I spent this weekend up at Tahoe getting some much-needed skiing done. The snows of the past two weeks have been too good to pass up, and I realized along about Wednesday that this is one of those weekends I'd be kicking myself for a long time for missing.
The weather report didn't call for any snow over the weekend, but Saturday dawned with snow falling all around my hotel down at lake level:
This kicked my existing plans squah in the nuts. See, I'd been planning to go up and try Mt. Rose, northeast of the lake, a resort I'd never been to before. But the sudden unexpected snowstorm raised all the chain requirements on roads that go over mountain passes, which includes the road that leads from Incline Village to Mt. Rose and on to Reno. And I didn't have chains for my Audi (nor did I fancy putting them on my already-short-lived Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s, whose lifespan I probably cut in half on this trip just from the road surfaces).
But here's where my standard game plan shows its strength: I stay in a hotel on the state line, right down by the water, as far north as you can go in South Lake Tahoe and still be in California. That puts me within a block of the casinos, but more importantly, of the boutique mall complex that Heavenly built just a few years ago surrounding the base of the gondola:
So if the roads are snowed in, I can just walk to Heavenly. Neat, huh?
Heavenly is a resort with no sense of humility and some fundamental and insurmountable flaws. They've been envisioning themselves as the architects of the "Aspen in South Lake Tahoe" milieu that's arriving faster every day, what with the "Heavenly Village" outdoor mall surrounding the gondola, and now the new Chateau timeshare/condo complex that's taking over the other California corner, replacing a line of tacky t-shirt shops and motels. I honestly can't say I disapprove. Sure, the naysayers might call the new developments "tacky", but I'll take them any day over what used to be on that stretch of US 50 leading up to the casino/hotel towers that crowd right up to the state line. (See if you can determine where Nevada begins in this photo:
That always cracks me up.)
This means that ski rentals at Heavenly are now handled by third-party shops in the mall at the base, rather than Heavenly itself; I find that this means rental rates are actually cheaper than at Sierra-at-Tahoe, much to my surprise. But the lift ticket is a good deal more expensive, at $78.
It's understandable, since the lift ticket not only covers Heavenly's giant mountain with its three major peaks and myriad bowls, it also includes unlimited travel up and down the gondola, dropping you 4,000 feet back to lake level so you can have lunch at Wolfgang Puck's and get their weirdo tortilla soup with goat cheese in the comfort of a hip outdoor mall environment, rather than the steamy, sweaty, overcrowded, overpriced mess that is the typical mountaintop ski-resort grill. It's very bacchanalian, but I like me some convenience on occasion.
Still, Heavenly's drawbacks include its strengths—namely, its size. It spans two states and three sides of a very large mountain, and getting from the California side to the Nevada side involves following a convoluted and flat trail for almost a mile, some of it entailing poling (which is hell on snowboarders). But that isn't even the worst part.
See, the gondola from Heavenly Village drops you off on a shoulder with a mini-bowl, served by one lift, Tamarack Express. There are only a couple of runs that will get you back to that bowl and, thus, to the gondola that takes you home to where you parked or are staying. (You can, of course, ski all the way down those 4000 feet to the California-side lake-level lodge, but that's about a mile from Heavenly Village, and if you don't have a car waiting for you...) They say you have to be back to the gondola by 3:30 to ensure that you make the last trip down, usually at 4:00 when everything else on the mountain closes, but often (and unannouncedly) earlier, due to weather. Now, this wouldn't normally be a problem, except that when you leave the Tamarack bowl, you're dropping down into a much lower and larger bowl on the California side:
And to get back up to the gondola from there, you have to take the Sky Express lift aaaaaaall the way to the top of the mountain (which is the most crowded lift in all liftdom, sometimes taking more than 20 minutes to shuffle you through the line), then take the flat trail across to the Nevada side, and then head down into the East Peak bowl, then take one of the Nevada lifts to the top on the north side, and then take one of the runs down that's signed for THE GONDOLA. This process can take you ninety minutes or more, depending on weather conditions and the crowds at the Sky "Express" lift. The upshot is that if you have the misfortune to be heading down the California Trail leading you out of the safety of the Tamarack bowl at 1:30 or later in the day, you stand a very real chance of not even making it back to the gondola before it shuts down. Essentially your whole afternoon is taken up with transit and worry, even if you do make it. And that's a hell of a way to spend $78.
So I spent the afternoon on the Tamarack runs, resigned to being stuck in a tiny fraction of the vast resort, practicing technique on the little intermediate runs that traverse the windswept northwest face of the mountain. It was a snowy day, continuing to dump flurries on us all day long, and it made for some interesting variations on the usually ridiculously breathtaking panoramic vistas traditionally available from Heavenly, both westward to Lake Tahoe and eastward into the Carson City valley:
As luck would have it, though, my camera bag's strap broke right at the top of the Ridge Run, and I had to schlep it back to the gondola and back down to lake level to stuff it in my locker; and after that, naturally, is when the clouds began to lift and the really awesome views unfurled. I'm afraid you're just going to have to take my word on those. Suffice it to say that to me, they more than made up for the limited nature of the skiing I actually got to do that day.
