A PLAYGROUND FOR ALL AGES | KIDS 10 & UNDER SKI FREE
This Northwest gem provides thrilling steeps, endless groomers, breathtaking scenery, gourmet dining, on-mountain ski shops, slopeside accommodations, and the only high-speed gondola in Washington State. Averaging almost 500 inches annually, the snow here falls by the foot, giving powder-hounds plenty to smile about. The resort spans over half a dozen peaks and lends itself to seemingly limitless options, including easy access to some of the region’s best backcountry terrain. There’s something here for everyone to enjoy. We’ll see you at the top!
(which stood for Gaffney’s Numerical Assessment of Radness) for things like farting in the gondola line or skiing naked.
After KSL bought Squaw, Gaffney watched from a distance. When the development project was proposed, it was not only the size and environmental impact that he disapproved of; it was how the new management rolled it out.
The initial village project called for 3,500 hotel rooms, but that’s been nearly halved over the years. Gaffney argues that the reduction is part of the problem. “It was clearly an effort to mislead the public, so that any reductions in the plan would make it appear they were working with the public,’” Gaffney says. “That’s psychological anchoring in action—1,500 bedrooms feels like we got a deal compared to 3,500. Just like when the used-car salesman says, ‘It was $3,500, but I’ll let you have it for $1,500.’”
In 2013, Gaffney wrote an opinion piece for the local newspaper titled, “What Would Muir Do?” In it, he talked about his in- ternal struggle to speak out against the development plan, while others felt like they had to stay mum to keep their alliances with the resort. Ultimately, he decided he couldn’t keep quiet. Wirth, the Squaw CEO, sent Gaffney an email after that story came out with a subject line that read, “I’m disappointed.”
Gaffney couldn’t be stopped: He became a board member for Sierra Watch, rallied troops to speak at public meetings, and in 2014, he made an announcement via social media that he was stepping down as a Squaw ambassador. (Wirth, for his part, has said that Gaffney was never officially an ambassador.) In 2017, when the women’s World Cup came to Squaw, the first time it has hosted one since 1969, Gaffney organized a small protest and held up signs that read “Waterparks don’t belong here.”
“Working against a billion-dollar company is a big challenge,” Gaffney says. “Money has the power to influence people. But the social consequences reveal an infection spreading and I wanted to be on the side of treating it.”
I’m running across the Squaw Valley parking lot in my ski boots, late for an appointment with Andy Wirth. Tower 16, a consistent pitch below the tramline, had been especially good after another storm deposited a few more inches, and I had to squeeze in an extra lap.
I show up in Wirth’s office breathless and sweating through my long underwear. Wirth moved here seven years ago for the CEO job from Steamboat Springs, Colo., where he’d started as an intern in the mid-80s and worked his way up to senior vice president of sales and marketing. He’s a savvy veteran in the resort management industry, but in Tahoe, he’s a relative newcomer.
The goal at Squaw, he says, is to improve the quality and variety of lodging to keep the resort competitive. He says community input has been a main priority—they’ve held 400 public meetings, conducted consumer research, and effected changes
based on that input, he says.
“We’ve done everything we can to make everyone feel like this plan is their plan,” Wirth says. “But there’s a small group of folks who feel like they didn’t get what they wanted.”
Wirth says the dialogue about the project is fraught with ambiguities and falsehoods. Take the waterpark. “It never was a waterpark. No neon orange and blue tubes. It’s going to be an indoor/outdoor mountain adventure center,” Wirth says.
If it feels like a semantic debate, it is. It’s also a massively complicated, emotionally charged one. “So much of the opposition is based on a lack of information,” argues Theresa May Duggan, a long-time Tahoe resident who was hired by Squaw as a community liaison. “If they only knew all the benefits that were coming. It’s easy to say no. It’s much harder to be informed and say yes.”
“You’re either for it or against it—there aren’t many in be- tween,” adds Roy Tuscany, a Squaw skier who lives in Reno, and who, officially, is for the village project. “It does say something about our community. I don’t think there’s a more passionate group of people than Squaw skiers. We need to keep the heritage but it’s time for some improvements.”
There are skiers at every resort who feel like the mountain belongs to them, that they get a say. Squaw’s no different. People love this place and want to see it thrive. But how you define thrive depends on who you ask.
“Mountain communities are made up of many voices,” says Wirth. “I don’t think anyone can arbitrarily claim to be the voice of this community. You take a look at the Keep Squaw True spokespeople and you scratch your head and say, ‘Who appointed them Captain Community?’”
It’s nearly June and I’m still skiing KT-22. Sixty-degree temperatures are serving up slush by mid-morning, but thanks to last winter’s bounty, Squaw’s promising to stay open until the Fourth of July, or longer.
I ride Siberia chair and hike to the top of the Palisades, an iconic gathering of elevator-shaft chutes that tower over the rest of the mountain. I bootpack up barren rock to get there, but at the top, Main Chute looks as snowy as if it were January. If the six-story mountain adventure center goes in at the base of the resort, you’ll be able to see it from up here. But if I look the other way, I can see the shimmering cobalt water of Lake Tahoe and vast and rugged wilderness stretching west from the Pacific Crest as far as I can see.
Here’s the thing about ski areas: While the real-estate battles happen at the base, nobody can touch what we all came here for: the skiing. Wirth put it best. “Whether it’s me or Ricky Bobby running the place, nobody can change the fact that this is a great mountain,” he says.
Here, even Gaffney agrees. “This year, the place lit up with the weather,” he says. “Enough snow can mend our wounds. Enough snow can bring the mountain to life. And it’s the mountain that’s drawn us here.”
Top: Gaffney’s “Squallywood” outlines over 150 iconic Squaw lines, and is pretty much considered one of the best books ever written on the sport. Bottom: A bluebird sky and plenty o’ pow make Robin McElroy a happy girl.
Left: Squaw Valley CEO Andy Wirth stands his ground: “We’ve done everything we can to make everyone feel like this is their plan.” Right: The Squaw sidecountry went off this season. Pictured is skier Eric Bryant.