The Unofficial Guide to Skiing Squaw Valley USA
(photos by alexzn, unless explicitly credited)
Just another day at Squaw Valley USA (skier: S. Fridman, photo by alexzn)
Squaw is a quintessential Tahoe mountain, complete with world-class terrain and attitude, locals and Bay Area weekenders who are fanatical about their mountain, and a sizeable and very visible "Squallywood" extreme skiing scene. The mountain is renowned for its steeps and granite cliffs that provide plenty of challenge to any skier. However, even if you are not a ski movie star yet, the mountain has plenty to offer- wide open bowls, mellow beginner and intermediate runs, warm California weather, gorgeous views of Lake Tahoe and surrounding mountains, and the famous "Tahoe dumps" that can drop up to several feet of snow overnight. Heavier maritime snow prevalent in California also tends to stick very well to the granite faces, giving the mountain some of its famous steep runs.
Since the Fall 2011 Squaw Valley has merged with the neighboring resort- Alpine Meadows- creating the largest single ski areas in the continental US. Although you can ski both mountains on one ticket, at this time you still need to take the shuttle between the two base areas because there is no lift-served connector between the two resorts. We all hope that the new owners of the combined resort will develop a lift-served connection between the two mountains. During the 2012-2013 season the management has opened a backcountry connector between the two resorts. Going from one resort to another on skis is still an adventure, but if you are a good skier and looking for somewhat of a different experience from riding the resort, I recommend trying it out if the connector is open.
Mountain updates: The biggest news the past few seasons was the complete overhaul of the lift system around High Camp. The old High Camp was is gone, the Links lift has been relocated, and a new high-speed Big Blue chair ran from the bottom of Siberia and Broken Arrow to the top of the ridge between Silverado and Shirley. Big Blue was a really positive development in several key areas: (1), It finally provided genuinely long green trails at High Camp. (2) it made much easier/faster to move between Headwall/Siberia area and Shirley/Granite. (3) It opened another post-storm day route from the base area to Granite: now you could take Squaw One to Big Blue if the Funitel is jam-packed with skiers.
The 2015-16 season will see a new Siberia chair, where the old aging 4-pack high-speed lift will be replaced by the new 6-pack high-speed lift. There are persistent rumors that Red Dog chair could be converted from an old fixed three-seater to a brand-new 6-pack high-speed lift. Such change would reduce the travel time up Snow King and also would provide a genuine top-to-bottom high-speed alternative to KT-22 on storm days when the upper mountain is closed. At the time of this writing no firm replacement plans for Red Dog have been announced.
Mountain map. Click on the image for the high-resolution version.
Squaw Valley terrain color-coded for steepness.
Another big news this season is that Google Maps now has the trail map of Squaw Valley, so now you can use the GPS function of your smartphone to determine the trail that you are skiing. Here is a screenshot:
Terrain and snow
Squaw Valley terrain tends to be heavy on steep runs that are often covered in bumps, so the mountain tends to attract and breed good technical skiers; and the average skier level tends to be quite high. Expect this this mountain will be harder than your home hill, and chances are that it will be way harder. Most of the terrain is open bowls, which unfortunately means that on a storm day a lot of the mountain gets shut down due to poor visibility. Still there are plenty of choices between many wooded and sheltered areas that are accessible even on a bad weather day. The snow is a typical Sierra snow, heavy in moisture content. Winter tends to be heavy on storms and powder skiing, spring is mostly sunny and warm days with plenty of corn snow.
For some of the best analysis of current weather trends check out Tahoe Weather Geek blog.
The mountain is large enough to dissipate all the crowds even on the busiest days; although on bluebird powder days the most famous lifts, such as KT22, Headwall, or Silverado can get very crowded. The competition for the first tracks is fierce, and you should not count on skiing any first tracks on a powder day 45 minutes after the lifts open. Some intermediate lifts, for example Shirley Lake chair can also have long lift lines during the peak times of the day.