Check out the ice that forms on the windward side of the trees at the 10,000-foot peak of the mountain, though:
The following day (today, Sunday), the roads were clear, and I headed up frozen US 50 in the morning as per my usual plan, bound for Sierra-at-Tahoe, my old standby favorite. It's right on the way home, on the downhill side of Echo Summit, so it's a simple matter to head home straight from the slopes.
Today, though I have no photos to document the fact, was one of the most ideal days for skiing I've ever seen, weather-wise. Not a breath of wind, and the temperature was warm enough to have to take my gloves off while waiting in the lift lines (and I saw a couple of guys snowboarding in t-shirts), but not warm enough to turn the powder into slush or the inevitable ice that it refreezes into in the afternoon. A beautiful clear day means having to wear sunblock; but it also entails something that is missing from an overcast day like the one I had at Heavenly: relief. Relief in the sense of texture. So you can see the bumps and ridges and ski tracks in the snow ahead of you.
This is crucially important. When you're skiing at full speed down uncertain terrain, your balance over the skis becomes ever more precarious and dependent upon your ability to keep your center of mass planted over your skis at all times. When the light is such that you can see the lumps and drifts and hummocks coming at you at 30-40 miles per hour, then you can really go flat-out, focusing on the minute little adjustments to your legs' tension and your body's balance that must take place to keep you upright. But when there's no sunlight reaching the ground, all you see is a flat, featureless, undifferentiated mass of white; it could be freshly groomed, it could be drifty powder, it could be frozen moguls for all you know. And if you hit a drift or a patch of ice at top speed, your skis either get hung up briefly or fly out forward, respectively—and without the ability to plant yourself and compensate in advance for such things you're all but guaranteed to find yourself flailing for control—at best—or at worst tumbling head over heels. So going full speed is really not possible on such a day.
Fortunately that's not what today was like. It was gorgeous—not just because of the quality of the light, but because the resort had treated the recent snowfall with the grooming it deserves, smoothing out all the black-diamond runs that they tend to allow to get mogully in late-season months. Clipper and Horsetail, usually challenging washboards of icy hummocks, were both as smooth as glass and covered with fine sugary powder, and I found myself able to turn up the heat like I'd never been able to before. Even the notoriously icy Main Street was still powdery at the end of the day. I'd received some advanced-level training last year from a friend of a friend who used to race back East, and his tips included the secrets of perfect parallel-ski turns at top speed. This year, for the first time, I'm able to really concentrate on putting those tips to work, allowing me to take a black-diamond run as an undulating straight-line chute at as high a speed as I have the nerve to sustain, rather than a long and laborious series of traverses.
Skiing is a weird sport. Some might say all you're doing is just standing, even if you're moving at 40 mph while doing so. And there's truth to that: it's not like you're doing any visible work with your muscles, or any cardiovascular activity with your lungs and heart. You're not sprinting, or running, or even walking. You're not swinging a heavy object around or hurling a ball or even pushing pedals. You really are just standing.
But as anyone who's put in the time it takes to learn to ski knows, it really takes a toll on those leg muscles, and even your torso and heart. The first day a beginner spends on skis is by far the hardest; it can leave you so beat up you can barely move the next day. I've seen groups of friends go up to learn to ski, spend the first day in instruction, and then on Sunday wake up and tell me in all seriousness that the likelihood of them getting out of bed to ski a second day is about on par with that of them swimming to the moon.
That's because as a beginner, you start out learning techniques that give you the most control, but at the expense of the most possible effort you can exert. Snowplowing, for example, is ridiculously wasteful of energy and hard on your leg muscles; you can wear yourself out in an hour snowplowing. But that's how you have to learn; you can't progress to the next level without mastering balance, and you can't master balance without snowplowing.
