Skiing in Kirkwood | Travel to Lake Tahoe, California »

Surviving the Summit in Kirkwood

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SVV and I went in on a cabin share this winter, a first for the both of us. And what we’re paying collectively is what you might pay for two nights at a ski resort in the area—if you’re lucky. It was one of those no-brainers: How could we not take advantage of the opportunity? And even though I’m famously not the best skier in the world, I’m certainly not the worst either and am definitely improving and enjoying it more and more each trip. To the point of jumping for joy when it’s time to hit the slopes.

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Our share allows you one designated week, which we’re taking over my birthday in February, and any open weekend that no one’s already claimed. When the rainy season hit Northern California at the turn of the month, the weather gods dumped snow throughout Tahoe by the bucketful. So we quickly booked the cabin for the following weekend and talked our pals Alison and Scott into joining us (it didn’t take much convincing). But when we got to South Lake late on Friday night, the streets were so clear, there was no evidence that it had snowed in a week, maybe more. There were piles of snow hastily discarded in fields and at points along the road, but you could tell it had been lingering for days. It didn’t bode well for our first morning skiing. Though it definitely wasn’t painful on the eyes.

skiing, tahoe, kirkwood, california, sierra nevadas

SVV and I caved and bought season passes to Heavenly, which due to a recent merger are also good at Northstar and Sierra, but went out to Kirkwood for the day instead for two reasons: I was finishing up the Frommer’s California 2012 book and had never been to the resort, and it’s one of the highest in the area so we figured, given the disappointment in the town below, our one shot at decent conditions would be there.

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And it wasn’t bad per se. Overall, I was a big fan of the resort. And because it was two weeks before Christmas, before peak season and didn’t have fresh powder, it oftentimes felt like we had the resort to ourselves. We deposited Alison and Other Scott at snowboard school and jumped on the first lift we saw. The resort was so vacant, we didn’t have to wait in a single lift line that was more than 10 people. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to go down so many runs in one day.

skiing, tahoe, kirkwood, california, sierra nevadas

That said, there was no powder. Nowhere. None to be found. And it was pretty warm, too, in the 40’s—so warm, I left my ski jacket at home and survived in just a waterproof shell atop thermals and Under Armour. You’d think it was late in the spring ski season, maybe end of March or so, but definitely not December. By midday, the lack of fresh snow paired with the temps meant what was on the slopes was runny slush. Still, I’ll take that over ice any day.

skiing, tahoe, kirkwood, california, sierra nevadas

By late morning, however, we’d conquered all the blues. Early in the day, we’d ask a Kirkwood employee for an easy-ish black diamond (for me…I’m not a fan of steep slopes) for when I felt up to that point, and he told us Sentinel was a good one to attempt for intermediate skiers like myself. Let me tell all you intermediates out there: Don’t listen to ski resort employees. We got to the top and saw this:

skiing, tahoe, kirkwood, california, sierra nevadas

…followed by this:

skiing, tahoe, kirkwood, california, sierra nevadas

That’s when I really started to sweat. But it wasn’t until I got to the ledge of what seemed like a near-vertical drop where the run began that I really felt like losing it. You see, I don’t do steep. I’m not afraid of heights, not by a long shot, but I am afraid of losing control on an icy patch, hitting an unavoidable obstacle and popping my ACL, thus ending my running “career” and putting a halt to all semblance of an active life.

skiing, tahoe, kirkwood, california, sierra nevadas

I’m that trepidatious, little white dot in the left of the frame, lest you be confused.

When I peered over the mountain’s edge, my fate flashed before my eyes—severed limbs, a concussion, the whole nine yards. Honestly, what I visualized was Ella when she’s sitting atop the stairs in our third-story San Francisco apartment, SVV and I trying to coax her down. She trembles, her eyes filled with worry, and I can tell she’s wondering why on Earth we’re asking so much of her. I knew I didn’t look much differently; I was even dressed in all white. Ella, from now on I’ll simply carry you, no questions asked. The worst part of my predicament was that the lack of fresh snow meant the top of the mountain was ridiculously icy. Now I’ve become pretty confident when it comes to skiing powder, but ice I do not, will not do. Unless, of course, I’m stuck atop a mountain and there’s no other way down. Oh, how I wished they let you take the lift chair back down the way you came up. Because aside from a run entitled The Wall (no thanks), there was no other way to the bottom but to slide down Sentinel. And slide I did.