Squaw has a unique open terrain policy where almost everything within the resort boundary is fair game. It makes for many exhilarating possibilities, but also places more responsibilities on the skier. Although the lifts are marked according to the broad difficulty level of the terrain they serve, many lifts serve varied terrain ranging from easy blues to a double-diamond terrain. The best advice is to watch where you are going and take all the posted signs seriously. Generally when patrol closes terrain, they mean it. If you see a set of tracks leading somewhere, it does not necessarily mean that it is safe to go there. Those tracks may belong to JT Holmes, Aaron McGovern, Chuck Patterson, Ingrid Backstrom, or countless local super-duper skiers that think nothing of hucking a 30 feet cliff. If you are contemplating a gnarly run, take your time to see if from the bottom AND from the top. Ski patrol often has to rescue people who get stranded on Fingers on KT22 or on one of the many high cliffs at Silveradio. Give those guys a break and ske safe. If you go into the trees on a powder day, make sure you ski with a partner and think about wearing a beacon.
Tahoe is in the maritime snow zone, so the moisture content is relatively high, and snow is heavy. On the flipside, this heavy snow sticks to the sheer faces and this is what gives Squaw its famous steeps. If you are planning to ski off-trail, wide skis are your friend and many locals ski on 100mm+ width skis in all conditions. Powder days call for even wider boards. So, if your skis are 70mm carvers, you may think of leaving them home for your trip out West and think about renting locally. Most of the shops in the area rent out demos. Squaw has a demo center at the top of the Funitel, and Starthaus (Epic's sponsor!) and Tahoe Daves also rent demo skis. The climate is generally warn, so staying warm on the slopes of Squaw depends on your ability to stay dry. If you ski in a storm, make sure that your clothing and gloves are waterproof. Another important technical piece of gear for sunny days is sunscreen.
Californians are pretty mellow and friendly, unless the snow is deep and fluffy, then it gets to their blood and the attitude changes dramatically to "there are no friends on a powder day" kind. If there is a line for a chairlift, don't hold it up to wait for your wife/husband/friend. If you let a chair go up unfilled or empty you will be booed by the line. On a powder day the lines can get pretty aggressive, especially earlier in the day where competition for the best snow is fierce. The less I say about the scene on the first tram up on a powder day, the better. The competition for that "First Box" ride is fierce, and the run out of the tram to the entrance of Silverado is a mad stampede. If your stomach is not up to that adventure, use Squaw's new Dawn Patrol program and prepare to be hated by everyone who stood for two hours in line for the first box. Don't stop to adjust your bindings at the entrance to the lift maze, you are guaranteed to have a local run over your skis at high speed. It is not that the guy does not know how to ski, he is just unhappy that you are blocking the way. Most people will stop to help you get your equipment if you take a tumble, (unless it is powder morning; then you are out of luck). Taking singles line to get on a chair faster is OK. Getting into a singles line with your buddy and then waiting for a double opening will get jeers (and you deserve it).
A unique feature of Squaw Valley's terrain is that many extreme runs or jumps are located either right next to a chairlift or in full view of the lift. On a bluebird powder day you are almost guaranteed to be treated to a spectacle of people jumping large cliffs or skiing lines that look truly insane; this is the stuff you only see in ski movies and it is happening right before your eyes. Chances are the people skiing it were in those ski movies. If you see someone setting up a big camera, or if you see a "peanut gallery" building up it is often well worth it to stop and wait.
1960 Winter Olympics (and the race courses)
Squaw Valley was the site of the 8th Winter Olympic Games in 1960. Although the games at that time were a much smaller affair than they are today, they still played a big role in putting Squaw in the map and there are still many signs of the Olympic heritage throughout the village. High Camp has an Olympic Museum where you can learn about the history of the 1960 games. This map shows how the mountain and the village looked like at the time, and it also shows the routes of the ski races (if anything, it looks like women courses were shorter and steeper). Some of those routes are in use today. The mens slalom course (Exhibition) is often used for competitions today, and ladies slalom (Red Dog Face) is often used for mogul meets. Rahlves Banzai Tour roughly follows mens GS race course off KT-22 on its Squaw stop. The mens downhill course was immortalized as the Chinese Downhill race in the movie Hot Dog. The remains of the ski jumps still are visible today under the Far East chair.
