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Squaw Valley Unofficial Guide

The Unofficial Guide to Skiing Squaw Valley USA

by alexzn

(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.



3D Squaw Trail Map based upon Google Earth



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). 


Squallywood scene  

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)




Skiing guide


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:  BottomExhibition,Funitel Gondola, Red Dog, Squaw Creek;  Top: Shirley Lake Express, Solitude, Emigrant, Siberia Express


Chicken Bowl accessible from Siberia and Headwall chairs
It is true that Squaw Valley lacks gentle long groomed intermediate boulevards of the type that you can see at Northstar or Heavenly, but you can still find plenty of terrain to get your cruising fix (and don't forget that you can ski Alpine Meadows on the same ticket which provides plenty of great cruising options).  The classic intermediate terrain is Shirley Lake, which lets you lap he groomed runs very quickly thanks to the high-speed 6-pack.  Most of the groomed runs (called the Tree Runs, numbered 1-5 on the old map, and named after the Squaw school directors on the new map) are skiers right from the chair, the father along the ridge you go the easier the pitch becomes.  Shirley bowl at skiers left provides good intermediate off-piste skiing, and often develops good bumps. If Shirley is crowded, consider the nearby ( but older and slower) Solitude lift that serves very similar terrain and has more off-piste skiing.  Emigrant lift provides less varied and more boring skiing, but great views. You can also go around the back of the chair to connect to the main Shirley bowl on a fun groomed cruiser run (Attic).     

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.
New 2012-2013 season is the Big Blue chair that will get you to Shirley from the bottom of the Siberia chair (and also from the top of Squaw One chair), so now you can alternate your cruising runs between these two areas a lot easier than before. 

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.   
Mountain run is the longest run on the mountain, and is probably one of the best intermediate choices BEFORE 3pm.  Lapping it involves taking a fairly comfortable and sheltered ride up the Funitel.  Later in the day when everyone starts to ski down to the base Mountain Run becomes a human zoo and I consider it downright dangerous.
Map of the Shirley Lake/Solitude area on the upper mountain.
Headwall chair area with the Cornice 2 run (a thin blue line). 

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 and Squaw Creek (Snow King mountain)  


This area at Squaw is often under-appreciated standing in the shadow of the legendary KT-22 right next to it. Being low on the mountain and being served by two slow long lifts (Squaw Creek and Red Dog) also does not help their popularity (Red Dog is supposed to convert into a high-speed 6-pack for 2013-14 season).  However, Red Dog and Squaw Creek hold some of the most delicious expert terrain at Squaw.  From the top of Red Dog you can get to Paulsen's Gully (you can see it from the lift), which provides an exhilaraing but claustrophobic way down to the bottom of the Far East lift.  If you go sjkiers left from about the middle of the Paulsen's Gully you will get into one of the best gladed areas at Squaw.  Try to keep moving left, and you will eventually surface at the bottom of Red Dog.  The runs under the Squaw Creek chair (Strainer and skiers left of it) are as good and almost as challenging as you would find on KT2 and are often a better choice on a storm day because they are better sheltered from the weather.  There is a whole skiable area between Red Dog and Squaw Creek lifts, but I would not recommend it to a visitor as it is surprisingly remote and makes it very easy to get lost.  If you go there, ski with a partner and preferably with a local. 


