In the land of the freeze

Richard Trillo and his family learned to ski on the slopes above Lake Tahoe last year - and they couldn't wait to come back for more

The first hour was the worst: I felt like a cross between an elephant and a giraffe, completely unsuited to the equipment or the terrain. In the bright sun the sweat began to flow, even if the ski lesson didn't. My skis had their own ideas, converging then zooming off in different directions and sending me sprawling. Getting up again with skis crossed seemed almost impossible. I jabbed at the snow with my sticks clasped together and shovelled backwards like an inverted beetle.

The first hour was the worst: I felt like a cross between an elephant and a giraffe, completely unsuited to the equipment or the terrain. In the bright sun the sweat began to flow, even if the ski lesson didn't. My skis had their own ideas, converging then zooming off in different directions and sending me sprawling. Getting up again with skis crossed seemed almost impossible. I jabbed at the snow with my sticks clasped together and shovelled backwards like an inverted beetle.

Our American friends were off doing their own thing. My wife Teresa was exploring on her own, reacquainting herself with skis for the first time since her teenage years; David and Phoebe, the two younger ones, were doing a kids' lesson somewhere nearby; and eldest son Alex and I were having our own first beginner's session on the nursery slopes with a small group of mildly enthusiastic but rather unpromising never-evers.

Then our casual Romanian instructor told us we were going on an "easy blue". At least this would all be over very quickly, I told myself. Alex took this opportunity to slip away, having mastered the basics in about 15 minutes: "to find the others", he said, but really to avoid further association with his father, the spectacle.

But to my amazement I survived the gentle slope and crashed only on reaching the bottom. By looking where I was going and thinking about my knees, rather than looking at the tips of my skis and thinking about my feet, I found I could spend a majority of the time upright, and advancing.

Hooking up with our friends after an hour on my own, I enquired casually about our children. "I just saw Phoebe snowploughing down Challenger!" said 12-year old Daniel, goggle-eyed. "That's a black diamond. It's like real steep! It's way over the backside of the mountain. But it's cool, I think she's fine."

Eight-year old Phoebe had been on skis for no more than two hours and she was mixing it with hardcore speed freaks on a mile-long descent that appeared, when the kids finally goaded me to venture down it a couple of days later, to be almost vertical.

Phoebe never took a tumble; her centre of gravity was low; and her style (head down, ski tips together, don't bother to turn, just aim straight) was irreproachable for an undaunted child seeking maximum velocity. That's the wonderful thing about skiing as a family: it's an activity that allows all abilities to participate together.

Once experienced, the thrill of pushing off from the top of an 8,000-foot mountain, with a view of a sun-shot azure lake to one side, and a long run ahead looping generously down through lines of fir trees, is not quickly forgotten. The sheer joy of motor-less speed, the silent snowfields, the intimate, even light between the trees... well you just want to go back and do it all again. And so, after our first-ever ski trip to Tahoe in 2003, where we all abandoned formal lessons after day one, and learned to decode the green, blue and black runs, the pipes, moguls and other amusements, we came back for more this year.

Lake Tahoe is situated on the California-Nevada border, in a deep, conifer-clad bowl high in the Sierra Nevada range. Its shores rise straight up to the peaks and are scattered with two dozen spacious, intelligently run ski resorts. Northstar's accessible layout and good range of slopes garlanding Mount Pluto, makes it the area's best resort for families.

We took to the lifts in pairs or small groups (rarely more than a two-minute wait, and always a brushed seat and a helping hand and smile), then spent a blissful 20 minutes swooshing through the glens and cliffs to another lift across the mountain, or further down to one of the big cable cars. Gravity tended to assemble our two families periodically for coffees and hot chocolates at one of the lodges.

We'd rented a house over the internet. The "cabin" on Wolf Tree Drive was a splendid pyramidal construction on three expansive storeys, with cathedral-like windows. The boys moved into the ground floor rumpus room behind the garage- a perfect smelly teenage hideaway, complete with pool table, TV and video games.

The girls withdrew to their pull-out loft bed to listen to CDs and compare ski clothes. And the big kids cracked open the beers, slapped a couple of "tri-tips" (spiced sirloins) onto the griddle on the barbecue deck and raised a glass to good Anglo-American relations.

Self-catering meant a six-mile drive down to the strip of stores at Tahoe City. The Safeway was the common-or-garden Californian variety, where spending $100 (£60) loaded the cart to the gunwales every time.

Although the snow still lay several feet deep, there had been no fresh fall for weeks, unlike 2003 when heavy storms dumped fabulous powder late in the season. Skiing in mid-April meant the giant grooming machines were out all night, raking the surface to an icy, corduroy finish. Dropped at the resort centre by the free shuttle that collected us from our front yard, we would follow the sun across the mountain, seeking out the unspoiled runs, until, by mid-afternoon, the surface was slushy, and tired legs demanded a change of activity.

The answer was laid on: our house came with free use of the resort's heated outdoor pool and spas - huge bubbling hot-tubs throwing plumes of steam into the dusk air. We spent an hour lolling there every evening, sipping our Millers, while the kids made hurried forays to arm themselves for snowball fights before hurling each other back into the warm water.

We keep saying we'll try skiing in Europe. And then we look at the Northstar website, read the latest e-mail from our friends in the Sierras. Perhaps another year.

Richard Trillo works for Rough Guides, publisher of the 'Rough Guide to Skiing and Snowboarding in North America: More Than 100 of the Best Resorts in the US and Canada' (£14.99)

SKI TRAVELLERS' GUIDE

STAYING THERE

The Trillos used the Vacation Rentals By Owner website www.vrbo.com. A five-bedroom cabin slept 10 and cost £175 a night.

SKI EQUIPMENT

There are plenty of options, including the priciest - renting at the ski resorts themselves. The Trillos took ski trousers, gloves, goggles and tops, and rented the rest from Dave's Ski and Board Rentals in little Tahoe City (001 530 583 6415) where skis and poles, with free waxings whenever you like, run to £50 per person per week.

SKI PASSES AND LESSONS

Supermarkets and resorts offer deals on ski passes to beat the full adult day rate of $55 (£35). Seven days of skiing at Northstar ( www.skinorthstar.com) cost the family £508. Scheduled lessons are about $25 (£15) per hour, but free lessons are also advertised.

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