Squaw Valley: the hangout for America's most extreme skiers

The home of extreme skiing, California's Squaw Valley is also a great modern resort with an impeccable pedigree. Plus a 100ft leap into oblivion. Mike Higgins catches air

'He's a lunatic," said my brother Gavin, standing next to our table in the restaurant, covered head to toe in snow. We had arrived the day before in a snowstorm, when the "lunatic" had merely been "Chad", the helpful guy on a skateboard who had guided us to our spot in our accommodation's underground car park and shared our excitement about the snow. Gavin had got a little too excited and agreed to meet Chad at 7am to get the first lift. What happened, Gavin?

"We got to the top of some lift in a blizzard and Chad just dropped over the back, off piste. The snow was up to my thighs. Then he sent me down to the base of a cliff and said, 'Stand there.' Next thing I knew he came flying off the cliff and landed a few feet from me. He was just using me to spot his landings."

Squaw Valley likes to style itself as the home of "extreme" skiing. The locals don't like that term, but if they go throwing themselves off cliffs, what do they expect? And as my brother, my friends and I all discovered that week, this unassuming resort on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, California, tucked away in the Sierra Nevada, attracts more than its fair share of skiers and boarders willing to back up this claim. What would be ho-hum chairlift rides at most resorts become grandstand seats at "SV ", from which anyone can gawp at the antics of the local dudes. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be a kid, pants hanging way down his ass, leaping from a bluff in his skis or carving down the face of a cliff on her board – and in case you weren't paying attention, the brashest would let out a huge whoop to announce their next trick. Meanwhile, those that weren't testing themselves so recklessly against gravity were merely excellent skiers and boarders. SV is not the place to visit if you're feeling self-conscious about your stem christies.

Yet, this is precisely why Squaw Valley is such an attractive resort. Its fierce reputation, as well as its cap on visitor numbers, keeps its slopes relatively uncluttered. It's largely a weekend resort, so it gets a bit clogged Friday to Sunday, but those staying for the rest of the week frequently have the run of SV's 4,000 acres, and the chance to gawp at the acrobatics of the wilder skiers and boarders.

So why does every gunslinging freeskier feel the draw of Squaw? Two reasons: the topography and the history. Squaw Valley's lift system serves four peaks, and it's these that are graded green to black rather than the individual runs. So you can expect high jinks at the top of the single-diamond black Headwall Express, but an altogether more relaxing experience coming off the Shirley Lake Express chair. Each area has a couple of pisted runs, but the remainder of the ski area is left invitingly unpisted. This approach exploits the resort's natural terrain: a compact series of bowls, cliffs and steep lines, most within a traverse or short hike of the lift heads. And, to those in the know, the names of these horribly challenging runs evoke the adrenalin-fuelled history of extreme skiing in the US: Schmidiot's, an 80ft plummet down a cliff; or Beck's Rock, a stomach-churning, 100ft leap into oblivion.

This history is inseparable from that of the resort itself. Squaw Valley formally opened its slopes to skiers in 1949, with Emile Allais as the first director of its ski school. Allais went on to found the Ecole du Ski Français, but he also brought to Squaw his reputation for adventure: in 1939 he and a friend famously scaled and then skied back down the Aiguille d'Argentière in the Chamonix valley, France.

The resort hosted the Winter Olympics in 1960, and in the following years ski pioneers, often roped up, began tentatively to explore the challenges posed by the resort's more vertiginous terrain. It wasn't until the Seventies, though, that skiers, taking advantage of rigid plastic boots and better skis, began to let rip; and it was the early Eighties before film-makers began recording their daredevil exploits in earnest.

Scot Schmidt was one such skier. Now 46 years old, in the early Eighties Schmidt was a ski bum hanging out with his buddies and trying to emulate the speed skiers tipping down the Palisades, the steep series of rock bands that drop away from the 8,850ft plateau of Squaw Peak into Siberia Bowl. He recalls the day in 1983 that the ski-film director Warren Miller's cameraman turned up. "He had got bored filming the ski-school guys – then he saw our tracks," he says.

