My earliest memory of big resort skiing was at Lake Tahoe. I was at Stanford from 1972-76 and while I had to borrow money to go to school, I somehow scraped enough money to go to Tahoe with a college buddy to ski. I had leather lace up boots and these weird leather strap bindings on a pair of wood skis that we had brought back from Japan in 1969. The first day skiing it was clear that these bindings were totally unsafe. I crashed into a fur-coat clad woman at the top of the run. $50 later, about $250 in today’s dollars, I had new step-in bindings mounted on the old Kazama wood skis. That first trip around 1974 I skied at Squaw Valley–primarily because I wanted to ski where the 1960 Olympics had been held—Alpine Meadows and Heavenly Valley. The views were spectacular then as now.
Through the years I have been back to Tahoe to ski and for business meetings. It is still one of my favorite places in the world.
This trip the snow cover was abysmal compared to last year’s record snowfall. The last significant snow had been in early January, and it was now early February. As I drove from Sacramento on Highway 50 a skiff of snow came through—about two inches—and California cars were chaining up to get across the pass. I thought they were joking until I began my descent into the Tahoe Basin and met cars unable to make it up the pass, skidding out and preventing the cars behind them from advancing.
My F-150 4×4 had no problems, and I arrived early at the Lake Tahoe Worldmark which is on Tramway Drive leading to the Nevada side of Heavenly Valley ski area.
I arrived Sunday afternoon and Monday morning I left early to go to Kirkwood Ski Area about an hour’s drive away. I wanted to make sure I made it to Kirkwood as I had skied there years ago, and had no real memory of the place. Snow was thin everywhere. I took the fastest route but least scenic–the Kingsbury pass east to the Carson Valley, then south to 88 west. I planned on taking the picturesque drive back through the mountains, Hwy 88 to Hwy 89 north to the Basin.
The entrance to Kirkwood is marked by three prominent rock formations whose origins I am guessing are in the same genre as Yosemite. As you drive in, there are condos after condos. The first lifts as you drive in are at the Timber Creek Base, basically the ski school area, and just a little further is free parking for the Mountain Village and the main lifts.
There are 2300 skiable acres and a vertical rise of 2100 feet. What was impressive to me was the expansive two-mile-long ridgeline spanning from right to left across the area. Many of the upper chairs were closed due to wind and lack of snow cover, but the groomed blues and blacks made for an easy day of cruising.
I started just as they advise a person NOT to: from hardest to easier… At Kirkwood on this day that meant taking the Cornice Express, then Solitude, over to The Reut to Snowkirk, then Caples Crest to the backside serviced by the Ironhorse lift. As you face the mountain, those chairs service the mountain from right to left. I took one run over to TC Express which is on the far right, lower mountain to check out the teaching area. It turned out to be a very nice, gentle, treed green area, perfect for beginners.
At lunch I went to the nearest bar restaurant on the mountain, “The Wall” at the Lodge at Kirkwood. I ordered a flourless chocolate cake for lunch, and a glass of wine. The bartender was concocting the Valentine’s Day drink special, and I began taste testing her martinis. She had come up with a passion fruit flavored martini without the passion fruit. It was a blend of Absolute Orange Mandarin, Malibu Rum, Peach Schnapps, cranberry, orange juice and pineapple juice. It was delicious! She gave me a sample of the other bartender’s martini, but it was sharper and didn’t go down as easily. We began a naming contest—and looked to the trail map for inspiration. The name was narrowed down to The Wall and All the Way, but also considered Happiness Is, Cold Shoulder, Lower Elevator Shaft. We finally settled on All the Way, because, well, it was for Valentine’s.
At 2 pm I called it a day knowing I had an hour drive ahead of me, and so began my journey back to South Lake Tahoe heading east on Hwy 88. About six miles from the Hwy 89 turnoff I came upon a car/semi-truck collision. I figure I was the fourth vehicle on the scene. A small SUV had been coming up the grade and a semi had lost control on a downhill curve. The truck took the front driver’s side wheel clean off. The car was pushed backwards into the snowbank, the truck jack-knifed across the road just beyond it.
All that stuff that I had packed and had been given began to percolate up into my consciousness. First Aid Kit. Blankets. Shovel. Tow rope. Windshield breaker. Cell phone that had four bars (a guy had to borrow my phone to call his work—he had 0 bars).
When I came upon the accident I didn’t realize people were still in the car. The line of cars and trucks behind me began to grow. The sheriff pulled up in a big SUV and barely got by the jack-knifed truck. I thought maybe they would let us squeeze by the truck to get to 89. It was only 6 miles away. But it was worse than I thought. A nurse came up from one of the cars behind me. She began talking to the lady in the car. The man who had been driving was unconscious but alive.