1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw (click on the image for a larger version)
Beginner (Green) Terrain
Lifts: Bottom: Papoose. Top: Links, East Broadway, Bailey's Beach, Gold Coast Express.
High Camp (image courtesy of Squaw Valley)
The "Green Zone" (Gold Coast/High Camp area) at Squaw.
Whether you re on your maiden skiing voyage or you are starting to think about graduating to the blues, Squaw has plenty of slopes for you. One caveat is that most of those slopes are located at the upper mountain, so if the weather is bad and the upper lifts are closed, consider spending your time in the village, browsing stores and restaurants, or go to Alpine. The only beginner lift that is open is Papoose, it is crowded, and is no fun. If the weather is good, you are in luck because the views from the green slopes are gorgeous, and so is the skiing. Big Blue, Bailey's Beach and Mountain Meadow chair are pretty docile and will suite a beginner just fine. Alas, the East Broadway chair famous from its appearance in the "Hot Dog" movie (as the ballet event venue) is no more... Gold Coast Lift is listed as a blue lift, but in reality unless you go directly under the chair, the runs will be perfectly suitable for beginners. Most green runs either start or end at one of the two lodges, Gold Coast or High Camp that have plenty of opportunities to eat and rest (GoldCoast now has a ski-through Starbucks). Mountain Run is a somewhat more difficult option, but it is a long winding run that may please some people. It is often used by the ski school and ski teams so be careful and control your speed there. Another more difficult run still suitable for beginners (but barely) is Shirley 5 (fifth run on the skiers right from the top of the Shirley lake chair). It is a lot more mellow than the other Shirley runs, although it will be considered a solid blue at most other areas. If you take it, be careful, and turn left before the steep and often bumpy last pitch to go around it. At the end of the day consider downloading on the Funitel as an alternative to going down the Mountain Run; that run gets very crowded between 3 pm and 4 pm, and is no place for a beginner. Also, be vigilant about the area between the bases of the Big Blue and Siberia chair, it is a crossroads traversed in many directions and can get crowded and fairly chaotic on a busy day.
The Big Blue chair should be your default choice for uphill transportation in the Green Zone and it will give you a chance to access most of the runs. Once you get familiar with the Green Zone, you may choose to ski a smaller, shorter lift that would have fewer people. Be careful at the wide flat meadow at the bottom of Big Blue, there is a lot of traffic crossing that area in different directions.
Skiing on the Mountain Run (image courtesy of Squaw Valley)
Intermediate (Blue) Terrain
Lifts: Bottom: Exhibition,Funitel Gondola, Red Dog, Squaw Creek; Top: Shirley Lake Express, Solitude, Emigrant, Siberia Express
Siberia chair provides the main alternative to Shirley for intermediate skiing, but be aware that the top of the bowl is pretty steep for an intermediate skier and often gets bumped out. Starting 2012 season Squaw started grooming a double-wide path on Siberia, and that seemed to help with the bump-out problem. If the slope looks difficult, consider going skiers right, the pitch and the bumpiness get easier. If you get scared, you can always bail out by taking the ridge trail skiers left. If you ski Siberia, make sure to traverse far skiers right and look up at the super-steep slopes of Palisades directly above you.
Watch for the skiers coming down from Palisades, the runouts are usually very high speed, so get out of the way. A less-known intermediate run, which is also on the steep side is the Cornice 2, which is accessed from the Headwall chair. Take the main run under the chair and than hang a right when the run begins to drop down the Headwall Face, follow the groomed road around the cliff and onto the Cornice2 face, which is usually a nice steep groomed run that is never crowded. The drop off on the right side leads to some pretty serious cliffs, so don't go crazy fast. Light Towers, another legendary Squaw extreme playground will be directly above you. The run empties into a nice wide valley that deposits you onto the Mountain Run for the last pitch back to the Headwall chair.
