Lake Tahoe offers some amazing choices when it comes to ski resorts. A total of 15 resorts are sprinkled around the lake, with a huge variety of terrain and amenities, from Squaw Valley’s Olympic caliber steeps, Homewoods unparalleled view of Tahoe’s deepest blue depths on her western shore, Heavenly’s night life to Soda Springs overlooked slopes. There is something for every flavor of skier and that’s just the terrain served by lifts.
When you add in backcountry options the only reason there aren’t more tracks on more slopes is due to a scarcity of parking. As a turn earning Truckee local that’s an important factor in my choice of Sugar Bowl as my favorite local destination. The majority of skiers are enamored with the vertical available at Squaw or the sidecountry options of Alpine Meadows, but why follow the herd?
I’ll admit only Squaw offers 1700 vertical feet of sustained steep skiing in a single pitch, at least most of it, but only on two runs. Every other resort in the Tahoe area only dreams they could match that, including Squaw’s adopted sibling to the south, Alpine Meadows. Most resorts in Tahoe are pretty benchy, dropping 500 feet or so before flattening out, and then dropping again. The Chutes at Mt. Rose come a close second, as are a few slopes at Kirkwood.
Much of Sugar Bowl’s terrain falls in the benchy category in-bounds, but Disney and Crows Nest offer a solid 800 vertical of consistent, steep, big fun skiing without the crowds Squallywood engenders. That’s under the lifts. When you add what Sugar Bowl’s lifts have access to, not just what’s beneath them, but with a modicum of hiking is within striking distance, Sugar Bowl’s terrain options make a joke of every other Tahoe area resorts offerings, especially Squaw’s.
Consider just two runs – both of ‘em serious pitches of steep skiing; the Heart, the line that falls down the center of Donner Peak’s stout 1100 foot north face with a 50° pitch leading to a crux drop above a cliff, and the Lake Run, 1300 vertical feet of consistently steep 35°+ rowdiness with optional air from the top of what locals call Tressel Peak, to the upscale neighborhood at the west end of Donner Lake. Though these runs are not in-bounds, they are not off limits. The only problem is your willingness and ability to engage the challenge they offer.
Being a resort with reliable road access it isn’t that Sugar Bowl doesn’t occasionally get crowded, it does. The difference is crowds are an issue occasionally, not perpetually as would seem to be the case at Squaw, Northstar, and Heavenly.
In addition, Sugar Bowl, like many other fine resorts in the Tahoe area has a lift layout that spreads skiers out, especially relative to where you park. The largest parking area is the Judah Lodge area, with two lifts that wisk you into position to hike the Judah summit ridge, hit the terrain park, or quickly access Lincoln or Disney lifts the fine terrain they serve. Or you can park off Donner Pass Road and take a gondola to the Sugar Bowl’s Village area and the Disney lift.
Front-, Side-, Back Country
In recent years Sugar Bowl has managed to itch the ire of backcountry purists with the addition of the Summit and Crows Nest chairs. Both expand the terrain accessible with minimal hiking to zones that were formerly the domain of backcountry snobs, but now anyone with advanced skills can up the ante on the number of untracked turns they harvest. That’s one thing few resorts can offer anymore, and while these new lifts do mean former sidecountry terrain gets tracked faster than ever, it also increases the range of even more terrain to reap freshies from, a feature pass holders are absolutely not complaining about.
Besides, there’s still tons of terrain all around Sugar Bowl that remains available for those who are truly willing to earn their turns, with the added convenience of having a chairlift take you right to the boundary without even breaking sweat. Think of it as Sugar Bowl letting you burn your turns for one run before you earn them. In addition you can also take advantage of Sugar Bowls generous open-boundary policy to ski back in-bounds and use the lifts to go from Judah’s East Bowls to Lincoln’s East Face, or further west in the trees off Crow’s Nest, expanding the range of terrain you can ski in day.
There’s a lot of times I don’t even use the lifts, I just like the fact that Sugar Bowl’s parking lot is guaranteed to be cleared and I won’t have to hope there’s a spot left like many backcountry trailheads around the Tahoe area, even when I’m running late. With an Uphill Pass I can skin in-bounds if I chose, but generally, if I’m eschewing the lifts I’ll keep my skis outside the official boundaries except maybe for the final run back to the car when a groomer can be a welcome relief from dealing with wild snowsnakes all day.
Sugar Bowl has a long history of rubbing elbows with backcountry skiers. As interest in skiing out-of bounds has grown, so have Sugar Bowl’s offerings. They don’t just tolerate people going out of bounds, they offer backcountry courses and guided tours through ASI’s certified guides. Heck, even if you’re just passing through, enroute to Benson Hut, or Lost Trail Lodge from Anderson Ridge, Sugar Bowl offers a 2-punch backcountry ticket to get you to the top of Lincoln Peak. As Sugar Bowl’s marketing and sales manager , Peter Avedschmidt points out, “we love playing beyond the ropes ourselves.”
The net result is Sugar Bowl became the Tahoe area’s first ski area to actively promote, not only access to backcountry terrain, but uphill skiing under the lifts. They also partner with Alpine Skills International to provide guided access to the out-of-bounds terrain plus in-depth instruction to all aspects of backcountry travel.
Those are nice benefits for newbies, but as an experienced backcountry skier that isn’t why Sugar Bowl is my resort of choice in the Tahoe region. The main reason is it simply provides the best of both worlds, in-bounds slope doping and untracked turns on out-of-bounds slopes. While there are several notable runs, the Lake Run is arguably the most popular; with good reason.
The Lake Run
If you’ve ever driven I-80 westbound out of Truckee you may have noticed tracks from the peaklet east of Donner Peak whose slopes drop down to the west end of Donner Lake. Locals call it Tressel Peak, because of the train tressel halfway down it’s steep north face with some exciting features to deal with. Depending on the line you take it maintains a healthy 30-40 degree pitch for most of its 1300 vertical feet. If you drop down the center, prepare for 30 feet of mandatory air. The final 400 foot pitch is a steep section of staircased rock with yawning moats ready to catch any who hesitate in this final, technical drop to the neighborhood at the bottom. (Note: There two paths to public roads that don’t trespass on private property. Learn them and respect landowners privacy.)
In true backcountry fashion you need to earn your way to the top of this run; that helps limit the number of tracks in front of you and preserve the experience for the those willing to pay for it with sweat. It also means that, even though it may get tracked out in the course of a day, it takes a whole day to get as many tracks on it as KT-22 gets 15 minutes after the first chair. If you’re prepared with skins and willing to add a few short uphill pitches you can easily reap 2500′ of vertical of descent, going from the top of the Summit Chair to West End beach, in less than two hours with 800′ of legitimate, turn earning satisfaction.
Less is More
So while Sugar Bowl may not have a KT-22 to it’s name, KT-22 ain’t got nuthin’ on Sugar Bowl’s vast backcountry terrain. It’s true, Sugar Bowl may have fewer vertical feet, and fewer people on it’s slopes, but when you include all the terrain that Sugar Bowl allows access to with fewer restrictions, nay, even tacit encouragement, having less means you get more.
Note: All the usual caveats apply. IOW – don’t be stoopid, and don’t blame the resort if you get hurt, lost, or killed. Whether skiing or snowboarding, it’s fun and it’s dangerous.
Full disclosure: I have traded advertising for a pass for the past three years, a legitimate business trade. That isn’t why I like Sugar Bowl. My rationale is based on a genuine appreciation for the area, so why not do a trade with my resort of choice? If you doubt my sincerity, then you haven’t skied the area described or you like crowds.