KT-22 chair


KT-22 is the best expert lift in North America year in and year out.  The terrain is storied and the choices it offers to a good skier are truly staggering.  
If you are unsure of your abilities it is worth remembering that the easiest way to go down KT-22 is the Saddle Run (blue line on the map), but even that run is steep in places, and a fall on a bad snow day can be long, so if you are a beginner DO NOT GO UP THAT LIFT.  All other runs off KT-22 are quite steep, have relentless pitch, are covered with moguls most of the time, and quite often go above cliffs or next to them. If you get lost you will end up in an area that will be even worse.  You get the picture.  
Saddle.  The only (relatively) easy way down KT-22 is Saddle run; to get there, unload the chair to the right and follow the ridge line all the way as it takes a sharp left turn.  Once you reach an obvious saddle, follow the trail skiers right down on a groomed and still steep slope that deposits you on the Mountain Run around the bottom of Headwall chair.   A more interesting and more challenging variations are found off the skiers right side of the ridge leading to the Saddle.  The aptly named Rock Garden is a nice steep way down to the Headwall chair, just watch for the thin coverage. The entrance to the left side of the entrance to Chute 75.  Most of the runs further down the ridge are much more difficult (including the infamous Dead Tree run), so try to scout from the Rock Garden, or Saddle before attempting them.
The Nose, a prominent ridge running roughly along the lift line divides KT into distinct areas with each offering its own variety of skiing.  Skiers left is West Face that contains two of some of the steepest and longest bump runs in the US, Johnny Mosley's and Chute 75, these are classic Squaw expert runs- steep, bumpy, and relentless. These runs often hold good snow, and are a very good choice at the end of the day because they are sheltered from the prevailing wind in the afternoon.  The terrain skiers right of those runs (broadly called West Face Alternates) provides more of the same kind of skiing although the pitches are shorter and getting there is a bit trickier (get on the West Face and traverse skiers right taking care to avoid the rocks that line the slope).
The Nose is a run along the ridgeline and it deposits you on the broad snowfield along the Fingers, which often has good snow after a storm.  Be extremely careful not to get down that field too far and stay skiers right.  The terrain directly below this field if the famous Squaw Fingers cliffband that runs right under the KT22 chair.  If you come past a row of bamboo poles saying "Cliffs" you have gone too far, and you need to stop and either traverse sharp right, or start evaluating other options.  Many people have been either stranded in the Fingers and had to be rescued, or attempted to get down them and got seriously hurt.  Don't go there is you are not comfortable with big airs, fast straightlines, and billy-goating in rocky terrain with some exposure.   The safe way to ski out of Fingers is to traverse far right and ski the last chute way to the right of the lift line.  Anything left of the lift is bona-fide extreme skiing, the locals will cheer on you and then call an ambulance. 
The runs down the main bowl of KT are mostly self-explanatory. The terrain is very open, so if the weather is bad they can be very disorienting.  I remember going down the bowl on a deep powder day and unwillingly doing a full front flip off one of the terrain rolls.  I was not aware of what was going on until I was well in the air.  Take care to avoid a couple of small cliff bands, most notably the one above the Strawberry Fields, those can be dangerous in bad weather.   
Olympic Lady area.  Moving further skiers right, the terrain under the old Olympic Lady chair provides some of the most interesting skiing on KT-22 complex.  The "Oly Lady" chair itself runs fairly rarely, mainly on storm days when KT-22 is overloaded.  The terrain is fantastic- relentlessly steep and full of interesting nooks, crannies, and trees. To access this area, ski left immediately after unloading the KT-22 chair, take the cat track around Eagles Nest rock, and instead of dropping into the main bowl, traverse further over a slight uphill to top of the older Olympic Lady Chair ( hint: when KT line gets out of control, Olympic Lady line is usually more manageable).  You can drop in any place past the top of the chair.  Directly under you is East Face, a wide an consistently steepish pitch that is often bumped out.  On spring days it often developed good corn snow.  If you hug the left side of the East Face for about 30 feet from the top, you will come to the entrance of the Diagonal chute, which runs right under the chair (which makes it a legitimate show-off piece).  The snow in this chute is usually worse than the rest of the run, so don't go there on crusty days.   The chute spits you out on the sparsely wooded terrain that provides some the best skiing on powder days.  You also can get there by just skiing the East Face past the Diagonal chute entrance and hanging a left after the prominent cliff band ends.  There are several cliff bands in the middle of this slope, so watch for signs and don't pick too much speed.  One of the most enticing snowfield in this area of the mountain actually ends up in a cliff with mandatory air if you go too far down, so make sure you don't miss the exit.  The runs deposit you to the bottom of the olympic Lady chair, you can also take the flat section further out to the Exhibition run and ultimately back to the bottom of KT-22 lift.

