Pg. 084 The Best Chairlift in North America
The Soul of Squaw Valley
Squaw valley’s KT22 chairlift is consistently voted as the best chairlift in North America. When you get it on a powder day, it is easy to understand why.
Squaw Valley’s KT-22 chair has been voted the best chairlift in North America, not sure by whom, but once you ski the terrain that lift accesses, you can understand why. Squaw Valley is renowned for its steep challenging terrain and names like the Palisades, Silverado, and Headwall have earned a kind of infamy with skiers worldwide. It’s also well known that Squaw Valley has plenty of cruisy intermediate family-friendly terrain, but when it comes down to it, the place offers some of the best and most varied in-bounds terrain in North America, and a lot of that terrain is found off KT-22.
When I arrived with the family in late January for our second visit to Squaw, the place looked amazing. Regular storms had turned on some epic powder days in December and early January, the result being a cumulative snow fall of six metres and 100 per cent of open terrain.
The storm cycle continued. We had two storms in the first five days we were there and scored some deep powder days. One in particular will stay with me as one of the best days of skiing I’ve ever had, and most of that morning was spent exploring the huge choices available off KT-22.
Many of the cliffs, chutes, and steeps of KT-22 are right under the lift, and you witness some pretty amazing skiing from the locals as you ride the chair up. Squaw has been referred to as Squallywood, a term derived from big-name local skiers like Scot Schmidt, Shane McConkey, JT Holmes, Brad Holmes, and Aaron McGovern throwing down in full view of the crowd.
Someone told me that KT-22 is like the soul of Squaw Valley. At the very peak, an eagle sculpture sits as a memorial to Shane McConkey, one of Squaw Valley’s favourite sons who died in a ski base-jumping accident in March 2009. The eagle is perched above
the drop-in to a super steep called McConkey’s. You can hike up to the eagle from the back side of the peak and if you do, you’ll understand the “Squaw’s Soul” reference, as the views are amazing.
However, while 83 per cent of the terrain off KT-22 is classed as expert, it’s not all cliffs and technical chutes. The terrain is steep, but lines like Chute 75, Tamara’s, and GS Bowl are fun, turning on a challenging, exhilarating run. When it’s a powder day, it takes it to another level – score a foot of fresh snow on this mountain and you are in for one of the days of your life. It is world class.
Be warned, you need to get to the base of KT-22 early if you want to get first tracks as it gets crowded. Mid-week isn’t too bad, and the crowd thins out a little as the season progresses, but on a weekend it can be hectic thanks to the masses who make their way up from San Francisco. There are a couple of groomed runs off the top of KT-22, which also access some mellower off-piste terrain, and it is worth exploring as you can move into different degrees of difficulty as your confidence grows. That is the beauty of Squaw – regardless of your ability, you can stay in your comfort zone, or you can progress and climb out of it. We stayed in Squaw for a month and, like anywhere, the more we got to know the mountain the more we enjoyed it. The place is pretty amazing and like the rest of the Lake Tahoe area, incredibly beautiful. Unfortunately, Squaw is under threat of being over-developed, with multi-story apartments and even an indoor water park in the plans. It’s not popular around Tahoe and the local community is fighting for more realistic and compatible development, the call being to “Keep Squaw True”.
For Australian skiers, Squaw Alpine is easy accessible, United Airlines having daily direct flights from Sydney to San Francisco. Then it’s an easy four-hour drive to the resort via the I-80 freeway. Alternatively, you can grab a connection from LA or San Francisco to Reno, which is a short one-hour drive from Squaw and the other Lake Tahoe resorts.
For me, Squaw is a destination that offers everything you’d want in an overseas destination, but the main ingredients are quality snow and good, challenging terrain. There was a bit of a break in the storm cycle in late February, but then it kicked in again, March and April offering more winter-like powder days.
When Squaw Valley is on, the place is hard to beat. This past winter it was definitely on and KT-22 was at its legendary best.
That is the beauty of Squaw – regardless of your ability, you can stay in your comfort zone, or you can progress and climb out of it.
THIS IMAGE: Deep and light. Niseko on a rare blue-bird powder day. Photo: Alister Buckingham BELOW: Mount Yotei seen from the Rinkan run above Grand Hirafu, Niseko. Photo: Peter Eastway
There’s plenty of steep, technical terrain to keep things interesting when it’s not a powder day. OPPOSITE: Soar like an eagle – the Shane McConkey memorial.