"He got me on the phone that night and we were out filming the day after. We blew him away." On the first day of shooting, Schmidt launched himself down the 67-degree slope that is more rock than snow; the line became knows as "Schmidiots". The result was Miller's Ski Time, a film that made Schmidt and his buddies stars of the free-skiing world, and the Palisades the premier testing ground for aspiring ski heroes. "Five, six hundred people used to stand and cheer us on at the bottom of Siberia Bowl," Schmidt recalls. "The Palisades are classic: everything I taught myself I learned up there."

To this day, the last drag of the Siberia Express lift gains you a dress-circle view of the lemmings flinging themselves down one of the Palisades' 100ft drops. (For a preview of every one of SV's hairiest challenges, pick up Squallywood: A Guide to Squaw Valley's Most Exposed Lines, by Robb Gaffney, which is as wryly funny as it is authoritative.) What's the difference between Schmidt's and the current generation? " They're putting in more tricks and style now," he says. "But we were doing it on much longer skis: 2.15m, 2.20m. And they're not catching any more air than us, or going anywhere we didn't – we skied every inch of that mountain."

That sense of derring-do is all around you in Squaw Valley. But it's not threatening. Our decidedly intermediate group arrived to find the best snow of the season, but we never felt hustled by macho powder hounds tearing up the slopes – thanks, perhaps, to a mixture of Californian temperament and the good manners that pervades the best US resorts. But if it's challenging skiing you're after, Squaw Valley has plenty. We found ourselves returning to the top of the Red Dog lift, with its lovely wooded runs down to Squaw Creek, or picking our way down the myriad, tricky descents from the top of the KT-22 lift, most of it shin-deep in powder snow. Nothing bonkers, but exhilarating nonetheless, and all within the resort's bounds.

Beyond the skiing, there is much to recommend Squaw Valley. The resort base is appealing: a new "village" has recently opened, with a precinct of shops, bars and accommodation. Squaw's dining options will come as an eye-opener if, like me, you're a weary veteran of the ¿10 croque monsieur in European resorts. Just about every healthy option you'd find in San Francisco was available in the sandwich bars and cafés around the village. On the hill, there's the complex known as Gold Coast, with several decent food options, a swimming pool and a view of the Palisades from the sun deck. The evening dining options are impressive too: the PlumpJack Cafe at the resort at Squaw Creek is possibly the best in town, though there's also Mamasake, a sushi restaurant – we are in California, after all.

For nightlife on a grand scale, you'll have to go to Heavenly, on the south side of the lake. It straddles the border with Nevada, which means that one side of town is effectively a mini Las Vegas, with several casinos. But if you merely fancy a day off the skis, a drive along the picturesque lake shore is well worth your time; on the waters of the west side of the lake, Fredo Corleone was put out of his misery while fishing in The Godfather Part II.

But for those who want to earn their wings at Squaw, which relatively gentle rock feature should you throw yourself off?

"The Palisades," says Schmidt.

Hundred-foot drops? Forty-five degrees at its gentlest? You've got to be joking.

"No, you just have to be a decent advanced skier. You see, it's got a long, safe run-off."

Wouldn't I hurt myself?

"Maybe. But you're unlikely to die up there."

Thanks for the reassuring words, Scot.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

The nearest international airport is San Francisco, which is around four hours' drive from Squaw Valley. It is served from Heathrow by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and United Airlines (08458 444777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk).

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

STAYING THERE

The Village At Squaw Valley USA, 1750 Village East Road, Olympic Valley, California (001 866 818 6963; www.thevillageatsquaw.com). One-bedroom apartments start at $199 (£99.50) per night, self-catered.

SKIING THERE

Scot Schmidt is available for ski-guiding (www.gowithapro.com).

EATING & DRINKING THERE

PlumpJack Café, 1920 Squaw Valley Road (001 530 583 1578; www.plumpjack.com).

Mamasake, 1850 Village South Road, Squaw Valley Village (001 530 584 0110; www.mamasake.com).

MORE INFORMATION

Squaw Valley: 001 530 583 6985; www.squaw.com.

Heavenly Mountain Resort: 001 775 586 7000; www.skiheavenly.com.

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