The huge, steep cliff faces. The wide-open powder fields. Caples lake, which freezes over in the winter and turns royal, turquoise blue in the spring. The narrow chutes create a ski run so steep, you can be standing up straight on your snowboard facing the hill, reach up, and touch the mountain face. Although not the first place I ever set foot on a snowboard, Kirkwood Mountain, CA is where I spent most of my time snowboarding for about four years. It is where I tried my first backflip and where I spent my 15th through 18th birthdays. The term ski “resort” doesn’t do the place justice; the people who go there go for the extreme terrain and the feeling of remoteness in nature. It’s both a Christmas wonderland and a place where Mother Winter can let out her wrath.
Kirkwood is one of the more remote ski resorts in the Tahoe area, located off highway 88. You’re driving down this winding, narrow path with tall snow banks on both sides, the road often snow-dusted or icy, breezing past sandals-and-shorts-clad people from the Bay Area looking at tire chain manuals and scratching their heads. You might even pass an upside-down car in a ditch. Suddenly there’s the sign — Kirkwood Mountain Resort. As you turn into Kirkwood Meadows drive, the ten-thousand-foot sheer cliff peaks of the mountain stare down at you. Because of the location and altitude, Kirkwood receives more snow than most places in the area. For storms to get to Tahoe, they must first pass over Kirkwood and let out their glory on the mountains there.
It’s December 21st and I’m out in the Palisades bowl building a jump into a soft, open, powdery landing to learn backflips. Palisades is a place in Kirkwood only accessible by hiking. There is no chairlift that goes up to this place — it must be earned. You get off Cornice Chair, the lift to the top, and traverse right for about half an hour. When you’re out there, you don’t feel like you’re at a resort. You can be out there all day and not see another soul. That’s what it was like for the four of us — my coach, teammate, brother, and I.
Riding or skiing alone in the backcountry is not an option. Tree wells, avalanches, cliffs, and rocks are only some of the dangers you may face. A tree well is where it snows a couple feet and the tree covers the ground around it, leaving a deathly sink hole waiting for people to fall into. It is one of the leading causes of death from skiing or snowboarding.
There was, in fact, a moment when riding with my friend at Kirkwood probably saved my life. It was the last run of the day and my friend and I decided we would head to a place called “Shamwah,” which is a chute just past the “caution cliff zone” sign. Because it was early in the season, we ended being “cliffed out,” which is when you reach a point in the run where there is no other option other than to fall down the sheer, rock face. I remember taking my snowboard off, trying to climb down the rocks, and realizing I was completely screwed. I felt like I couldn’t safely climb down or up, and I was stuck in the middle. My phone was dead and I didn’t have ski patrol’s number anyway, but luckily, my friend had her phone and she called for help. He came to where we were and helped us climb down the cliff. Crisis averted.
In-bounds, avalanches are not a serious problem because of the bombing. I live for the days when I go to bed with snow falling outside and wake up to the sound of avalanche bombs. The dull thud off in the distance is a beautiful sound because you know it is going to be an epic day. On those days when Mother Winter feels like showing off, the resort operators need to be 100% sure their guests are safe, so they trigger avalanches in advance so the mountain is safe to ride on. That is somebody’s job — to be the first one out on the hill, play with guide dogs, make explosions, and ski fresh powder. That white, fluffy, stuff is a euphoria unique to Kirkwood. While all resorts have powder days, Kirkwood’s are the best. The perfect conditions can last for days in some hidden spots. The slopes are steep enough so you are less likely to get stuck in the deep snow. The crowds are much less and the back bowl stretches out forever.
Lift Ten, otherwise known as The Wall, is the most iconic chairlift in Kirkwood. At both the top and bottom of the chair is a skull-and-cross-bones sign with the words “experts only.” Of course, some hot-heads who think they’re better than the sign and have only been snowboarding a few times decide to test the validity of this statement. However, once you’re about halfway up the chair, you begin to see just how treacherous Chair Ten is. Unlike most expert chairlifts in other resorts, there is no “easy way down”. Ski resorts rate their ski runs from green squares to black diamonds, with green being the easiest, blue in the middle, and black as the most advanced. If one black diamond doesn’t do the run justice, more diamonds are added to the rating. There are only double black diamonds off Lift Ten. We call the people who decide to ride down the chairlift “downloaders.” Their shame and embarrassment while sitting on that downward facing chair is tangible sometimes.
While still a dangerous, menacing mountain that deserves respect, there is a certain kind of peace that can be found in these places. Picture a blank white canvas as the sky. Huge, light flakes of snow whisper their way down from the heavens and drift slowly towards you. Picture the trees all around, caked with millions of these snowflakes. If you’re still, you hear nothing. If you’re moving on your skis or board, the sound is like when nylon rubs against nylon. If you look close enough at your jacket or gloves, you can see the individual flakes. You wonder how nature could have possibly created each one, although I’ve heard it is just a myth that every single one is unique. You think about the amount of effort and intricacy it would take to make just one — so delicate and fragile. What is more beautiful — the individual flake, or the collection of flakes that blanket a vast mountain landscape? These are some of the moments when I see God.