Don’t look now, but there’s a guy next to me at the bottom of the chairlift. He’s snowboarding in a swimsuit. And nothing else.
That’s right. Snowboarding. In June.
Where? Only in California. Specifically, Squaw Valley, the legendary ski resort that hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. Blanketed by an almost unimaginable 60 feet of snow this season, the resort recently announced it would remain open until at least July 4, and possibly longer. Lifts operate weekends only.
But standing next to the dude in a bathing suit, and looking up the too-steep-to-ski slopes serviced by the Siberia Express sixpack, you know this is something else. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make some turns on some amazing snow during the summer.
This is special.
A ski resort in June can be a strange experience. There’s snow ― lots of it ― but the heavy ski jackets are replaced with shorts, T-shirts, and sometimes much less. There’s also a less constrained attitude that extends to safety (helmets are rare) and risk (we saw several serious accidents and one skier who had to be evacuated by helicopter).
But strange can also be a good thing.
At Squaw Valley, most of the runs at the top of the mountain remained open, all easily accessed via the Gold Coast Funitel, a gondola. They include some easy trails off the Big Blue chairlift, intermediate runs off Shirley Lake Express, and the terrifying black-diamond-rated moguls off Siberia Ridge, accessible from the Siberia chair.
Many of the lower runs still had snow, but patches of grass here and there. Skiers and snowboarders had to take off their gear and walk across the patches of snowless ground.
For kids, the sensation of being on a slope during the summer is even more surreal. All three of my children, who grew up skiing, are accustomed to being bundled up to protect their extremities from the cold. They've skied in all kinds of winter weather, including a memorable midwinter trip to Alberta, Canada, where the lifts had to close because it was too cold.
What's skiing on summer snow like? It's unreal. Think spring conditions -- maybe a bit slushier -- but oddly, still there. Summer snow should not exist, except maybe on glaciers. Yet there it is.
"Can I take my jacket off?" my 10-year-old daughter begs. It's only 10 a.m., but it feels like it's already 70 degrees.
Here's why that's a bad idea. If you take a spill, you'll fall into summer snow, which can be crunchy. It's a little bit like running exposed skin against a cheese grater. Ouch!
"But they're not wearing anything," my middle son, Iden, exclaims. He points to the dude.
Ah, the dude.
Upon closer inspection, I notice he's carrying a bottle of bourbon.
Not a role model, kids. Not a role model.
The jackets stay and the dude gets pulled over by ski patrol at the top of the lift. Turns out drinking and skiing are no-nos. Who knew?
The snow on Big Blue starts to get slow after a few runs. That can happen as the summer sunshine starts to melt the snow, rendering it even heavier. Unless your skis are just waxed, you can grind to a halt on the straightaways.
So it’s off to Shirley Lake, a chairlift higher up the mountain, for some faster slopes. The top of that lift affords a magnificent view of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding resorts. Down there it’s summertime, with boats and kayaks dotting the flat, azure surface. But up here, it’s still winter.
A ski patroller explained that Squaw Valley is unique among North American ski resorts. When snow covers everything, there’s no place you can’t ski.
If you can see it, you can ski it. That includes the treacherous cliffs and chutes. See? Ski!
But just not today. With a 10-year-old, a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old in tow ― all solid intermediate skiers ― we stick to the groomers. There are plenty of opportunities to show off, though, including a bump run and a tree run. The snow up here is pretty forgiving, allowing you to make turns while keeping your speed in check.
That’s right about when we hear the helicopter overhead and the red smoke on the other side of the mountain. It’s from a lift called Granite Chief, a slower chairlift that services only expert terrain. The smoke is a marker to help the chopper land. I was thinking of taking the boys up there, but another skier tells us that some hotdogger had jumped off a cliff, landed on another cliff instead of the snow, and now had a one-way ride to the hospital.
I’m actually grateful that my kids got to see this. It’s a reminder that skiing is risky and the importance of safety. (This also guaranteed that they keep their helmets and jackets on and for the rest of the trip, they skied on marked trails.)
It’s a life lesson, too. The rewards of an incredible summer skiing experience are counterbalanced by the risks. These risks can be managed, but if you don’t, you can end up at the bottom of a ravine.
At the end of the day, we’re enthralled ― no, mesmerized ― by summer skiing. An opportunity like this comes along only once, maybe twice, in a generation. We feel lucky to have had a chance to ski when everyone else is swimming.
If you go …
Where to stay The most convenient place to stay is in the Village at Squaw Valley, which offers hotel rooms and suites with full kitchens. You’re just a few steps away from your ski rentals and the lifts.
What to eat Fireside Pizza in the Village has a signature pizza, called the Fireside Pizza, with Italian sausage, pepperoni, fire-roasted onions, peppers, and portabello mushrooms, that can’t be beat. For authentic barbecue, head over to Moe’s Original BBQ in Tahoe City, which offers incredible slow-cooked turkey alongside stunning views of the lake.
What to do Visit the Tahoe Maritime Museum for a look at some of the elegant wooden boats that once graced Lake Tahoe. The priceless artifacts have been lovingly restored (you can look, but don’t touch!). For a break from skiing, drive up the shoreline to Tahoe Adventure Company and take a guided tour of the lake. Visibility in Lake Tahoe during the summer months is impressive ― you can see all the way to the bottom.