California: Never lose your tracks

Sat-nav technology is the latest must-have for the slopes.

As we drove through the desert state of Nevada, it seemed both practical and reassuring that our car's global positioning system (GPS) could find its way to a ski resort in this arid landscape of cacti and rolling tumbleweed. Sure enough, turning a corner, I caught sight of the snowy peaks and green pines surrounding Lake Tahoe. But what is perhaps more impressive is that I could also use GPS to direct myself around the slopes of the resort I had arrived at: Heavenly.

Yes, just as satellite navigation technology has become a must-have accessory in cars, sat-navs are beginning to make themselves useful on the slopes. The market leader is Satsports (satsportsgps.com), which reproduces the artist's rendition of the mountains you see on paper piste maps on your iPhone, BlackBerry or other smart phone, with a little yellow circle to indicate where you are.



I was sceptical at first, but its position-finding was largely spot-on. Occasionally, it would place me on a piste when I was on a lift more or less above it, only to correct itself. I could zoom in and out and just had to drag my finger across the screen to scroll around the map. And I could replay where I had been.



Heavenly is known for its impressive runs through the trees, and has carefully placed gates where off-piste skiers can enter the "back country" so that the landscape funnels them down to a lift at the end. This avoids one of the major hazards of skiing off-piste in Europe, namely getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. I was skiing with a guide, so I knew I was in the super-steep Mott Canyon, piled high with fresh spring snow. But would my GPS throw a wobbly at our wayward deviation from the pistes? Although no substitute for the local knowledge of a guide, it implacably showed me where we were, all the time.



The big ski operator Crystal reasons that most skiers and boarders coming all the way to the west coast of America want to see more than one resort, not to mention a few cities, and offers a self-drive, multi-centre package. Armed with GPS, I visited the casinos of Reno and the picturesque resorts that surround Lake Tahoe, which straddles the border with California, including Squaw Valley.



Squaw Valley was host to the 1960 Winter Olympics and, like Heavenly, has stunning views over the azure lake. Each of the resorts I visited was covered by Satsports, which has mapped out all but the smallest resorts worldwide.



I am still, at heart, a technophobe, but given that in my ignorance I had at first assumed I was in the Rockies, GPS downloads for the car and slopes had seemed a good investment. As long as your phone has GPS, general packet radio service (GPRS) and a touchscreen, you can download one resort map for £6 to £8 for a fortnight or £14 to £16 for all the resorts covered in a continent for a year.



For those skiers whose phones are strictly phones, several resorts have introduced ways of tracking your day's progress for free via lift passes. In nearly every resort in Austria, you can see which lifts you have taken and how many kilometres of vertical you have done at skiline.cc.



Heavenly and the four Vail resorts in Colorado are taking this concept one step further. A chip on the lift pass lets your Facebook friends see in real time which lifts you are taking. At present, the device is fitted only to all-season passes (given the high cost of one- or two-week lift passes in North America, the unlimited version is not significantly more expensive).



After lunch on my last day, I headed for the Northstar resort – which is where I had my epiphany. I'd decided to do the "back country", but soon lost track of where I was in the forest. I suddenly panicked that I had gone beyond the ski area boundaries. How would I get back? Would I miss my flight? Suddenly the Wild West seemed very wild indeed – until that little yellow circle placed me back in civilisation.



The writer travelled as a guest of Crystal Ski (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk), which offers a week's B&B at Heavenly on Lake Tahoe from £1,055 at the four-star Embassy Suites, based on four people travelling, including scheduled flights and car hire. The trip can be combined with a stay at Mammoth and stopovers in Santa Monica, LA or San Francisco. For more information, visit california.com and travelnevada.com.

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