skiing, tahoe, kirkwood, california, sierra nevadas

SVV coached me from his snowboard, telling me to do a few quick turns and in 200 feet or so the slope would level out to a more manageable level. So I turned twice, then skidded on the ice, flipped around against my will, landed smack on my face with my bum pointed toward the bottom of the mountain and slid a good 100 feet, maybe more—leaving my skis high above in my tracks and continuing to slide until I dug my gloves into the ground and stopped myseld. At this point, I had long passed SVV, who stopped on the ice to regain my skis but lost his own control, fell smack on his face, too, and slid way beyond me. I went from crying to laughing to crying again, as our equipment was strewn about the mountain and I had no idea how we were going to reach the bottom.

skiing, tahoe, kirkwood, california, sierra nevadas

Sadly, the camera was long tucked away at this point, so I have no entertaining video footage of our individual spills.

Due to the grade of the mountain and the overwhelming presence of ice, there would be no way to step back into my skis and strap on SVV’s board, so we half-slid, half-side-stepped our way down to the first part of the mountain where it leveled off before attempting to do so. At which point, I’m pretty sure I punched SVV a few times in the stomach and screamed more than a few choice four-letter words at him for tricking me into going on this particular run (which he did, oh yes he did…I had told him I needed a lot more practice on our first day back on the slopes before being presented with such challenged). The nice thing about SVV is that he’s a very patient—not to mention, forgiving—individual, and he usually brushes off my little spells like they aren’t any big deal.

skiing, tahoe, kirkwood, california, sierra nevadas

But one thing’s for certain: I’ll be sticking to the upper-level blues for the remainder of the season. I like adventure, but not one that threatens to detach vital limbs from my body. I prefer two arms, two legs and a head properly screwed on my torso, thank you very much, if for nothing else aesthetic purposes.


  • December 20, 2010

    The photos taken from the bottom up are awesome!

  • December 20, 2010

    Oh cool you have a GoPro! Didier *really* wants one but I bought us the Flip instead so he’s got to wait a bit, but I would love to hear what you and SVV think of it!
    Also, I totally hear you on the being tricked into a black run of death, the same thing happened to me last season and boy oh boy, you should have heard the language on the way down!!! If you’ve ever in Nice during ski season, we should definitely head up to the mountains together to tackle the blues and reds, and leave the blacks to the snowboarding boys! :0)

  • December 20, 2010

    I am loving the fish-eye lens on these photos! Although Canadian I pretty much hate all winter activities except the apres-ski drinks in the chalet.

  • December 20, 2010

    Oh god, reading this I had flashbacks to a similar experience at Squaw…I was with my mom, and we were told that for our intermediate level a certain run would be perfect. Cut to me, in my first skiing trip after I’d hurt my knee and therefore been left extra cautious, clinging to what I swear was a sheer cliff and trying to figure out how to balance enough to snap out of my skis and side-step down. Yes, there were tears involved.

    The fact that Northstar/Sierra are now teamed up with Heavenly is good news though!

  • December 20, 2010

    Ahhhh, I swear my worst nightmare would be someone making me go ski. I’d rather stay in the lodge next to the fire with some hot choco. Having said that, way to kick your fear’s butt!!! 🙂

    PS That 2nd pic is gorgeous!

  • December 20, 2010

    You are brave for going on a Black Diamond slope! And looking good while doing it too! I like the fish-eye effect as well! =)

  • December 20, 2010

    Lord, the last time I went skiing was back in college, when my then-boyfriend decided that his YEARS of ski team experience made him amply qualified to teach me how to ski. I knew the day was going to end in tears when he proffered me his skis–about two inches wide and roughly 900 feet long–instead of me renting a nice pair of beginner’s slats. Once strapped in, I asked for the poles and was informed it’s best to learn without, as most people use them incorrectly and he didn’t want them to become a crutch.
    And then we skipped the bunny slope and went straight to the toughest blue the mountain had.
    That ended well, as one might expect. It was actually eerily reminicent of your story, as said boyfriend was on a snowboard, teaching himself to board and thus was in no position to assist me at any point in our painful journey down the mountain (although at one point, I did careen past him moving *uphill* at the speed of sound in a futile attempt to slow myself down before somehow losing both skis and sliding back past him.)
    Kudos to you for sticking with it! It’s been 10 years since that fateful day, and even though I can look up from my laptop and SEE the Rocky Mountains, I’m more than happy to sit here sipping my tea and feeling NO urge to hit any sort of slope.