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.
Silverado Lift Area.  
Silverado is a great expert playground area... if the snow is right.   Right now this is a huge area roughly shaped like a canyon that is filled with steeps, bowl and cliffs that is served by a long slow 3-person fixed chair.  It is located relatively low on the mountain, so the snow quality can be lacking on warm spring days.  The terrain is accessible only through a set of gates, and the only gate that is accessible to the intermediate skier is Gate 7 (Landbridge) that runs along the bottom of the canyon.  If you come to Silverado for the first time, patrol recommends taking the Gate 7 run, heed that advice, and look at the runs at the bottom to try to chart your course for the next run.  Silverado is one of those Squaw areas where a wrong turn can very quickly lead you to the top of a cliff or into a very uncomfortably exposed situation, and virtually none of the exposure is visible from the top of the run, so scout it from the bottom.  (Another great way to look at those runs is from the cable car.). Because it is such a vast area served by a slow lift, Silverado holds good snow longer than the other lifts on the powder days, but  the lift line can quickly get out of control.  If you get there early, count on 2-3 good runs before the line swells.
Gate 1 goes the gun pretty mellow terrain between Silverado and Solitude lift, and then drops very steeply down to the bottom of the canyon.  The fun way to do it is through one of the two chutes on the left side that give one of the longest sustained steep pitches at Squaw.  To get to them, keep left after you come to the obvious roll about the middle of the run.  Once you are at the bottom of the canyon, just follow it to the lift.

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.
Silverado China Wall
Silverado cliffs under the terrain of Gate 4.  Mr. Toads chute is in the center of the photo.

Silverado terrain under the lift (Gate 2-3).  The run is much steeper than it looks.
Gate 8 serves a very different terrain, it is a wide open slope that drops in a moderate pitch to the bottom of the canyon.  It is facing roughly to the North, so it can be icy.  If you follow the ridge line instead of dropping down, you go through gentle terrain that feels almost like backcountry run.  If you keep to the right, you get to the top of a surprisingly gnarly set of chutes directly in view of the Silverado chair bottom.  These chutes are some of the steepest in Silverado, and the snow quality is often marginal, so bring up your A-game.
Headwall Express Chair. 
Headwall terrain provides some of the best steep open skiing at Squaw, the terrain is entirely above the tree line, and if the snow is good, the bowl skiing is thrilling.  The chair goes up to the ridgetop next to Palisades.  That ridgetop is one of the most consistently windy areas of the mountain, so Headwall is one of the first chairs to go on windhold.  On the flipside, this wind often creates windbuffed areas on the Headwall Face, which makes for very high quality skiing on days when the rest of the mountain can have marginal snow.  If you come to the top of the lift and are not excited (or feel too intimidated) by the runs, go straight from the lift and take the Chicken Bowl down to the Siberia lift basin.  Otherwise, make a U-turn at the patrol shack to access most of the runs.  Immediately skiers right at the shack is the Sun Bowl, a mellow wide bowl that is facing the morning sun.  As the result it is the first area of the mountain to devlop corn snow in the spring, and the first to get slushy, so make sure to hit it before 11 am.  Recently Squaw started to groom the left portion of the bowl creating a wide intermediate run (Edit: this practice seemed to have stopped for the 2014-15 ski season).   Once you done with the Sun Bowl proper traverse left to get on top of the Enchanted Forest area.  Enchanted Forest is looking North, so the snow there stays frozen long after Sun Bowl becomes skiable.  If the snow is marginal on an icy morning, just take the groomer run (Bullet) down to the Headwall lift.  If the snow is good, you have a number of options to get down, just be careful not to ski to the top of one of many small cliffs that fill this area of the mountain (in other words, if you are skiing it the first time, don't go Mach-schnell, you may find yourself airborne very quickly and it will be a long flight).   