They asked for my shovel to try to free up the passenger side door. I had my blanket out, thinking they might need it but fortunately it was a sunny, warm afternoon. The truck had hit a patch of black ice—the road had been dry pavement except for this one curve on the shady side.
Patrollers arrived. A firetruck came that couldn’t fit by the jack-knifed truck. An ambulance. First responders took over. They got the jaws of life out. I had never seen them in action. They work off compressed air. First responders broke out the side window to get the lady. She had a broken arm. They had her on a gurney in the middle of the road, but didn’t take her right away—her husband was more seriously injured. An hour and a half later, they had both of them air-lifted out, but the road still wasn’t open.
When I had left the ski area, I hadn’t stopped to go to the restroom—I figured that it was only an hour to the condo, so I’d be fine. Of course I didn’t figure on a car accident. I asked the patrolman if he had a bucket I could use. He didn’t. Then they determined that diesel had spilled on the road, so they were calling a HazMat cleaning crew.
An officer saw my Minnesota plates and asked me if I knew the area—I did not. He suggested (because he knew I needed a restroom) that I turn around and take the three-and-a-half-hour drive around to get to Tahoe. They figured it would be about the same time as waiting for the road to open.
I turned around and headed back. At the top of the grade was a pull-out that I had seen earlier where hikers had parked. I stopped to talk to the patrolman in that lot and asked him where the closest restroom was—it was right there!! I was never so happy.
I drove back to the ski area only a few minutes away. I thought I might grab supper and wait for the road to clear. I really didn’t want to drive for three and a half hours… I went back to The Wall, figuring I’d have a friendly barkeeper to talk to. They were closed due to a water main break. I crossed the street to the pizza joint. There was one waitress for the whole place, and as a solo traveler, pizza isn’t high on my list. So I found the 7800 Bar and Grill. I got a table, checked my phone for California Road Conditions. 88 was still closed, and the HazMat truck was coming from Stockton, over two hours away!
I bit the bullet and decided to start driving the 3+ hours around, back to Sutter Creek to 49 to Placerville and then up 50 to Tahoe. I considered going back to my sister’s in Sacramento. It would have been closer, but I wanted to ski. I drove for about an hour west on 88 and saw a small sign pointing north, “Placerville.” This was about 30 minutes sooner than I expected. It wasn’t the Google Maps recommended route. I pulled over to consider my options when a tow truck turned—the driver rolled down his window and said to me, “88 west is closed. If you want to get to Tahoe, follow me. This is a shortcut to Hwy 50. It’ll cut off about an hour.” There was a lady following him in an old two-door pickup with Nevada plates. I decided to follow them. The sun was setting and the fiery reds and yellows of the sunset made the woods look inflamed.
For those of us who have only seen California as Los Angeles or San Francisco, we may think the state is populated everywhere you look. When you get into the mountains, you realize how remote and isolated it can be. This was clearly an old logging road that had been paved over. When we first started I could see logs stacked on the side of the road. There were controlled burns going on, evidenced by small piles of branches and kindling in flames.
It got darker and darker. The road became narrower. I could see the tow truck ahead of the pickup. The pickup in front of me had a tail light out. I thought, “If that guy wanted to abduct us, he could throw our bodies out into the woods and we would never be found.” I pulled my pepper spray out of the console and put it next to me. I thought about exit plans. “What If” scenarios. But I knew also that with two of us following him, it would be hard to abduct TWO little old ladies rather than ONE. It felt like safety in numbers even if the number were only two. And the other thought I had? I only needed to run faster than the lady in front of me.
Part of the cut-across was the Omo Ranch road. It’s actually on the map. I dropped pins every once in a while on my Google Map. Just in case. We finally saw lights ahead of us, the road got a bit wider. I thought relief was in sight. Yet the road continued to be heavily wooded, curvy, dark and seemed to be endless.
Finally, trees gave way to houses and small businesses. There were curbs. But the final two miles to Hwy 50 consisted of hairpin turns that I wondered how the tow truck could make them, as I couldn’t see the curve over my truck’s front hood.
We arrived at Hwy 50, and we all loosened up. I broke the law and pulled out my cell phone and took a picture of the tow truck. Up Country Towing. Thank you!!
I made it to the condo at 8:30, six and a half hours after leaving the ski area. Normally a one-hour drive. The next morning I called Up Country Towing and it turned out it was the owner of the business who lead me through the woods. He said Hwy 88 didn’t open up until midnight.