As you gain experience, you learn techniques that give you more control at higher speeds while expending less energy each time—techniques that aren't possible to learn without knowing the ones that come before. As you move up the ladder, you find yourself using less and less energy in a day of skiing; and as often as not, what reduces your energy output is the reduction of stress that comes from not being in control of your destiny. Once you're able to traverse a mountain of any steepness and stop on cue, skiing becomes almost infinitely easier, because you no longer have to worry about getting stuck on a slope that's too steep for you. You'll always have a way down; and so your heart stops beating in terror every time you peer over the lip of a blue-square or black-diamond run. When you reach the point where you can turn on a slope of any steepness while still in control—lifting all your weight off your inner ski and turning both skis simultaneously, rather than pizza-ing your way around the apexes, which is a slow and painstaking process that leaves you pointing straight downhill for a crucial second that all too often results in you losing control and wiping out in terror at your sudden increased speed—then you find that taking on a steep slope is no longer a chore, but a joy. And when you unlock the secrets of shifting your weight back and forth as you swoosh down a smooth hill at the top speed gravity can impart, steering through your turns using the uphill edge of your downhill ski, rather than spending all your energy in turns digging into the powder and kicking up wasteful rooster-tails of snow under your blades and forcing your legs into constant tension... well, that's the point at which you really are just "standing there", gliding down the hill at highway speed while standing bolt upright, to all outside observers not moving a muscle. And yet you're absorbing every bump and imperfection through minute movements of the leg muscles, pushing against the mountain in one direction, then shifting your balance the other direction, then absorbing a sudden change in speed from an icy patch or a powdery drift. You're making a zillion little corrections as you proceed down the hill, your eyes focused intently on the snow in front of you, analyzing the texture for the best path to take and how to brace and relax your legs as you revise your angle of attack with each millisecond. It's at that stage where the majority of the stress going into your muscles comes from the natural tension you get from going just a bit faster than you feel is prudent, whether you're on skis or on a bike or in a car on a track. Your heart pounds and your legs firm up; but it's only because of the excitement, not the physical exertion. You've left that part behind. It no longer costs you anything, physically, to ski even a super-steep hill. It's effortless and sublime. You're free to concentrate on the speed in its own right, leaving the technical chores of swallowing up the ground to your autonomous systems, and revel in the feel of the wind going by your face and the swells and curves of the ground below you sweeping you down the face of the hill with more direct speed and sure-footedness than any car could employ while conveying you over the same terrain.
It's a lot like a day at the track, I'm sure—except the only power source involved is gravity.
To be sure, I'm still not comfortable calling myself an "expert"; I'm firmly in the Type II category, enjoying all terrain levels, but I still am no friend of moguls and backcountry skiing holds no interest for me. I still can't hold my skis completely together like they're glued there, the way so many of the real masters of the art can do it. My turns are still a bit sloppy, and my posture gets discombobulated pretty easily if the terrain should betray me with an unexpected sheet of ice or frozen granules in which there is no purchase or control. But I'll tell you this: making those instant, uphill-ski-lifted, all-body-weight-off-the-control-surface turns is almost infinitely easier at 172 pounds than at 230.
So I wasn't really tired at all for the second day. And that was even after pounding the dance floor at the cantina at Harvey's until midnight. But that's another story.
I stayed in the West Bowl of Sierra-at-Tahoe all day long, swallowing up run after run of that bowl's selection of intermediate/advanced courses over and over again, incredulous at how easy it was to travel over the snow now, whether that's attributable to the weight loss or the weather conditions or a combination of the two. By the end of the day I was alternating between Horsetail and Clipper, two usually-mogully black-diamond runs that now presented gorgeously groomed straight shots to the bottom that I found I could now accomplish in maybe a minute and a half, maybe less—I never paid attention to the timing, since the run lengths are so variable, but now that I'm ignoring the need to traverse, it's a whole new ballgame—I can actually concentrate on getting to the bottom fast, rather than intact. And I doubt I was that much slower down Clipper than the experts I saw from time to time pointing their skis down the hill and firing straight ahead.
The capper was getting out of West Bowl just as they were roping it off (it's lower down the mountain than the main lodge bowl, so if you get stuck down there after the lift closes you're SOL), and making it to the Nob Hill lift just in time for one more run up to the top before the 4:00 cutoff. Straight down the wide-open face of Main Street and directly into the rental shop, then out to the car.
Oh boy! Soon our homes' heaters and air conditioners will be controlled from Sacramento. Talk about "Central Heating/Cooling", indeed...
What should be controversial in the proposed revisions to Title 24 is the requirement for what is called a "programmable communicating thermostat" or PCT. Every new home and every change to existing homes' central heating and air conditioning systems will required to be fitted with a PCT beginning next year following the issuance of the revision. Each PCT will be fitted with a "non-removable " FM receiver that will allow the power authorities to increase your air conditioning temperature setpoint or decrease your heater temperature setpoint to any value they chose. During "price events" those changes are limited to +/- four degrees F and you would be able to manually override the changes. During "emergency events" the new setpoints can be whatever the power authority desires and you would not be able to alter them.
On the ever-popular subject of media bias, here's a site brought to my attention by its owner and developer: Skewz, a community-driven, collaboratively tagged news portal site that's designed to present all stories with their biases not only intact, but displayed in plain view.
It's a concept that could potentially be subject to various forms of abuse (bot-spamming, googlebombing, that sort of thing); but it sure is an elegant idea at its core, much like Wikipedia or UrbanDictionary.com. If it can operate usefully without having to be constantly embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game of abuse-thwarting, it could be an awesome resource.