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However most people tend to get to the Enchanted forest via a different route- by taking either Headwall Face or the Slot runs.  These runs contain some of the best wide-open steep skiing at Squaw and on a good day they are quite thrilling.  Headwall Face is exactly what it is called- it is the steep wide terrain right underneath the Headwall chair.  To get to it, make U-turn after you get from the chair and follow the narrow cattrack to a shoulder under the lift.  A sharp left gets you to the North Bowl (more about it later), if you keep skiing under the chair, you will get to the top of the Face.  Although it feels very steep, it is actually manageable for an average expert skier, and provides a nice sustained steep pitch that tests your skills.  For a variation of this run (Hogsback), bear sharp left after you reach the Face and ski down along the next ridgeline.  It will deposit you right to the bottom of the Siberia chair. If you want to take that run, do try to look at the snow while you are riding the chair, if it looks frozen or scraped-off, skip it and take a different route. 
If you keep going along the top ridge past the Face entrance and follow a narrow cattrack, you will come to the entrance of another Squaw gems- the Slot.  Slot has a pretty steep initial pitch that quickly mellows down to a very manageable, but still thrilling pitch.  If the center of the run is heavily bumped, try the left or the right side, they are usually better.  If you keep traversing right along the ridge after you come to the entrance to the Slot, you will be entering Light Towers- another legendary area of Squaw.  The lines at Light Towers don't quite look their difficulty when you see them from the chair. In reality they are all very steep and extremely gnarly.  Add to that some of the worst snow quality on the mountain, and you will get some serious challenge.  Light Towers lines are definitely double diamond level and above, so you need to do some serious soul searching before you drop in; unlike many other areas at Squaw this is a true no-fall terrain, you are almost always above exposure (if you are inclined to ski there, the lines are described quite well in the "Squallywood" book).  The best advice would be to skip Light Towers altogether and head to the terrain further to the right (across the Cornice II groomer).  It contains three very nice chutes- Hourglass (the easiest and recommended for a first-time goer), Classic (the most aesthetic), and Needle (narrowest of the three, often requires hop-turns all the way down).   Again, the true steepness is apparent only when you are standing on top of each chute. The best way to reach them is to either start on the ridge right of the Cornice II groomers, or ski the Face of the Slot, veer right after the initial steep pitch, and traverse under Light Towers (look up while you are doing that). 
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Going through the crux point of the Classic Chute, high snow levels.  
North Bowl serves more of the same wide open steep terrain.  It is quite steep at the top, but mellows out significantly about a third of the way down.  As with any North-facing  slope at Squaw watch for ice in the morning.  The farther down to the right along the ridge you go, the steeper the turn-in is, keep that in mind.  After a big snowfall the top part often slides leaving a pretty crusty surface.  
Headwall chair terrain, looking at the North Bowl, Hogsback, and Headwall Face.
Emigrant Chair Area
This a terminal cruising part of the mountain, but it does contain access to one of the gems hidden in plain sight- the Funnel.  It's a steep narrow bowl dropping from the top of Emigrant down to the Shirley Lake chair area.  it is one of there steepest "normal" runs at Squaw and one of the best things about it is that you can "dial your own steepness"- the more you go skiers left, the steeper it gets.  The lines to the right are somewhat mellow by squaw standards, but still is a true expert terrain, the lines to the left are "oh-my-god-this-is really-steep"- the kind where if you fall, you are going all the way down to the bottom kind.   The slope is facing the sun, so it often gets great corn snow.  The only drawback is that to lap it you have to ride back  up Shirley Lake chair, ski down to Emigrant and ride up the slow Emigrant chair.  

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).  

Granite Chief Chair Area
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Granite Chief lift area. 
Depending on who you talk at Squaw, Granite Chief lift is either beloved or dismissed as overrated.  It does not quite achieve the iconic status of KT22, but it is a great lift in its own right and serves an astonishing variety of terrain that can be an all-day long expert playground.  It is a slow fixed chair that gives you ample opportunity to scope your line, relax, and if you are lucky watch the skiers taking the flier off the numerous cliffs just below the chair.   Note: unlike many other lifts at Squaw, there is no easy way down Granite.  Once you are on the chair, you are committed to skiing at least the main bowl- all other runs are harder.  If you don't consider yourself at least an good intermediate skier, think twice about going up Granite. The skier's right groomed run often has bumps on its right side.    
GC terrain is centered around the central bowl with two or three main runs of usually groomed and providing an easy long rolling black runs.  The two areas to the sides could not be more different: the skier's right terrain is a mass of steep cliff-bordering runs that are often bumpy.  Most of that terrain faces north, so it holds good snow longer, but thaws last in icy conditions.  The skiers left side is huge glade interspersed with a few chutes and runs next to cliff faces that give endless variations on a powder day.  It faces the sun, so it softens up early and often turns to glop by early afternoon.   
Skier's right side (Corkscrew and RockPile areas).  To get to the Corkscrew and Rockpile area runs take a left after unloading the chair and ski along the ridge until you reach an obvious saddle.  Carry some speed and get up and slightly left along the ridge to the edge of an obvious bowl; then traverse across the bowl along a well-work and bumpy path to a rocky knob.  The run to the left of the knob (Magoose) is a thrilling steep and often bumpy drop into the main bowl.  In good snow it is unbelievable fun, if the snow is rock hard, patrol usually closes it, and for a good reason.  Runs to the left of Magoose often get windblown snow and are surprisingly good at times when other runs are sub-par.  If the wind is howling, check them out.   If you enter the gate at the top of the rocky knob, you will get to the Corkscrew proper, which is billy-goating run along the cliffs and drop-offs.  it is more scary than dangerous, but the ass-pucker factor is quite high and a wrong turn or an edge slip can be consequential.  I would not advise exploring Corkscrew on your own, and if you do, make sure to check your speed at all times.  Immediate right to the Corkscrew is one of the gems in the area- Split Tree.  Once you see it, it is pretty self-explanatory.   If you go further down the slope past Corkscrew entrance, you will get to a steep and bumpy gully dropping you down to the bottom of Shirley Lake chair.    If you go a little bit up the right side ridge at any point, you will get to a nice open run along the face that is called RockPile.  It does have a decent size drop off at the right side , so don't ski too close to the right edge.   If you keep going along the traverse all the way, you will drop down into a small bowl that merges with the blue Attic run.  That bowl is often ignored on a  powder day (it is not nearly as steep or as long as other runs in the area, so it does not get hit as much as the other runs), so it may be a good bet to get a fresh powder turn or two.   If you turn left before hitting the Attic groomer, you get to a little fun gully that gives a less traveled alternative to the bottom of Shirley Lake chair.  
Skier's left side (Hidden Bowl, Diving Board).  This area is really way too big for a detailed description (and some routes are better be left undescribed).  Generally you get to that area by taking a right from the chair unloading zone, or hanging a hard left and skiing under the chair.  If you follow the chair line you get to ski atop of the cliff band that provides some of the best opportunities at Squaw for showing off your cliff-jumping skills.  The undisputed gem of the area is the Diving Board- a prominent take-off shelf that is right under the chair.  The length of the flight depends on the angle, if you take the proper angle (straight), the flight is pretty long, but you will be rewarded by huge cheers from the lift.  It is a very difficult jump in good snow, so it is not recommended, and if you do it in bad snow, you are asking for serious trouble.  If you aim hard left the drop is a lot smaller, but still scary and still not recommended.   There are plenty of smaller drops and straight lines down the ridge.   If you aim further left, you ski a nice wooded area that deposits you to the bottom of the meadow that is a runabout from the Hidden Bowl.  The Hidden Bowl  itself (to which you get by taking the right after getting off the Granite chair) is a fairly mundane run unless it is snowing or just stopped snowing.  After the meadow you pick your way through a forested rolling terrain to the bottom of the chair.  The two main runs in the area are skirting a large cliff band from the top and from the bottom.  Pick whichever run you like.
Granite Peak.  This is an easy 10-15 minute hike from the top of the Granite chair, and you are guaranteed never to be alone on it.  The higher you get, the gnarlier the terrain becomes.   An easy way to get acquainted with Granite Peak terrain is to hike only to the peak's shoulder, and take a run down the apron.  The top has several chutes with difficulty varying from rather difficult to very difficult.  Most of them are in the Squallywood book.  If you get to the summit, Direct chute is probably the easiest way down (and that's a rather relative assessment).   The area across the summit (VIPs) is not described even in the Squallywood book, so I will leave if for you to explore.  The peak also hold another Squallywood gem- the Patrol chute which is a gnarly straightline where you have to avoid a few rocks choking the steep chute.  Again, if you have the skills to ski that line, you should not be reading this guide.
Smoothie.   This run is probably the best-hidden secret at Squaw Valley.  It is a long run along the resort boundary that connects Granite Chief to Silverado.  It is open only in spring, and only for a couple of hours a day when the corn snow is in its prime condition.  if you ski at Squaw in the spring and see a beeline of people traversing across the Hidden Bowl, it means Smoothie is open, so get to it as soon as you can.  Be warned that it is a very long traverse, and the actual run will feel short after doing so much huffing and puffing, but it feels almost like backcountry and is well worth the effort.   Be mindful of the traverse etiquette- speed is VERY precious on this traverse, so if you decided to stop- step off the track immediately.  People would not hesitate to run you over if that lets them glide an extra 20 feet.  So, be considerate.   

Extreme Terrain

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). 

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Left: Extra Chute in Palisades             Right: Matt Reardon skiing McConkey's (photo by Jeff Engerbretson, Source: www.unofficialsquaw.com)

Squaw is choke-full of legal lines that would be considered truly insane at most other resorts, and most often than not those lines sit in full view of a chair.  Areas like Palisades, Mainline Pocket, Fingers, and Light Towers have been featured many times in ski movies and your pulse will quicken even from looking at them.  To add to the spectacle, Squaw has no shortage of skiers who can ski those lines with fluidity and grace and they do it regularly.  If you entertain the thought of skiing those lines, remember that they can have very serious consequences, study them carefully, wait for the good snow, and most important, be realistic about your abilities.  If you are really serious about skiing that type of terrain, get a copy of "Squallywood" a guidebook to Squaw Valley's most exposed lines, written by Dr. Rob Gaffney, a longtime local resident and an extraordinary skier.  This book is usually available from most local merchants in the village and seems like a worthwhile investment, especially considering the risks involved.   Perhaps the 4 most famous lines at Squaw are: High Line (Eagle's Nest (McConkey's off KT-22), Schmidiots (Palisades), Sacrifice (Broken Arrow), and Tram Face (illegal closed area just under the Cable Car route).  If you have the skills to stick any of those lines on a great snow day, you do not need to be reading this guide.   Attempting any of them on a bad day is suicide. 
If you are interested in checking some of those lines out, but don't have the skills or the guts to ski them, the good viewing choices are Eagles Nest and Fingers (see it from the KT22 chair) and Palisades- see them from the top of the Headwall Chair.  Granite Chief lift on a bluebird powder day is a prime viewing spot, you are almost guaranteed to see someone buck a big cliff on your way up.  Once on the top, keep an eye for people skiing the Patrol Chute off the Granite Peak.   If you are adventurous (and a very good skier) take a hike to the Palisades (when they are open, which is not on weekends) and peek into the Chimney chute from the top.   Then ski the National Chute down to the bowl (in any other ski area this 40+ deg rock-lined chute with a cornice on top would be considered a double diamond, on Palisades it's the "easiest way down").
Granite Chief Peak Area (skier: Arne Backstrom)
Left:  Schmidiots in 2005 (I believe this image was posted on EpicSki by TyroneShoelaces, credit unknown besides the watermark)
Right:  The last of the three airs of Sacrifice (Skier: Brennan Lagasse, photo by Jason Abraham, source: www.unofficialsquaw.com)
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FIngers (Middle Knuckle) (Photo by Jason Abraham, www.elevatedimg.com.  Source: www.unofficialsquaw.com)
Other resources:
A good introduction to Squaw Valley ski culture by a local ripper, blogger, and ski star Miles Clark (if the embedded video does not work, it is here).  It includes POVs of several famous Squallywood lines and many other hucks and chutes.  Be warned- Miles makes them look way easier than they are.   (Other hint- the mountains in the beginning of the video is Chamonix, all the skiing is filmed at Squaw). 
DISCLOSURE: This guide is written by a skier who has no official affiliation with Squaw Valley Ski Resort other than through EpicSki and as a season pass holder. 


Comments (1)

Great write up. One word of warning--Squaw does not use the double black rating. Groomed moderate runs like Granite's Main Backside and super steep runs with mandatory air like Light Towers are marked by the same single black diamond on the signs posted around the mountain. The more difficult runs will often have a small Expert Only or Caution or Cliffs sign posted at the actual start, and other than Silverado most of the expert runs can easily be evaluated before a skier drops in--either from the lift or from the drop in (and often the drop in is the hardest part.)  Approaching difficult areas like the Fingers one will also encounter lollipop signs with arrows directing skiers towards the easiest exit. Those with the skills and the knowledge of the terrain will ignore the arrows. Follow them at your peril. Squaw patrol does a very good job marking the myriad places around the mountain where one can get into trouble; as long as you pay attention to those little lollipop signs and use common sense you should be fine. One more thing about the "experts" signs. Even those mark a wide range of terrain--from manageable open bowls like Headwall Face to true no-fall lines with mandatory air and/or straightlines.
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