  • December 20, 2010

    I loved the intensity of this post. It captured the experience perfectly. You totally rocked it (after sliding on your FaCE)

    I also like this fish-eye photo from my snowboard. Such an awesome camera.

    • January 2, 2011

      Next time, let’s point it down the mountain from your snowboard! A different perspective.

  • December 20, 2010

    So jealous of your skiing adventure! It takes a while for me to get up to the blue/black runs, at least a day or two of good, solid skiing. Rene makes fun of me at the start of every season, saying I have to learn how to ski all over again, but seriously skiing does take time to remember. Now you have the rest of winter to tackle that run! (Or not!)

  • December 20, 2010

    Love the photos, especially the fish-eye shots! Tres cool, man.

    So Chris and his brother just bought season passes to H/S/N and I was feeling very woe-is-me that I can’t go this year…But now I’m thinking maybe I can. Up and down bunny slopes all day should mean I won’t fall on my ass too many time, right? RIGHT?

    Anyway, let me know when you guys plan to go this winter…Maybe we’ll invite ourselves along for the day 🙂

  • December 20, 2010

    Haha, this makes me laugh (with you, not at you, of course). I’ve slid on my ass down many a ski run! Just last week actually… You should try it again though – at the end of the season when you are feeling really confident, and there is a fresh dump of powder. Think how awesome you’ll feel when you conquer it!

    Oh and my friend has a go-pro too. I love the pictures and videos he takes!

  • December 21, 2010

    Hey, sometimes that’s the best way to get down!

    I’ve been to Tahoe once, when I was about 11 or 12. It was raining when we got there, and then the rain turned to snow overnight and they got several feet. So much they closed Heavenly and just about every other resort nearby which meant I was stuck inside Caesar’s with very little to do. I might enjoy that a little more now, then, not so much. The lake is really pretty, though!

  • December 21, 2010

    I love that ground shot of SVV cutting up the snow- so bad-ass!

  • December 22, 2010

    I’m glad you made it down with your head still attached. We like your head where it is. As someone who has accidentally found herself at the top of a vertical drop (and with no SVV), I fully understand that terror. Also, the painful perspective of sliding headfirst down a mountain.

  • December 23, 2010

    Um, at least you made it down the mountain!! When I went to a black diamond- I got so scared, I sat down and called for ski patrol- not kidding, I was then taken down on the back of a ski sled (totally fun btw!).

  • December 25, 2010

    LOVE those fish eye photos!

    I’ve never gone skiing–I’m kind of terrified to try it! Now that we live so close to mountains, my bf and I are determined to give it a go, but I’m procrastinating b/c I know I’ll slam into a tree. It will happen.

  • December 25, 2010

    Kristin, this was a scary post. The Black sign and the cliff sign conveyed the scariness nicely and the words matched the pix. When you said your face went into the slope, I held my breath to see whether you came out OK. Glad you did. Good first-person writing about a scary experience.

  • December 28, 2010

    You are too cute! My fiance and I just went skiing in Keystone, and I hadn’t gone since high school, so I was really rusty at first. It took a while to feel comfortable again. I was way too afraid to try a black (I never have–only hard blues in the past). You’re very brave! Sounds like it didn’t go quite so well, but at least you have a great story 😉 Too bad it was slushy–I wonder if it would have gone better with some fresh powder.

  • December 28, 2010

    I cannot believe you went down a black diamond run!!Bragging rights coming your way!! And that picture of the pink sky is soooo pretty!

  • December 29, 2010

    I’m a big old wuss and scared of skiing, but this actually makes me want to do it!

  • January 16, 2013

    Hi Kristin,
    My name is Jane and I’m with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blogs about Kirkwood to share on our site and I came across your post…If you’re open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you!

  • December 11, 2017

    OMG – It wasn’t icy, but I had this experience here in 2002. Felt like the Grinch’s dog hanging with the sleigh off of the abyss when I was at the top of Sentinel. I made it down intact with my heels pressed against my backside and equal amounts of prayer and cussing. I was just telling someone about the experience and looking for photos from the top. Thanks for sharing.

    • December 20, 2017

      Ha, I love that Grinch visual! We’re headed to Colorado this week to ski, and I pray I do not recreate that scene you mentioned 😉

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