Another good intermediate choice is the Resort Run, the trail that follows the ridge top from the Squaw Creek chair, it is a reliably great choice, unless it is late spring and the snow is mushy. On a storm day this is probably the best bet for an intermediate skier. A couple of good and more challenging variations involve turning left from the Resort Run in the middle of the upper ridge (that turn takes you to a fairly obvious indulating field that ends up in somewhat steeper pitch that brings you back onto the main run. Do not go skiers left off the bottom ridge trail, those runs are experts only.
Expert (Black Diamond) Terrain
Lifts: Bottom: Squaw Creek, Red Dog, KT22, Olympic Lady. Top: Headwall Express, Granite Chief, Silverado, Broken Arrow
Expert skiing is probably the main reason people come to Squaw Valley, so covering black diamond terrain choices in a concise guide is difficult. I will break them down roughly by area, lookers left to right.
Red Dog Ridge. If you follow the ridge line further after passing the Olympic Lady chair, it continues as a bumpy run (that is often disorienting in bad weather). Keep going past the saddle point and take the cat track onto the Red Dog Ridge area. After you get on the wooded face, drop down at any point to get to some of the best sparse tree skiing At Squaw. This area often get a lot of windblown snow and keeps the soft snow after powder days when the rest of the mountain gets crusty. It faces north, so it is one of the last areas of the mountain to get sunbaked. Don't go there on a typical spring day. If you drop in fairly early after the traverse, watch for a cliff band at the end of the pitch. It is usually visible, so avoiding it is not a problem unless you carry too much speed. If you go all the way along the ridge, you get to ski Heidi's which is a delightful pitch next to the rock of the same name. All runs deposit you in a gully that leads to the bottom of Olympic Lady lift. There is a beginner trail at the bottom of that gully, so make sure to check your speed at the end of the run.
Gate 2-6. Skiers left side of the canyon is bisected by a prominent cliff band, China Wall, so Gates 2-6 follow the same formula: a wide steep bowl on top to the edge of the cliffs, followed by a descent to the apron through one of the wide chutes through the cliffs or around the cliffs. Gates 2 and 3 serve the main run that goes roughly under the chair. Gates 4 and 5 serve the Tram Bowl above the China Wall; this is the terrain used in the Nissan Freeride World Tour. The bowl is wide and does not present much technical difficulty, but it is steep and has a very exposed feeling because you can see the cliff bands below that drop out of the view. Once you ski to the band, control your speed, and find one of the exits around the cliffs. A fun way to do it is through the Mr.Toad's, a narrow claustrophobic long chute roughly at the left side of the Gate 4. This is one of the runs that you want to see first from the bottom, the snow there can be icy and once you get in, you cannot exit. Gate 6, the Hanging Gardens of Silverado, provides one of the more aesthetic lines on the mountain, it starts with a mellow rolling terrain on top that comes to a cliff band. Once there find a wide steep exit chute that deposits you onto the Landbridge run. Because the gate 6 is shorter than the other runs, it does not get hit as often as other gates, so it can hold good snow longer. To get there, ski to the bottom of Bailey's Beach chair and follow the cat track to a gate on the left side. Once through the gate, hang a quick left and skate to the run entrance. If you go strait instead of turning left, you come to the entrance of the Gate 7.
Emigrant Chair Area
Aerial photo of the top of the Emigrant Peak with the Funnel area marked in red. This is early season photo, during high season most (but not all) rocks in the choke area are covered. Photo by Kevin Quinn, (source:http://www.skiing-blog.com).
Lifts: Almost any lift will get you to those runs, but the most famous areas are accessed from KT22 (Fingers, McConkeys (Eagles Nest)), Headwall (Light Towers), Granite Chief, Silverado (China Wall), Siberia (Palisades), and Broken Arrow (Funitel Knob/Sacrifice).
Left: Extra Chute in Palisades Right: Matt Reardon skiing McConkey's (photo by Jeff Engerbretson, Source: www.unofficialsquaw.com)