High jinks: California's Squaw Valley is the ideal location for freeriders looking to perfect their skills
Saturday 14 March 2009
The Tram Face at Squaw Valley looms up steeply behind the ski resort's small village. Fingers of red granite and gnarled pines dot the sheer wall. Above the summit, skiers lose their stomachs as the cable car swings up over the first tower.
I stand at the bottom, chewing. And wondering. First, about whether it would be reasonable to state that Squaw's Wildflour Bakery makes the best cinnamon rolls in the world. More than the average of 300 days of sun and 11.25m of snow a year, more than its six peaks and a thrillingly tumultuous topography, these breakfast marvels are reason enough to draw me back.
Secondly, about the name of the monk who first proposed the theory of gene pairs. It's one of three answers needed to claim a free chocolate chip cookie, nearly as superlative as their cinnamon cousins. This cookie-for-general-knowledge exchange is a daily occurrence here; we are in northern California, after all. The bakery also does dog biscuits. Recession or not, Squaw is good-life central.
Finally, I'm wondering who in their right mind would feel comfortable dropping into the Tram Face. Officially, it's out-of-bounds and has never been skied; but this is about to change. The Freeride World Tour is in town, and the Tram Face is on the schedule.
This very recent addition to the ski and snowboard competition circuit is now in its second year. The circus has already visited Sochi, Russia, and will stop off in Tignes before the final, next week, on Verbier's precipitous Bec des Rosses.
The definition of freeriding depends on your perspective. To the uninitiated, it's extreme skiing and snowboarding by another name: crazy people attempting crazy stunts on crazy terrain. But it could also be said that everybody who has strapped on a board or a pair of skis and figured out a line down the mountain is a freerider; that the difference between dipping into a patch of fresh powder on the side of a piste and launching off an 80ft cliff is just a matter of experience.
I could ride every day and still never make it over an 80ft cliff in one piece, but I get the point. Freeriding is the great allure of Squaw, after all. The Lake Tahoe resort rose to prominence when it hosted the Winter Olympics back in 1960, yet the mountain is known not for tidy Alpine racing but as the freeriding capital of the US. In a country where immaculate grooming is the norm and carefully sculpted terrain parks are now the typical daredevils' playpens, Squaw is venerated for sprawling, gladed, unpisted bowls and natural, rocky launchpads.
Despite a distinct lack of vertical when measured on an Alpine scale – the Granite Chief peak tops 9,000ft, but the total drop of the resort is only 2,900ft – the consistency of Squaw's deep, coastal powder and the variety of off-piste terrain has convinced many of North America's daredevil heroes to set up home here. It's not called Squallywood for nothing.
But it's precisely this same lack of vertical and varied terrain that makes Squaw the ideal place for the novice freerider to cut their teeth (and hopefully nothing else). From the notorious steeps of KT-22 to the powder-filled trees of Granite Chief, there are off-piste routes right off the lifts where the merely competent can ride beside the big boys and girls of the freeriding world. On the first day of the competition, the world's finest are on the very same mid-mountain face that I have sketched my way down previously. Admittedly, they speed straight through – and off – the central cliff band rather than wending their way through the trees and small rocks to the side, but I'm prepared to accept that we share just a little in common.
It's a day that epitomises all that's good about California skiing: deep snow, warm temperatures, blue skies and heart-twanging views of the startlingly blue Tahoe waters, the largest Alpine lake in North America. It's also a day that showcases all that's good about the tour: skiers and snowboarders, men and women, riding together under a shared banner of derring-do. Every line is unique, some competitors spinning off the smaller rocks and navigating the couloirs, others choosing to go straight for the big hit. Below, surrounded by an appreciative crowd, the table of judges weighs one competitor's flow against another's speed, noting progression, rewarding control.
But are they crazy?
"As in every sport," shrugs Frenchman Aurelien Ducroz, current leader of the snowboard rankings, "if I can now jump off a big cliff, it is because I start with a 50cm one."
Ducroz and I are having a cold beer in the warm sun. Dogs race between the legs of the freeride fraternity. Here is Shane McConkey, extreme skiing legend and one of today's judges; there the Hatchett brothers, snowboard movie pioneers. Fragments of conversation float across the terrace. "She is so fearless on skis, now", "He stands up, man, totally going for it – then he stacks it!" They are not discussing the day's event, but their toddlers. These are not foolhardy youths, trousers sagging, but experienced mountain lifers; many themselves the children of ski instructors and mountain guides. I glance up at the Tram Face, still a ridiculous prospect to my eyes. Ducroz smiles.
"We know what we're doing, you know? It's not like I'm sitting behind my desk for six months and then coming out to the mountains and trying to go crazy for a week."
Quite. But all the experience in the world can't predict the weather – it can only suggest when nature has the upper hand. That night, the clouds roll in. Rain turns into the winter storms for which the Sierra range is notorious; here, it's either sunny, or it's dumping. Snow falls so thick and fast that venturing outside is like standing in a snowdome that has just been shaken; six feet falls in two days.
It's too much, too late. Avalanche concerns and the need to return to Europe for the next stage of the tour result in the cancellation of the final day. The Tram Face is left untouched for next year. Which is disappointing for the athletes, but no great disaster for those of us with more modest skills.
Armed with the knowledge that we are all on the same path, we take to the shelter of the trees, where waist-deep powder awaits. I remember Ducroz's earlier words, and look around for a 50cm-ish drop. In these forgiving conditions, and in the name of my own progression, if not the sport's, I might even make it a metre.
And the name of the monk? Gregor Mendel, apparently. I never did get my cookie.
There are no direct flights from the UK to the nearest airport, Reno-Tahoe. However, Squaw Valley can be reached by road from San Francisco in about three hours. The airport is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin-atlantic.com) and United Airlines (08458 444 777; unitedairlines.co.uk) from Heathrow.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an 'offset' through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemy footprint.travel).
The Resort at Squaw Creek, 400 Squaw Creek Valley, Olympic Valley, California (001 530 583-6300; squawcreek.com). Double rooms start at $204 (£146), room only.
Squaw Valley USA, Olympic Valley, California (001 530 583-6985; squaw.com). Day ticket rate $79 (£56); significant savings are available through tour operators and ski and stay accommodation packages.
The World Freeride Tour final will be held in Verbier, Switzerland from 20-29 March, but may be delayed to a later date, depending on conditions. Spectators are welcome (freerideworld tour.com).
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