Snow Storms in Heavenly, Lake Tahoe
The first thing to bear in mind with this place is the snow, the snow, and the absolutely brutal amounts of snow. The 2016/17 season was aptly re-named Snow-mageddon. Houses had become igloo’s, ski lifts were buried & roads often impassable. But that’s what we came for and so I wasn’t about to complain.
I hold my hands up, I'm your typical British holiday skier, having never taken up the opportunity of a ski season I have to settle for about 3 weeks a year (which I know I'm very lucky to get thanks to my amazing job!). I've never really tried to master deep powder skiing, this week was going to be a crash course!
I spent a few nights in Heavenly at the newly re-opened 3* Hotel Becket, a great place to base yourself for easy access to town and ski slopes with the Heavenly gondola a 2 minute walk away. We got into town just before the storm arrived, unpacked and headed over the road to the California Burger Co for a few drinks as the first flakes started falling. A few hours later and a little worse for wear we stumbled out of the bar to a good few inches of fresh snow on the ground. The obligatory snowball fight ensued and we went to bed with great anticipation of what was to come the next morning.
moguls the size of a family hatchback
After a restful night’s sleep courtesy of the Hotel Becket’s brand new memory foam mattresses, I opened the curtains to see well over a foot of snow blanketing the cars outside but with the wind howling. I wasn’t sure we’d get much done on our first day. We headed to Ten Crows (The bar/restaurant in the Hotel Becket) for a hearty American breakfast where we all stared into our phones checking the latest weather reports and lift operating status. The main Heavenly gondola was on wind hold but the busses up to California Lodge (the small base area about a 5 minute drive away on the Californian side of the ski area) were running. Up there it almost seemed to have its own microclimate, the wind dropped and the sun was trying to come out.
Testing technique on 'Round-a-Bout'
We jumped straight on the Gunbarrel Express chairlift for a few laps on the easier blue run ‘Round-a-Bout’ which is great fun as there are loads of little passageways through the trees. The more timid skier can stick to the piste which, I have to admit, was me on the first lap! The second time around I took my chances through the trees, battling the deep fresh snow and only fell over 3, 4 or maybe 5 times…You start to lose count after a while! The nice gentle slope ‘round-about’ gradually works its way down, snaking over the mountain. Every now and then you cut across the double black diamond slope ‘Gunbarrell.’ Some members of the group got a bit cocky and thought they’d head down Gunbarrel towards the end of our second lap and yep, I was one of them! This extremely steep slope had moguls the size of a family hatchback which had to be carefully navigated to stay upright. Luckily they were nice and soft and if you fell onto one they were large enough to stop you clumsily sliding down the mountain on your backside towards the onlooking crowd.
I skied hard, fell over a lot and laughed until my ribs ached
As the day went on the snow continued to fall but the wind eased and more terrain opened up. I can’t remember where we headed, but we stuck to the Californian side of the ski area. I skied hard, fell over a lot and laughed until my ribs ached (or that could have been all the falling over….?) This place is great fun, even skiing through one of the worst storms of the winter season I couldn’t help but enjoy myself. All the slopes lead back to the same place so it’s almost impossible to get lost. The runs are all through the trees - easy to navigate in a whiteout and the lift system is efficient enough to deal with the crowds on a busy, stormy day.
The day ended early, partly through exhaustion & jetlag but also the storm had also begun to strengthen again. No-one likes a wind-chill of -20 Celsius.
One side of the street is quaint Californian ski village, the other side is a mini Las Vegas
That evening was almost a complete repeat of the night before; California Burger Co for some drinks, snowball fight in the now 2 foot+ deep snow in the village and then the rowdier members of the group headed over the Stateline to Nevada for the bright lights of the Casinos. This place really is incredible. One side of the street is quaint Californian ski village, the other side is a mini Las Vegas. It is what you make it. If you want cosy nights in by the fire? Perfect. If you want to be out partying until the sun comes ups? Easy-peasy. There truly is something for everyone.
Braving the 'Firebreak' off piste itinerary
The next morning we woke up and it was STILL snowing, I’ve never seen anything like this in my life, it was like something out of a disaster movie but today, the main Heavenly Village Gondola was open. We headed straight up there, no queue, no rush to be first in line, perhaps only us crazy Brits wanted to brave the weather. We were lucky enough to have a guide from the local tourist board show us round all the good spots that only the locals knew about. And yes, these were off piste hot spots where I continued to fall over repeatedly! We decided to brave the infamous ‘Firebreak’ a legendary off piste itinerary that comes down off the mountain, almost following the track of the Heavenly Gondola back into the village. It was a reasonable gradient, nothing too steep and scary but the sheer amounts of snow made it tough going.
I’d like to say my off piste technique had improved in the last 24 hours or so but I don’t really think it had.
I’d like to say my off piste technique had improved in the last 24 hours or so but I don’t really think it had. It was genuinely one of the toughest skis of my life. Every time you fell you had to swim your way back up to the surface of the fresh powder and grab onto someone in order to pull yourself back upright. I was aching all over before we were even halfway, every turn putting strain on my body, fighting through the powder. I spent turn after turn hoping we were almost at the bottom, and then it began to flatten out… flatter… and flatter… to which our guide said we’d need to use our poles for the last few hundred metres. I thought my arms were going to fall off at this point, the thought of pushing myself along the flat (sometimes uphill) terrain did not sound appealing but I made it, we made it, the whole group down in one piece. At the time I wondered why I agreed to take on such a ridiculous task but now, several months later I look back and I'm proud of what we all did. We tackled the Firebreak in a whiteout in the middle of one of the snowiest seasons on record. I can safely say I’ll never do it again but I highly recommend everyone gives it a go if you have the chance (with a fully trained instructor or guide of course).
And those two days were all we had in Heavenly, so sadly I never got to see those iconic views across the deep blue Lake Tahoe. We woke the next day as the storm had passed but we were heading on a 4 hour drive south to Mammoth which is another story altogether. I can safely say I will be returning to Heavenly in the future. Until next time.