SQUAW VALLEY, CALIF.
Definitions Used in Resort Guides
Other Inside Tracks Articles
Published October 1997. This article does not reflect any lift upgrades or terrain expansions since then.
Squaw Valley has the greatest concentration of lift serviced expert runs in North America. Squaw is surely the most difficult area to quantify, as it is primarily open bowls, chutes and cliffs. If the upper elevations get anywhere near their 400+ inch average snowfall, the skier's choice of fall line is limited only by ability and imagination. The variety indicated above assumes about an 8 foot base and reasonably good snow conditions. With a higher base and fresh snow, more skiable lines will open up. With a lower base, rain or prolonged drought, much of the expert terrain will be inadequately covered or too dangerous to ski.
|SNOW CONDITIONS||Altitude||Season||Standard||High Mths||Low Mths||Maximum||Direction of Exposure|
|Range||Average||Deviation||GE 90 in.||LT 30 in.||Base Depth||North||East||West||South|
|Squaw Valley, Calif. 6,200||6,200-9,050||304||108||22%||38%||125||50%||40%||2%||8%|
The Sierra crest forms the western border of Squaw Valley. The Siberia, Granite Chief and Shirley Lake areas at 8,000 to 9,000 feet average about 450 inches annual snowfall. Shirley Lake faces north, but the predominant exposure on the crest is east so spring conditions are not uncommon. There are some steep north exposures from Granite Chief, Headwall and Cornice II, and the east facing Broken Arrow chute is well shaded by a large rock formation. Emigrant and the beginner runs near the top of the tram are also over 8,000 feet but face south. The two mile long Mountain Run from the upper gondola station to the base faces east and gets heavy skier traffic, so Squaw has put a major snowmaking effort into this area. Squaw Valley's base is at 6,200 feet, over two miles east of the Sierra crest, so the average snowfall declines to 300 inches there. The Alpine Meadows recorded average, 386 inches at 7,000 feet and about a mile east of the Sierra crest, is a better representation of average conditions in sections of Squaw Valley such as KT22 and Olympic Lady. These areas rise directly from the base and are north facing but require a lot of coverage. Farther east, snowfall declines significantly and snowmaking is used to ensure ski access to the Resort at Squaw Creek.
Siberia got its name from the prevailing winds blowing over the Sierra crest and in your face as you exit the lift. The wind usually moderates once you get a few turns below the exposed areas. In big storms wind or avalanche danger will shut down everything west of KT-22 (about 3/4 of the acreage). Given the steepness of the mountain, it should not come as a surprise that Squaw Valley holds the one month avalanche record (745 in January 1995) as tracked by the U. S. Forest Service Westwide Network. In inclement weather one should assess which sections of the mountain will be open before deciding where to ski. Squaw is the most weather vulnerable area at Tahoe except for its neighbor Alpine Meadows, where the access road and part of the base area are subject to avalanche control.
Sierra snow tends to arrive in massive dumps, with sustained stretches of sunny and mild weather in between. Squaw should be avoided before that first big dump due to the high coverage required for the expert terrain. The volatility of California snowfall means that Squaw will be close to full operation at Thanksgiving in the best 25% of seasons, but will be marginal to poor well past Christmas in the worst 25% of seasons. Since the snow is high in water content, the coverage holds up pretty well in the steeper areas. During warm storms the Sierra occasionally receives rain up to about 8,000 feet. Squaw will have to close much of the steep terrain around KT-22 for ice danger if this occurs.
During warm weather conditions at Squaw can be optimized by skiing the east facing areas in the morning and moving to the north facing sections after lunch. When it gets really warm, much of the mountain may not freeze overnight. Under these circumstances, conditions will be much better at Kirkwood and especially Mammoth, where the expert terrain is 2,000 feet higher and nearly all north facing.
Cruising: Shirley Lake is the best area, but it's only 700 vertical. Often a section of Siberia will be groomed, steep for the first 300 of its 1,000 vertical. The Mountain Run to the base is 2,000 vertical, but it's fairly flat and skier traffic will exacerbate spring or hard packed conditions. The runs to and from the main base area to the Resort at Squaw Creek are also groomed and have snowmaking.
Moguls: The West Face of KT-22 is the most challenging mogul run in North America. A few other areas can match it for length (1,800 vertical) but none for sustained pitch (you'll slide to the bottom if you fall in other than soft snow conditions). There are numerous other mogul runs which are comparable to the showcase runs at other ski areas, such as the East Face of KT-22, the open bowl sections of Olympic Lady and the liftlines of Headwall and Granite Chief. Thanks to Squaw's hard core devotees, it is not uncommon to find moguls in locations which would rarely be skied at all on some other mountains.
Steeps: There are seven chairlifts devoted almost exclusively to black and yellow rated terrain: Olympic Lady has a few short chutes near the lift and some trees traversing east from the lift. KT-22 has 75 Chute, parallel to the West Face but slightly steeper and much narrower. There are numerous other extreme lines on KT (caution and a local guide recommended for initial attempts). Cornice II has several short but very steep lines to ski. These provide a good test before the longer and more dangerous areas on KT. Headwall has Slot, the next bowl south of the liftline, and a steep north face dropping toward the Siberia lift. Granite Chief, despite being Squaw's highest lift, has quite a few trees. Broken Arrow has south facing moguls and the east facing chute which provides a nice alternative to the Mountain Run for experts to return to the base area. Silverado should be first entered from the top of Broken Arrow so you can scout the skiable lines while riding the Silverado chair. The steepest and narrowest sections are not visible from the top of the lift.
Wide Open Spaces: Over half the mountain is treeless, mainly the broad expanse on the Sierra crest from Emigrant, through Siberia and Headwall, to Cornice II. Moving east, KT-22 and Olympic Lady are partially forested.
Trees: Continuing east, Red Dog and Squaw Creek are the most heavily forested sections of Squaw, although even here the trees are spaced comfortably far apart for skiing. Shirley Lake and Granite Chief also have some well spaced trees.
Powder: The exciting terrain attracts the powderhounds after a big dump. The extensive variety helps it last a little while, but there is a lot of lift capacity and you're competing against elite locals for the best lines. During storms, it's still worth a visit if KT-22 and Olympic Lady are open. If the storm is too intense (wind or avalanche restrictions), it is wiser to ski one of the forested areas away from the Sierra crest, such as Northstar or Heavenly.
Hiking and Backcountry: The Palisades, famous in ski films, are a 300 vertical climb above the Headwall or Siberia lifts. They are not open on the weekends. Alpine Meadows is visible looking south from the top of Headwall, Cornice II or KT-22. The terrain between the areas is wilderness and is also a prime avalanche zone.
Crowds: Squaw Valley gets considerable weekend business and has consequently built a very high capacity lift system. There are a tram, a gondola and a high speed quad to move people from the base area to the 8,200 foot level. Siberia and Shirley Lake, the two most popular upper mountain lifts, are also high speed quads. Of the expert lifts, only KT-22 had any lift line problems and it was replaced by a high speed quad last year. This was somewhat controversial as some experts fear snow conditions may degrade with higher skier density.
Skier density is very high on the Mountain Run from Gold Coast down to the base area. Squaw has groomed three separate routes, but they are all still busy and in the sun, so one can expect slushy or hard packed conditions by the end of the day.
Squaw's real crowd problem is not on the mountain but in the parking lot and access road. It can take over an hour to drive the 7 miles to or from Tahoe City at peak hours on weekends and holidays or in bad weather. Solutions? 1. The expensive method is to stay in the valley and walk to the lifts. 2. Drive in to the area for breakfast by 8AM or so. Consider leaving a little early or hang around for an hour or two of apres ski activities. 3. The traffic on route 89 flows better toward Truckee (north) than it does toward Tahoe City (south).
Intermediates: Squaw remains a problematic mountain for intermediates. There has been a great effort to improve conditions by snowmaking, grooming and relieving lift bottlenecks. However, skiers who are not yet ready for some advanced runs are best advised to visit Squaw midweek to avoid the high weekend skier density on most of the blue terrain.
Novices: The beginner area is not large, but it has a spectacular location at the top of the tram. Snow conditions are much better than at the base. The High Camp facility also has an ice skating rink and bungee tower for those who tire of skiing. Once beginners progress a bit, they will encounter the intermediate problems described above. Nearby Alpine Meadows and Northstar are much better choices at the low intermediate stage.
Children: The ability level of children should be kept in mind in evaluating the suitability of Squaw Valley. However, for appropriate children the $5 lift ticket is a true bargain for such a top-flight ski area. There are a lot of hot local kids, so the instruction and challenge for more advanced children is better than at most areas.
There are many lodging choices in the Lake Tahoe area. The north shore from Tahoe City to King's Beach in California is popular for its scenery as well the access to many ski areas. A few miles east are Crystal Bay and Incline Village in Nevada, a bit farther from the major skiing, but with some casinos (much smaller scale than south shore). The north shore is serviced by a single two lane road along the lake which is subject to the traffic problems mentioned above. The north shore can also be almost completely paralyzed by the intense Sierra snowfalls. Road closures are not uncommon. If powder skiing is a priority, lodging should be chosen with bad weather access in mind. The south shore casinos and Heavenly Valley are up to an hour away in good weather. Week long visitors wanting to sample many ski areas should consider dividing their lodging base between north and south shore to minimize the driving.