Even before the opening scene, as the credits start to roll and the music gets louder, you can feel the smile spread across your face, your eyes lighten, and the cornice drop off beneath your feet. You are sitting in the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco surrounded by your friends and hundreds of other adrenaline addicts. It is the annual pilgrimage to this year’s Warren Miller movie.
Warren Miller is a legend in the California Bay Area; a film maker since the late 1940’s whose annual ski movie signifies the beginning of the ski season. His epochs follow the most daring skiers and, now, snowboarders to the furthest mountains on every continent. Footage of legends skiing the steepest pitches and deepest powder inspire alpinists of every level and style to prepare for the season – prompting the purchase of new skis, the waxing of old ones, and the nightly prayers to Mother Nature for a very white Christmas ( in tremendous years, a white Thanksgiving).
Anyone who has ever purchased a ski magazine or tried to plan a vacation knows that there are resorts from coast to coast. The rankings are similar to those of business schools; sometimes you question the bias of the author. Regardless of where our school ranks in those polls, we know where HBS stands and I feel similarly about Tahoe. There may be drier snow, or a steeper mountain, or a better party scene, but no other mountain can top a trip to the Basin.
So what exactly is the draw? It starts on the drive from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe. 1,500 feet is really the turning point, not only because you are driving through Auburn (home of Ikeda’s for burgers and shakes), but because this is where the scent of pine trees dominates the air. At 7,000 feet, with the train tracks still snaking through the peaks on your right, you summit Donner Pass. Before you emerges the deep blue shape of Donner Lake. The history of this one spot alone is overwhelming; from the fate of the Donner Party to the hazards faced by immigrants who carved train tunnels through the peaks. On a big powder day, you might catch a glimpse of an aspiring ski maverick using these same tracks, and the trains upon them, as nature’s own ski park – a fitting tribute to the summit that inspired Warren Miller’s first day of skiing in 1947. And this is just the drive.
Lake Tahoe is the second deepest lake in the States, and every peak opens to the expansive basin. Squaw and Alpine sit high above the west side of the lake with runs that take advantage of the steep terrain. Homewood sits right on the shore and on a blue bird day it feels like the ski runs continue directly into the lake. Across the water sits the Nevada shore with Heavenly and the casino skyline defining a completely different experience.
Days in Tahoe start early for the addicts, especially on a powder day, and the line at the bottom of Squaw’s KT22 chair eliminates any suggestions that skiing has lost its soul. For those of you who aren’t ready to put a Clif bar in your pocket and take your coffee to the lift line, the snow will still be there, but the fresh tracks are for those first in line. Those are the same people who will be sprawled on the couches in Bar One at the base of Squaw, amidst helmets and piles of clothing, drinking icy long necks by 4 p.m.
As a Californian who had never spent a winter further than 300 miles from Lake Tahoe, the idea of moving east had been daunting. Six hours after moving to Boston, at dinner with the first HBS students I had met, I was called a snow snob; truth be known, I was actually tempering my true feelings about skiing on this coast. Four months later, I have learned to avoid skiing comparisons in conversations with acquaintances. Regardless of how many times an East Coaster complains about the dearth of powder, the prevalence of ice, or the lack of vertical on this coast, the moment that a West Coaster tries to get involved, the tables turn. I liken it to criticizing someone else’s family.
Perhaps the problem is that skiing on the East coast is such a different activity that it should have another name? Perhaps we are trying to compare things that are fundamentally different? I have no idea. I have never skied east of Colorado. I do know that I hear the same warnings from East Coasters over and over: “Do you know how to tell when you have frostbite?” “Do you have a ski mask because you know that any exposed skin is likely to scar.” “You didn’t bring your powder skis did you because you can’t use those here.” “Do you know how to hold a turn on ice?” “You know that your blues runs are double blacks out here, right?”
I actually do know how to tell when my appendages are frostbitten. I actually do own a ski mask from skiing in Colorado in a storm (it still wasn’t below zero.) I didn’t bring my powder skis and I have no idea how to ski on ice (we don’t ski on those rare, icy days in Tahoe.)
In spite of all of these warnings, I am ready for the winter here. I have my Killington share, my East Coast ski pass, and I know when the demo days are at all the Vermont resorts. I have even ordered a waterproof, windproof, down-filled jacket, with a hood. I have read Ski magazines reviews of the resorts in New Hampshire and Vermont over and over and can tell you why Mad River Glen warrants a day trip. Different sport or not, I am committed. I have even researched new skis: east coast, edge-holding, crud-carving, ice-taming skis.
Although I will miss the scent of pines and cedars, I can’t wait to ride up a lift surrounded by maple and birch trees. I am eager to be the rookie on a new chair grilling the locals on where to find the hidden gems, the untouched snow, and the best Bud Light at the end of the day. It sounds like an adventure to have a trail map in my pocket and a mountain of new terrain above me.
I live here. I must ski here. I pray to Mother Nature incessantly for huge Eastern storm fronts. There really isn’t any turning back (especially since they make you pay for second semester before the first snowfall.) Worst case, there are always flights from Boston east to Europe and west to the Sierras. Irrespective of the resort, ski days are only one letter away from sick days, even at HBS.