Both novice and experienced snowboarders can hone their skills under the watchful eye of the instructors at the Burton Snowboard Academy.
Gliding along the Stagecoach Express at Heavenly, I’m apprehensively surveying the chairlift landing, a flat snowbank that separates me from the ski hill. For a snowboarder like me, horizontal expanses are sheer torture. For a downhill skier like my big brother, watching me squirm is sheer joy. Much to his amusement, I wriggle forward with one foot on my board and the other in the snow until he finally gives me a yank with the end of his ski pole.
And so it begins. My brother JS and I have nurtured a friendly rivalry since the day I gave up the skis for the snowboard. Being six years younger, I’ve never managed to keep up with his athleticism; as a kid, I’d invariably end up crumpled at the bottom of the hill while he pointed and laughed. This visit to Lake Tahoe is part ski trip, part nostalgia trip, and for once our respective approaches to the hills are working in our favour. We each get something different from the neighbouring resorts of Heavenly and Northstar California. While he’s flying down the double black diamonds and racing through the backwoods, I’m rocking the moguls and the freestyle parks. Then we meet in the middle – i.e. the neutral zone – to swap stories.
In the morning breeze atop Comet Express, at an altitude of almost 2,700 metres, I’m egging on guide Russ Pecoraro to take JS to the Dipper Express. It’s a top-notch black diamond trail that might just challenge even him. After they head off, I’m alone in the silence for a moment. Heavenly has the region’s most beautiful view: the stunning blue lake, the indigo pride of the Sierra Nevada, framed by peaks topped with crisp white snow, like icing on a cake. Then I start sliding down the hill toward the North Bowl to practise my moves away from the gaze of potential critics.
After spending the morning honing my turns, it’s time to explore the community, which straddles the border between Nevada and California. Here you change states simply by crossing the street. On the east is Stateline, Nevada, where streamlined casino-hotels mirror one another’s glass facades. Westward, it’s Heavenly, California, with log-cabin resorts surrounded by low stone walls bordered by fat pine trees. My affinities lie more with Mark Twain, who immortalized Lake Tahoe in Roughing It (and gave his name to one of the area’s properties), than with Frank Sinatra, who owned a hotel nearby in Nevada. So I leave the glint of the Silver State behind and head back for some Californian sunshine. Heavenly’s vintage architecture, with its brown wood, orange trim and grey stone, triggers flashbacks. Images from 1980s ski movies pop into my head, especially the Warren Miller videos that I used to steal from my brother’s bedroom. Despite the chain hotels at the foot of the chairlift, the resort’s natural palette blends with the surroundings. Lake Tahoe is showing its age – in a good way.
The next day, while JS heads off to conquer the hills with the ski patrollers, I’ve booked a lesson with Anna Weber, an instructor from the Burton Snowboard Academy. More than half the trails at Northstar are classified medium difficulty, which makes them ideal for learning new tricks and refining my style. From the Tahoe Zephyr Express chairlift, Weber points out a snowy-roofed log cabin. It’s part of the Stash, a snowboarding park built in honour of Craig Kelly, the godfather of freeriding. The site is designed to look like a backcountry playground, full of naturally occurring obstacles snowboarders use for jumps, from tree stumps to abandoned shacks, except that here, every fallen trunk has been hand-carved. Seen from afar, it looks as if Paul Bunyan had one too many and dropped a handful of logs on his way home from the lodge bar. “There are only six parks like this in the world,” Weber says enticingly. But the Stash will have to wait. Right now, I’m a woman on a mission: I want to learn some acrobatics that will show my brother up.
The West Ridge is wide and gentle, perfect for practising. The powder that’s been falling since this morning creases gently under my now nearly perfect turns, just the soft duvet I’ll need if I take a dive. My nose and tail roll is already tight: a 180-degree turn that involves switching which foot is in front. Weber wants to teach me an ollie, a basic jump. I’m picking it up quickly, so she suggests I combine two moves and do an air to fakie, a 180-degree turn in the air. It would be nothing to Craig Kelly, of course, but I’m proud to nail it before joining my brother at the Zephyr Lodge.
The huge cabin seems like it’s been here since the dawn of time (or at least since the 1970s), but it’s actually the newest restaurant on the slopes, built in 2011 out of wood salvaged from a barn in Montana. Its seven windows frame the Sierra Crest’s rocky peaks, and the rustic dining room serves food a few grades above ski-hill cafeteria. I concoct a giant protein-packed salad at the Napa salad bar while my big brother, who stands 6' 3", orders the mega chicken burger with tempura onion rings (which I steal liberally, of course). Heading back to the chairlift, I spot a sign with a blue square indicating a trail called the Gully: the same name as the one we used to race on as kids (I lost every time). I point it out, and, suddenly, we’re both travelling back through time. With a glint in his eye, my brother says, “Rematch?” But I’m already way ahead of him.
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Air Canada and Star Alliance™ member United Airlines offer the only non-stop flights from Canada to San Francisco. From San Francisco, Lake Tahoe is a four-hour drive away. Air Canada also offers connecting service to Reno with Star Alliance™ member United Airlines. From Reno, hop on the South Tahoe Express shuttle to get to Heavenly in an hour and 15 minutes or take the North Lake Tahoe Express shuttle to get to Northstar California in a little over an hour.