weekend, roads will be clear and the visibility excellent.
Better yet, play hooky Friday and beat the crowds.
That moment atop the mountain at the staging area, like at 10,040 feet for Skyline Trail at Heavenly, can be ecstasy. Scan miles of pristine mountain wildlands, where the air tastes sweet and every pore on your face opens to the crisp temperatures. Yet the bright sun, reflected off the snow, warms you just the same.
Then away you go, pushing off down the hill. Intermediate skiers and boarders are defined by their ability to turn to control their speed and descent rates by zig-zagging down the slope - the wider the run, the easier the task. This sort of giant slalom becomes a mountain ballet with rhythm and grace, and some will sing to themselves to find that rhythm. Add in a sweeping view of Lake Tahoe, and you've got, well, heaven.
On short hills, it seems the whole day is what we call "up-down, up-down." That is, you head up the lift, go down the hill, quickly, over and over.
At Heavenly and Sugar Bowl, the runs are so long that they turn into thigh-burners if you cut back and forth too much. On the other hand, find that sweet spot for balance and you'll sail effortlessly down the hill.
To get this, you need to reach intermediate level. Roughly 60 percent of skiers and boarders are intermediates. That is the goal. It's where you get paid back, when passions are fulfilled.
Many newcomers have visions of slalom skiers and snowboard jumpers from television, and think that is the goal. After a lesson and seeing no way to attain the TV fantasy, 85 percent never come back for more, studies show. That approach is all wrong.
Instead the goal should be to ski the intermediate runs, the ones marked by the blue squares and to have fun every second doing it. If beginners set their sights there, a lot more would come back.
Some people have asked, "How long does it take to become an intermediate skier?"
I've seen young athletic people in good shape ski intermediate runs after a day with a lesson and a second day of practice. It takes longer to learn how to board, or for those who have not played sports or who are not fit.
The payoffs are so high, the absolute elation of the moment while gliding down miles of corduroy is all many need to keep in shape, to make sure you can always do it.
Here are the best Tahoe resorts for intermediate skiers: