Lake Tahoe Ski Trip

Finally I’ve got all my photos sorted and posted… you can find the ski trip ones here.

So, our trip. It was organised by Julius, an intern at Apple who’s here for four more months of his twelve. He sent a message out on the intern mailing list asking for takers for skiing, and I immediately jumped at the opportunity. The organisation was left a little late – two days before Christmas – but we managed to find a relatively cheap motel in South Lake Tahoe, and the rest followed from there. I managed to convince Ashley to come along too, for what would be his first sight of snow, let alone skiing. Brett was already off to Seattle to stay with his girlfriend’s family or somesuch.

Anyway, Friday morning, I got up at 4 to be ready for our ride, Julius, at 5. The trip is about four or five hours, and we had to stop to pick up Matteo as well, thus the leaving early – the hope was to arrive at Kirkwood at about lunch time and immediately hit the slopes.

Things ran a little late, with Julius not arriving until 5:20 or so, and picking up Matteo taking a fair while, but we were finally on the open road – as it were – by about six. The drive wasn’t all that bad, really – Julius’ little Kia is surprisingly spacious (when you’re not sharing with skis) and the novelty of the trip kept me quite interested. Though I tried to engage in a little photography along the way, it was difficult in the low light and with the high speed of the car. Plus, there really wasn’t anything that interesting along the way, per se… mostly just freeways and farms.

Once we started up into the mountains, the hunt was on for the first signs of snow. It was raining a bit in the mountains, which as a dampener, but we held on to the hope that the rain would turn to snow as we went higher. It didn’t. But we weren’t about to let a little rain ruin or trip.

Once we arrived at Kirkwood, we found ourselves in to the foyer of the Kirkwood lodge, where an open fire was most inviting. Julius & Matteo changed into their ski gear, and then we all went shopping for Ashley and I. The intention had been to hire everything – skis, boots, jackets and pants – on the mountain. I knew it would be a bit pricey, as it always is to get such things on the mountain, but I was quite perturbed to discover that not only was it insanely expensive – $42US a day for skis and boots – but also that they didn’t rent anything else. No jackets, no pants, no goggles, nothing. The only option was to buy something in the single small store there… where the cheapest pants were $110US, the cheapest jacket $180US… and so forth. Ye gads.

I was already wearing my AUC jumper from Hobart, which was quite warm enough, so I figured I could survive one afternoon without a ski jacket… I would just have to not fall over. Easy. As for pants… well, I was just wearing tracksuit pants, which just wouldn’t do. So, I forked out the cash for some ski pants. Which were broken, I might add – missing entirely one of the buttons on one of the legs, and another one fell off later that day. But anyway… morale being don’t buy anything at Kirkwood.

And then there were gloves – decent ones of which started at $80US, which I certainly wasn’t going for, so I opted for the “cheap” $40US ones. Then there were goggles, another $40US or so.

So before we’d even hit the slopes, I’d had to fork out over $360US just to get my stuff. And that’s without a jacket, of course. Or any head gear, like a beanie or balaclava. Or a lift pass – that’s another $65US or so. And as it turns out, you can’t by balaclava’s anywhere in Kirkwood or South Lake. Someone actually suggested that balaclava’s might be illegal. Sweet mother of god.

Anyway… so, I was a little miffed after all this unexpected shopping, but, well, shit happens, really. So, we got on with it. Following Julius’ expert and caring lead, we hoped on chairlift 5 (Solitude, seen in some of the photos) and headed up the mountain. Of course, Solitude only services a couple of black diamonds and an intermediate run. Probably not the best place for Ashley to start. He’s never been skateboarding, surfing, ice skating, or anything even vaguely resembling skiing before.

So, two hours later, or maybe a little more, he made it to the bottom of the first run. Julius and I took turns teaching him, and helping him down the run. We both occasionally nipped off for a quick run of our own, but by and large we spent our time standing, watching Ashley fall over. While mildly amusing, it was quite tedious. But, I’d dragged him up there, so, I had to look after him.

After that mammoth run, we all hit the coffee shop – yes, there’s just one coffee shop on the entire mountain – to warm up a bit and share tales. Matteo had buggered off on his own right from the start, being a relatively experienced skier and not too enthralled with the prospect of hanging around the newbies. He’d had a pretty good run, from what he said, although he too was a bit down on the weather. Skiing in rain is a bizarre experience… especially when you don’t have a waterproof jacket.

Although, I really didn’t get that wet. I certainly wasn’t cold… luckily it was close enough to freezing that, combined with the occasional snowflakes in the rain, I developed a nice coating of ice. That kept out most of the moisture, and was most amusing the watch gather.

We ended up killing the rest of the afternoon (that is, until the lifts closed at 4) in the coffee shop, so then there was nothing left to do but pack up and head on down to our motel. This took a while (the packing up), most of which I spent next to the open fire trying to dry out a bit. ’twas a noble but fruitless effort. I was mainly training to dry out for the sake of Julius’ car, but as it turns out he had no concerns about getting snow, ice and water in it. Which we did, of course – it really is unavoidable, as we discovered, when you’re living in snow.

So, the end of the first day. Julius and I hit the sauna briefly, at the motel, which I had hoped would dry out some of my clothes… but mostly I just burnt myself on my watch. Unfortunately my watch didn’t survive the trip entirely unscathed – the leather (or, perhaps, fake leather) band really didn’t handle the cold well, and became brittle and cracked. It hasn’t snapped yet, but I’m waiting for it…

Anyway, I digress. From memory Julius and Ash were content to sit around the motel doing nothing much, so Matteo and I went out for dinner by ourselves. We ate at Applebee’s, which while being a large chain here, was actually quite good. We ended up back there the next day, New Years Eve – largely since it was the only place we had a chance of getting into. It was funny though – I ordered a chicken sandwich of some sort, and a glass of water. When they served us, they offered me some kind of burger… I was kind of confused, and they assumed they’d messed up the order. Which I thought they had too. So they apologised and five minutes later brought me another order… which by all appearances was the exact same one they’d tried to serve before. This time they got away with it, as I was too confused to make an immediate fuss, and so I ended up with a chicken burger. It then struck me, as I was eating it, that this probably is what they’d call a sandwich… I’ve hit it a few times here, people calling burgers sandwiches. Very bizarre. And here I am trying to eat healthy, too.

But it was really nice. And it took half an hour to get that poor glass of water. So in the end, my meal was free. Groovy. :)

I left a very nice tip, since I felt a bit bad about what had happened… whatever exactly it was.

Jumping back in time a bit, I’d also taken some time to walk around the town, before dinner, to get familiarised with what was there and where. It was raining of course, and I think I confused tourists and locals alike with my outfit – just pants and a shirt – but hey, I’m from Melbourne; no one can survive 21 years in Melbourne without becoming immune to rain. And again, because it was quite close to freezing (only a few degrees above, at most), you never actually got that wet. But it was slippery… that’s the big problem with rain at near freezing… it tends to form a whole lot of ice, on everything. I took a fall Sunday morning when we first arrived at Kirkwood – just walking along the road in my ski boots – and it really hurt. I put a nice big bruise on my knee, which is still tender even now, two weeks later.

So anyway, we had a relatively early night Friday, from memory… we were all a bit stuffed, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do given the weather. While there were thousands of other tourists in town – both for the skiing and for New Years – there didn’t seem to be much happening. It was really quite bizarre… while there were a few pubs, and of course the casino’s just over the border down the road, there really was no appreciable night life.

So Saturday morning we got up nice and early so we could get a full day of skiing in. We were contemplating going to Heavenly instead of Kirkwood, since it’s much closer, and we figured we could take the gondola up with just our ski gear, and not have to worry with the car. But the wind had really picked up Saturday, and the gondola was closed. Then, as we were packing the car to go, we got wind that Heavenly was closed. So, off to Kirkwood again. Then only a few minutes later, Kirkwood closed. We checked up, and yes, pretty much everything was closed for the day. Great.

So, we did some shopping, and whatnot. Exciting stuff. I also went into a few ski shops to see what I could find in terms of ski gear… I’d checked out a few places Friday night, but they’d been even more ridiculously expensive than on the mountain – $300US and up for ski jackets! After a bit of searching Saturday, I actually managed to find a real, waterproof ski jacket for $100US. And it is actually water proof, not just water resistant, like those $300US ones. As the others all discovered, water resistant really doesn’t mean anything… you’d be far better off with just a decent normal jacket. And much much richer.

So, after a mere $500US, I was now actually ready to ski. Yippee.

Of course, I was still in good spirits while we were there – it was great to be out of the apartment for once, and skiing to boot, which I love. It was when I got back home on Tuesday and found my bank balance was an inspiring $68US that I really got cranky. But anyway…

Luckily, sometime around noon it started snowing. That at least allowed us to have a snowball fight, which was quite amusing – although it’s dreadfully hard to throw accurately with a ski jacket and gloves on. We managed to involve a girl, who’s name I never actually got, who was also staying in the motel. And a few of her friends, although they mainly hid up on the 2nd floor balcony. Pansies. :D

So after a brief and exhausting snowball fight, the biggest casualties of which were the ground and Julius’ car, the four of us headed off for a walk to the lake, figuring it the most likely destination for a random walk. It was only just down the street, so it was a pretty cruisy walk, which was good – walking on ice is very tiring on your nerves, if nothing else.

The lake was kind of cool… I was wondering if it would be frozen over, although given it’s size – about 15 by 30 miles, in an ovalish shape – I had my doubts. Of course it wasn’t, and even had a six inch shore break. And sand! An actual beach with sand. Albeit that nasty dirty big grained stuff, but, it’s a start… I’ve seen precious little sand in this country, which just strikes me as odd coming from an area where you’re never far from a beautiful beach.

Anyway, the sand of course had ice and snow over it, so we weren’t about to sit down and sun bake (not that there was a sun, anyway – I don’t think we saw it Saturday) but we took the obligatory couple of photos, played on the children’s play equipment… well, some of us did.. :D …and then headed back. We decided to follow everyone else’s lead and head to the cinema, given the weather was threatening and there really wasn’t anything else to do anyway. We saw Aeon Flux, for what it’s worth. Not too bad, but, not fantastic. And I’d started to get a headache through the movie, made worse of course by the sharp contrast in the cinema, so by the time we came out of that, I really wasn’t feeling to swell. It was mainly from dehydration – my attempts to find drinking water at the supermarket were twice thwarted, lucking out instead with cursed bore water… plus the stress of being so close to the mountains, with all this very expensive ski gear, and not being able to do anything… so, I headed back to the motel room and lay down for a while, listening to some podcasts to mask out the sound of the other three playing pick up sticks. No, really. None of them could remember the actual rules, so they made some of them up.

One of the podcasts was about women in science. About all I picked up from it was that we apparently need more women in science. And that uni’s should enhance equality by automatically accept spouses onto their staff. Which of course is total B.S. nepotism by any other name, but anyway.

I picked up enough by the evening to head out to dinner with the guys. We ended up back at Applebee’s, because with the huge crowds everywhere it was about the only place that it looked remotely like we might get in. We had to wait about half an hour, but that was okay – I spoke to a few people there who’d been waiting nearly that long when we got there, and we still got seated before them. One poor group of girls didn’t get in until we were half way through our meal – they must have been waiting at least an hour. But, they wanted a table for six, and we needed just four, so we were an easier fit.

[Aside: pity we couldn’t get a table for 10… they were a rather attractive group of girls :D ]

Nonetheless, ’twas an excellent dinner – I really like Applebee’s, both quality wise and value wise. We then headed back to the motel, and then later on – at about 10 or so – head up to the main street to check out the big party everyone was apparently going to. At that time it was mainly just lots of people – a tiny but enormously obnoxious portion of which were thoroughly sloshed – walking up and down the street, apparently all looking for the party, as were we. This didn’t interest Matteo and Ashley much, so they headed back to the motel. Julius and I stayed out, and found a fairly nice pub on the street we could hide in, and get a drink in. Well, Julius did.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in any pub, especially one with a cover charge, the audience was about 20 years my senior, which minimised opportunities for the kind of mingling we were hoping for, but we made do. It was kind of a bizarre place… at one point a girl about my age appeared out of the crowd with arms full of drinks, offering them to us for free. We both declined, which upset her greatly – she seemed almost in tears, muttering something about not wanting them – but seemingly having to drink them. Bizarre. I was surprised to see Julius turn down a free drink, too, given that half-shots were $9US. And they made you put your own lemon slice on them, on those crappy little paper shot cups, which invariably results in half of them being spilt… those of which they would happily replace for another $9US each. Yikes.

Keep in mind that at college parties, no one buys mere shots. You get a full glass of beer for $1AU, and a full glass of any cocktail you like for $2.50AU. Ten times the cost for a tenth the drink seems a little steep to me.

We did chat with a few people, but in the noise any serious conversation was difficult. We met a girl from Echuca named Danielle, who was quite nice and obviously as bored as we were, but Julius and I were both too foolish to hit on her. We watched with great interest the comings and goings of those around here, and couldn’t quite figure out if she was just with friends or spoken for. In any case, she left. D’oh.

The biggest source of entertainment for those on the pub’s second floor balcony was watching people slipping over outside. There was one spot in particular on the sidewalk which caught just about everyone who walked over it. When someone did slip, there were great cheers and hearty banging on the window from all in the pub. It was quite amusing, although a few of the more drunken victims would really have been feeling those falls in the morning.

It was also a bit sad to see some of the younger people who clearly couldn’t put “drink” and “responsibly” in a sentence if their life depended on it. One poor girl, more or less sober, was having to carry her boyfriend – at least a foot taller than her – back to their motel. And she unknowingly walked over that particularly nasty spot in the pavement. It reminded me again why I don’t drink, despite the insistence of some.

It also makes me wonder why people become so attached to those who clearly don’t deserve them.

Anyway, with about fifteen minutes before midnight Julius and I headed back out onto the street, and started off down towards the casinos, figuring that would be the hub of the party. I was really surprised that with so many people coming into town for this one night – apparently 25,000 or more each year – no one actually organises anything. There were no bands, no music from any other source, no entertainers, no fireworks, nothing… just a whole lot of (mostly) young people standing on the street, being watched over by hundreds of riot police. Definitely not a fantastic party by my standards. Julius was similarly underwhelmed, being used to apparently fantastic NYE parties in France, with lots of beautiful girls and all the other things he likes. Yeah, mostly just beautiful girls. ;)

The only notable highlight of the evening were the few stern souls who brazed the cold to partially strip off. This started with a few girls on people’s shoulders, which was all good and well, but I found it most amusing when some random guy, definitely not the male analogue of these attractive girls, did the same. He had a great self-depreciating sense of humour, and was most entertaining.

But there were also a few guys in the crowd, mostly drunk and/or old ones, who yelled a few unsavoury things, to say the least. The mood was a little unstable like that… after a little while, Julius and I both agreed that the party was most definitely not going anywhere, so we headed back to the motel. The four of us chatted for a while, before heading to bed.

So Sunday I convinced everyone to get up at 8, so we could be on the road and hit the slopes not long after opening at 9. Of course, I was ready within sixty seconds of waking up – just had to throw on my clothes. Everyone else took their sweet damn time. I think someone even had a pleasant 20 minute shower. And then there was breakfast for an hour…. ye gads… I think it was 10:30 or later by the time we actually got into the car. And given the traffic by that time, we didn’t reach the mountain until at least noon. I think we had lunch or somesuch while we were waiting for 12:30 to pass (after which you can get half-day lift passes, for a mere $42US).

I should note that the coffee shop was very expensive. To be expected, of course, but over $10US for a hot chocolate and a piddly little sandwich? The same thing, by way of comparison, is available for $3 or $4US anywhere else. Being the only place on the mountain where you could get food, they of course saw no reason to charge reasonable prices.

It really annoyed me the whole time that the mountain which prides itself as one of the best ski resorts in America, has absolutely jack-proverbial in the way of anything. One whole coffee shop. One whole ski gear store. No ski gear rental, aside from skis and boots. No cafe’s on the slopes themselves, no little huts you can stop at for a quick drink, as you have in Australia. It was very depressing. Julius, who’s used to skiing all over the place in Europe, was similarly disappointed, so it’s not just I. From his description, skiing in Europe and Australia seem very similar. They have way bigger and better mountains, of course, but both provide decent facilities.

I should say too that the sentiment in Australia that our mountains suck and places like Kirkwood, Heavenly et al are way superior, is way off base. Yeah, the runs at Kirkwood certainly are good, and you do get a lot more snow than you typically would in Australia, but there’s downsides in both cases… the biggest one being the consequences of having so much snow, and an entire mountain seemingly designed without that thought in mind. I’ll get to that in detail in a little bit. The second being that all the runs at Kirkwood are very, very boring. They’re more or less just straight down the mountain. If you’re lucky you can cut across here and there through the trees to another run. If you’re really brazen you can just go off into the trees where you like, which is great if you’re experienced enough to do that safely – I tried a few times and survived, but I was taking it very slowly – but you run the risk of being caught off the marked trails, and being expelled from the mountain.

So, yeah. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great places to ski. But there’s a lot of people out there who put down skiing in Australia as amateur and “fake”, and they’re just posing.

The weather on Sunday was a bit better than Friday – it wasn’t raining any more. But it was snowing a bit, and very windy… there were only three or four lifts open when we go there. Another one, 11, opened up in the mid afternoon, which was excellent. But since we were with Ashley, we didn’t need anything but some bunny slopes for our basic needs, and lift 1 – your generic beginners lift – was open all day.

The best thing was, though, that with the crappy conditions, and the fact that they never even opened on Saturday, they were offering a few deals on lift tickets. The first was a $16US half day ticket, instead of $42US. We snapped that up quick smart. They also said – since a heck of a lot of people were giving them a hard time, having already bought tickets that morning – that any ticket that day (aside from the $16US ones) would be valid as a full day ticket any other day that season. Awesome. They were real hard arses about it, even while they conceded this, but it’s a reasonable deal, even if presented by people with very little customer relations skills.

So anyway, we were pretty happy about this deal, so we hit chairlift 1 happily. Although a very easy run, it was kinda cool. It gave Julius and I a chance to leave Ashley by himself, since the run was easy enough that he was safe, and have a good ski ourselves. Ashley picked up skiing pretty quickly, all things considered, and by the end of the day was doing pretty well for himself. He still wouldn’t venture off lift 1, but, he was having fun I think.

Matteo originally didn’t want to go out on the mountain, given so few runs were open. He has a season pass to Kirkwood, but he hadn’t rented his equipment for the whole weekend like the rest of us, and was loathe to pay the ridiculous prices on the mountain for what – for him – would be a very mediocre ski. So, he decided to stay in Kirkwood Lodge and read his photography book. At least, he did initially. Eventually he changed his mind, apparently, and did hit the slopes for a few hours.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun. I was surprised how much I remembered about skiing, although I’d still forgotten a fair bit. I’m a bit fitter than last time I was skiing, which is very important – I’m fit enough at the moment to ski more or less properly, which means shifting your weight around, being a bit aggressive, and so forth. That’s actually far less tiring than when you’re not fit enough to do that, in which case you have a real hard time, and tend to have quite a few unnecessary spills.

Julius also gave me a few tips here and there, over the weekend, which helped immensely. He’s a better skier than I, clearly, but not so much that we can’t hit the runs together. He talked me into quite a few runs that I wouldn’t have tried otherwise, and I’m very glad he did – I survived, had a lot of fun, and improved my skiing immensely.

Anyway, yeah, once lift 11 opened Julius and I left Ashley to hit that instead. It leads to a bunch of more difficult runs – I think one’s meant to be an intermediate, but they’re all more or less the same, somewhere between intermediate and what I would consider a black diamond. They were fun – you could get up a lot of speed, and had a lot of space to slalom about. There was still a bit of ice around, which made it a little scary at times – sometimes you’d hit a big patch of ice, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do by way of control once that happens – just try to ride it out… which can be a problem, if you’re heading straight towards trees. But, no injuries. :)

I was quite exhausted by the end of the day. My ski boots, which were the largest size available for sports skis, had originally been too small, on Friday. As such, they’d hurt my legs a bit. Yet on Sunday, they were almost too small – even on the tightest settings there was still a bit more give in them than I would have liked. Consequently, my legs – particularly my calves – were the first to get tired… which is about the worst thing I can think of, since you really can’t ski at all with tired and cramping calves.

It’s probably best, then, that we did only make it for the afternoon, not the whole day as I’d originally really wanted… I think my eagerness exceeded my fitness and ability. :)

So, Monday night we headed back down the mountain to our motel, and relaxed for a bit. We were all in pretty good spirits. We hoped in the car to go cruising for a likely dinner place, which was a little difficult… Matteo was really angling for Sushi, which Ashley and I weren’t going to touch, but in the end they spotted a steakhouse sign, and I was outvoted… I really really didn’t want steak, and knowing what this country’s like I didn’t like my odds at getting anything other than a steak at a so-called steakhouse… but as it turns out, my fears were entirely unnecessary. Whether it was the original steakhouse we were aiming for or not, I don’t know, but we ended up in some basement place – Cecil’s Steak & Brew – which apparently was extremely trendy judging by the prices, and had a quite reasonable meal. There were a lot of young people there as well, which was refreshing, and some very nice waitresses, which was especially refreshing – keeping in mind that at this point in my travels here, I’d yet to find anywhere that even vaguely resembled Australia in terms of demographics (i.e. young, attractive people).

They also had a snowboarding DVD playing on a few projector screens, which was cool to watch – lots of jumping off cliffs, from helicopters and such, and down sheer mountain sides. Also lots of grinding down stair rails and such, in typical skateboarding-wannabe style. We of course did the usual manly discussion about such things, along the lines of “that’s easy, I can do that” and so forth. Mostly taking the proverbial out of ourselves and each other, which was cool. They also had the mandatory shorts of their mishaps as well, which were immensely painful to watch for the male gender. It highlights the bizarre demographics of snowboarding and skateboarding – i.e. that it’s predominantly a male sport, despite the obvious anatomical inappropriateness of the male gender. I don’t get it. :)

So, after that fine meal, we retired again for the night.

Monday morning I insisted we get up at 7, which was really dumb since we didn’t get to sleep until well after midnight, but we tried anyway… we were delighted to hear, over breakfast, that the weather was almost perfect – at or below freezing on the mountains, overcast – not aesthetically pleasing but prevents melt and thus ice – and, best of all, a good four or five feet of fresh powder overnight. Awesome. So, we headed up the mountain…

… as did ever other tourist, local and yokel for five hundred miles. The traffic was insane. The roads were snowed (and iced) over far lower than the previous days, so the going was much slower. Plus, a lot of these people had no clue how to drive in these conditions. As can be seen from the numerous photos I took of stranded cars.

Once we got past the queues and traffic, we had a good run right up to Kirkwood, and were able to hit the slopes before 1. But I should say, we had to buy lift tickets of course.. and I at least had mine from yesterday still on my jacket when I walked in. When they saw that, they said – oh, you guys get free tickets today if you want. We knew that from yesterday, as I mentioned, although we also knew that we technically weren’t valid for that offer, given our $14US tickets. But they couldn’t tell which tickets we’d bought. But then, the guy happened to ask “Oh, what did you guys pay for those tickets?”. And Ashley… good old, loveable Ashley… immediately pipes up “$14 dollars!”. I wish I had a camera… Julius and I just turned and looked at each in disbelief… we could have killed him!

I mean, okay okay, so we weren’t really meant to get the free tickets anyway… but we were all feeling a bit shafted by the exorbitant prices, so we weren’t about to do them any favours… if they mistakenly gave us free tickets, that’s their problem. But Ashley screwed that right up, before anyone else could say a thing. I thought about spinning off that, saying something like “What?! You got yours for $14? I paid like fifty bucks!”… but I thought better of it.

So, another $42US each, or whatever the price was, and we were back on the slopes.

We weren’t really that upset about the tickets, more just stunned that Ashley could be so socially retarded as to concede free tickets like that. But once we hit the slopes, all thoughts of that were washed away by several feet of beautiful powder.

Now, for those who aren’t familiar with skiing, I’ll digress here briefly set the scene. When you’re skiing, there are a few basic conditions you can have. There’s ice, which just sucks, and is usually too dangerous to ski on anyway. Then there’s compacted snow, which is quite nice to ski on, but can still be quite hard if you fall over. Up from that, is powder snow. It’s extremely light, but gives you extraordinary control when you’re skiing through it. It does slow you down a lot, however – so much so that on Monday the run down from lift 1 couldn’t be done without a bit of manual labour with the stocks.

Now personally I prefer a little bit of powder on top of some compact snow, since I like the extra speed. But moreso, skiing through powder is really tiring… it puts such a drag on you that every movement becomes four times harder. So you can bet within no time at all we were all extremely buggered.

But, the powder was a great opportunity to hit the harder slopes, since they were running a lot slower and were thus more amenable to amateurs like myself. After quite a few runs down the intermediate slopes off 11 (from memory), Julius convinced me to ride up to more or less the summit, to the runs that were definitely black diamond. That was kind scary. The first half of thus runs were the exact same intermediate ones we’d been skiing to start with… the other half, well, that was a heck of a lot harder. Way steeper, and with some dangerous bluffs leading to sharp drops off the side into trees and such. The first bit of the summit was the worst – it starts with an almost sheer drop about 10 feet, then continues down at at least 45 degrees, for quite some way. It goes down in steppes, kind of, like most of the runs, so you get the opportunity to rest on the way down. Which I took most advantage of… while the intermediate runs had about a foot of powder minimum, going up to three feet at most, this run had up to six feet of powder. Most of the time you were skiing through at least two feet, which is really really tiring.

And of course, if you stray off the beaten path, you risk hitting snow drifts – piles of fresh, uncompacted powder. I did that a few times – one time in fact I went through a drift that was at least five feet, which went well over my head, and sent cold cold snow straight down my back. That was very amusing, but cold. :)

I fell over a few times going down that slope – the first times I’d fallen on the trip. I was exhausted, and pushing the limits of my abilities. It was great fun, but I was so happy to reach the bottom and just collapse. :)

After that, I can’t remember the exact chain of events, but more or less we ended up back in the coffee shop. We were supposed to meet Ashley and/or Matteo, or somesuch… anyway, someone was missing, so I said – heck, it’s only three, I’m going out for another run. Matteo in particular was really worried that the roads would close, given the heavy snow falls, so he really wanted to leave early. My point of view was more along the lines of “stuff that, this is awesome, I’m going skiing”. There was some friction, yes, but we all got along really well. Matteo’s a cool guy – he gets cranky about some things, same as the rest of us, but he’s not prone to outbursts of any sort. Nicely mellow, so things between us were great.

Anyway, the last two runs I did were down 1 and then 11. 1 was just so slow it wasn’t funny… way too much powder. Thus, I hit 11. That was awesome. It was one of the best runs I’d had that weekend. With the tips from Julius that day, and my last burst of energy, I made a really fast, clean run. It was great.

And then, I really was stuffed, so I too retired to the coffee shop.

So, the idea was to drive home. We returned our rental stuff – getting a credit for a free day of equivalent hire if we’re up that way again this season, to make up for the whole place being closed on Saturday. When we first came down into the lodge from the coffee shop, all the roads were closed – all being both. There’s two ways, east or west on 88. West was our desired direction, over and out of the mountains towards home. East of course led back down to South Lake Tahoe.

While we were packing things up and getting ready to leave, word arrived that the roads had opened. So, we quickly (by the standards of these guys, meaning within half an hour or so) got in the car and got moving. And we didn’t get very far. It took as ages to get out of Kirkwood onto 88… the photos of the dual-lane traffic jam are from that portion of the trip. And then the windscreen wipers stopped working. They just suddenly weren’t moving anymore. We fiddled a bit, but had no luck. In the low visibility, from the falling snow, we couldn’t safely expect to make it all the way back to the valley without them… so it seemed we would have to head back to South Lake Tahoe first… and ideally still make it back that night, if they could be fixed quickly.

Once we reached 88 however, which took a long time, enforced the new plan… the queue west was long and immobile… it stretched further than we could see down the road to the east… we decided we’d head to South Lake Tahoe, and at this point started wondering if we’d be spending another night. It was probably about 4:20 or so at this point, so we still had plenty of time. Of course, a couple of hundred metres down the road, we stopped again. And there we stayed.

We knew the traffic would be bad, given how many people were on the mountain that day, and the conditions, so at first we weren’t too perturbed. However, after half an hour the light started fading. Hmmm.

I don’t really recall all the details – we did keep ourselves amused for the most part, fiddling with cameras, making conversational, all the usual… but time just kept passing. After a while someone walked by and happened to chat to the car in front of us. We overhead from that conversation that the road was closed up ahead – which we’d figured by this time – and that it was being cleared. But then there came word that there was machinery sitting idle, no people in sight, nothing happening… this came not long after we saw one of the service vehicles, with their flashing lights, go past us back towards Kirkwood.

After a few hours, I finally got bored and got out of the car for a walk. I wandered up to the head of the queue, where the road was blocked by some temporary gates. We were probably fifty cars or more back in the queue, and it probably stretched all the way back to Kirkwood. And then some, I imagine.

In the darkness you could see light just around the corner, but no visible machinery or workmen. I chatted to a few people in the lead cars. One of them, a bus driver who worked the mountain, said this wasn’t that uncommon, but he’d never had to wait this long before. In his own measurement system, he’d gone to the toilet against the side of the bus twice already, which had never happened before.

There were a couple of younger guys in the lead car, and they weren’t all too happy. They’d apparently just walked back from down the road, past the closure… they’d found two big machines parked across the road, completely blocking it… lights on, engines running… but no-one around. They’d kept walking down the road a couple more corners, but couldn’t see anything more. The driver of that car was diabetic, and didn’t have any more insulin on him… he was okay, but obviously getting a little nervous about the whole situation.

I should add too that several people said to me that if we were stuck here, the road west was most definitely closed. It is by far the most dangerous, apparently, and is rarely open in weather like we were having. Now they tell us.

So, I began my walk back. I had to stop at every second car to tell people what I’d seen and heard, which was a slow process. After only five minutes another service car came up the road, so I turned around again and walked back to the front of the queue. I got there just as they were heading off down the road. I spoke to the third guy, left in the car, and asked him what the deal was. He was just coming on shift, had no real idea what was going on other than that there was an avalanche blocking the road. An avalanche that had been deliberately caused by the avalanche control done earlier that afternoon – where they set of explosive to cause avalanches, which they can then clear, making the road safe (in theory).

Apparently they’d decided to do avalanche control not because it was scheduled or explicitly necessary, but because they’d had to close the road to clear an accident, so they figured they’d keep it closed and do the avalanche control. How considerate of them.

He refused to comment at all on when the road might be open – not even whether it would be minutes or hours – but he did seem vaguely sure that it would open at some point that night. He did say that west was closed and they wouldn’t even attempt to open it until the next morning. We could still make it back to Kirkwood, but apparently there were cars everywhere back behind us, which made it a real trick to navigate back down the road.

Also, since all the roads were blocked and there were queues of cars blocking everything, they couldn’t move any machinery around the mountain. They were stuck with whatever two machines were already there.

So at this point we start putting the pieces together… avalanche control caused an avalanche, which was probably expected, and they’d begun clearing it. Except, at some point the workmen had abandoned their machinery. It seems that as soon as time came to clock off, they did! It was at least an hour until the next shift, that I spoke to, came on. That explains part of the delay.

The new shift apparently had to get down to the avalanche, which must have been a fair way down the road, and blow it out (presumably with dynamite). They then had to get the clearing machinery in to smooth the road.

So, I began my walk back down the road once again. Again, stopping at every second car to tell the story. I had a good chat with quite a few people, which was a better way of passing the time than most… some 40 minutes or so I made it back to our little Kia. With nothing much exciting happening there, I decided to walk back up and get another update.

Luckily, just as I arrived at the blockage again, it opened, and traffic finally started moving. So, I walked quickly back to the car, telling everyone along the way that we were finally getting off this rock.

It’s a good thing I did do that last walk too, as there was one car I came across with the windows completely snowed over, and no visible motion… I wondered if the occupant(s) had just given up and abandoned it. Apparently two people did as much earlier – parking their car to the side of the road, then taking their snowboards and camping gear off into the wilderness.

I knocked on the car window, and after a few moments a woman opened the door. She’d been asleep, and would have stayed that way. She quickly realised we were moving, and hurried to get her car going. It took a moment, but it did start and she too started the slow crawl forwards.

So, I made it back to our car, just in time for us to get moving. And so we finally got off that mountain.

The fun didn’t end there. It was way too late to attempt to cross the mountains again, so we were definitely staying in South Lake Tahoe for another night. That was an extra expense none of us particularly wanted, but, what could we do.

We stopped at the first service station (the one in all my pictures) to see if they had or knew of a mechanic who might be able to check out the Kia’s windscreen wipers in the morning. Their mechanic shop had closed a while back, but it was great luck that we’d stopped anyway, as we happened to strike up a conversation with a couple who were leaving South Lake Tahoe (going north, I presume, since that was about the only option). But they’d rented a motel through tonight, and had left it unlocked, key on the dressing table. They gave us the motel name and room number, and wished us well on our way. It was incredibly fortuitous of us to run into them, and incredibly kind of them to offer their room to us for free.

So, we got a free stay. Unfortunately the room was barely big enough for the one double bed it contained, plus a “bathroom” which was barely large enough for the toilet it contained. And it was cold… very cold… the front door had huge gaps around the edges, and barely even closed at all, making the place rather draughty. But it was free, so in typical youth style, we accept it joyfully.

Unfortunately by this time I was really not feeling well. My throat had started to hurt a little, and was a little dry, on Sunday. Monday it was a little worse, but just an annoyance, nothing to really worry about. By Monday night, when we got into this hotel at whatever time, after having dinner at Denny’s – one second – I was developing a headache and a bit of a fever. Not fun.

I should say that dinner was interesting… the food was okay, although I wasn’t that hungry by that point. What was most amusing were the drinks – I ordered an orange juice, Matteo a lemonade, and the others a coke and a beer or somesuch. When the waiter served our drinks, he completely messed them all up, with my orange juice ending up in front of Matteo. Who casually picked it up and started drinking it as we were placing or orders for food. So with my order I asked for another orange juice, given Matteo had just claimed mine. Matteo stopped drinking it, looked at it, and just laughed awkwardly. Everyone thought it was hilarious. “I thought it tasted like strange lemonade”. Ye gads.

So anyway, Ashley claimed the bed, and Julius and Matteo both had sleeping stuff… left with nothing, I got the floor and a few of my jumpers as a poor pillow. I figured I would be okay, so it didn’t bother me much. I probably should have been more assertive about the arrangements… part way through the night I woke up and felt absolutely horrible. I was freezing, sore, uncomfortable, felt like my head was being split in half, and was getting very stuffed up. I’d also developed a rather nice cough. After some ever entertaining coughing fits in the bathroom over the sink, I sank down against the wall next to the heater, which I turned up to full. And there I slept for the remainder of the night, crouched up against the TV stand, huddling to myself.

I must say I’ve had more enjoyable nights.

In the morning I really wasn’t a happy camper. The others weren’t oblivious to my state, but either underestimated how awful I felt, or else felt the blind optimistic approach was the best. In any case, I mainly sat in the car and was grouchy to myself.

I was also dehydrated again. We’d run out of water the day before, and hadn’t had a chance to pick any more up. I think I tried a little of the tap water, but the taste alone here is enough to give me a headache, so that didn’t help.

But we made it back. The drive seemed waaaay longer than the way up, of course, but was relatively pleasant. I forced myself to get out and take some photos, since we finally had the picture-perfect days; blue skies, snow everywhere, freshly cleared roads, all the works. No wind, either. It was quite pleasant, quite warm. I would have really enjoyed it in a healthier state.

Once we got back, I put a few things up to dry, drank as much as I could, checked my email or somesuch, and then went to bed. I emerged for an hour or two later that night, but went back to bed. I did head in to work Wednesday morning, and was by then feeling substantially better… no more headache, or not much of one, but still very “mucky”… not nice.

And I still have that damn cough, two weeks to the day later. Damn.

So yeah, that’s my story. I’m sure I’ll revise this and add more details as I remember them, and as my companions prompt them. Stay tuned. :D

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