Northstar

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So, Northstar. We left Thursday night at around 5:30 or so, from work, Nils & I. After getting lost for half an hour – thanks a lot, Hamilton Avenue, #%@! – we finally got to F2’s place, and from there departed… I think we were on our way by 6:30 or so.

It took forever to get out of the bay area. The traffic was just horrible. Stopped, most of the way up 680. We had dinner in Fremont, just on Mission, which was wise because we didn’t even get to Sacramento until some silly hour – 10pm or somesuch.

Google Maps claims it’s four hours and two minutes from work to our hotel. It took us that long to get to Sacramento. But I figured, hey, only another 80 miles or somesuch to Truckee, then maybe an hour of slow going through the mountains, that last snowy 20 miles or so… I hadn’t really counted on the culture shock of snow in California…

See, in Australia, as best memory serves, when you go skiing you cruise through the open countryside for a few hours, no worries, then get into the hills, where you wind your way casually up to the snowline. There you may or may not put chains on, and from there it’s only half an hour or so to the resort. Then you’re on your skis or snowboard and it’s all happy days.

California invented “five miles through snow and lava”…

I think it was about 70 miles out of Truckee, that suddenly there were people pulled over everywhere, and some random dudes professing to be really really interested in fitting chains for an entirely minimal fee. Huh.

So, I got to put the ‘chains’ (formally, traction cables; my car doesn’t do chains) on. This was the second time – I’d gone down to Pepboys the previous evening, after work, to buy them ($65 later, pretty good by my arbitrary reckoning), and had fitted them in the carpark at work in the morning to ensure they did indeed fit and all, and to make sure I knew how to do it. No worries – they fit very nicely, and seemed not too tricky. (ha)

So, chains on, we then proceeded at 30mph for the rest of the way. To. Our. Hotel. 100. Miles. Away. I never knew it was even possible to drive that far on chains. All the while yokels in their fourteen ton SUVs and ‘trucks’ are whizzing past, comfortable in their knowledge that of course 4WD makes all the difference, even if you have giant fat slicks. Hmph.

Anyway… the trip itself was fine – we chatted, had music going, all the usual. Truckee was quite nice as a town – I guess it was about what I expected, but surprisingly quaint, at least in the ‘main’ street we drove down, with the kitch Christmas-themed shops and all.

Now, prior to departing I had of course perused Google Maps to check the way. It couldn’t be much easier – 280, 680, 80, 267. Done. I noted that 267 ran past Northstar, our [eventual] destination, through to our immediate destination, Crystal Bay. There was also 89 which ran south of that past Squaw and Alpine Meadows or somesuch. It was superb that I noted this, casually, earlier on… because once we got to Truckee, Francisco made the fatal mistake of attempting to actually use Google Maps for direct navigation.

It turns out, you see, that there are in fact three roads through Truckee that are labelled, indistinguishably, as “89”. And they also intersect each other at least once. As you can imagine, hilarity ensues…

Add to that the fact that Google Maps, as always, can’t tell the difference between an immediate highway exit, and, you know, a completely different road… well… plus the fact that the very signage itself, on the highway, is blatantly and maliciously wrong – saying the exit to 267 is a given exit, when it is in fact the next one, which is also labelled as 267, just so you can see, once you’re irreversibly on the first, wrong exit, that you are in fact doomed….

I hate American highways. They really do suck.

Anyway… after being led up a hill on a one-way street, I finally said some swift and pointed words to Google Maps, and decided to do my own bloody thing, and shortly thereafter we were finally on 267 and heading out of Truckee, having spent a good forty minutes exploring its back streets…

It was well after midnight, by this time. We’d originally had high hopes of getting to our hotel notably-well before 11. That shifted to 12 due to the traffic on 680. Then 1 due to the chains on 80. It turned out to be right about 2am when we did, finally, rock up into the parking lot of the Cal Neva.

Suddenly the fine-tuned plans, involving an 8:14am shuttle that very morning, seemed dangerously fragile… I was lukewarmly committed to keeping the early start, given we had but three short days of indeterminate conditions to enjoy.. I wasn’t sure what my non-compatriots would think. As it turns out, they too were similar semi-motivated, so we stayed the course. Though we all had only a handful of hours sleep, we did indeed get up at 7am or so. We drove to Tahoe Dave’s to rent my board & Nils’ skis, and while there just missed the shuttle. So we drove all the way up to the mountain, which is only about twenty minutes with chains on. I was really surprised – my experience two years ago at Kirkwood had me expecting we’d lose most of the daylight just getting to and from the mountain.

So, we were up there and I think planting our skis & boards at something like only 9:30am. Nice.

Now, I’ve never snowboarded before. I’ve always been a downhill skier – after all, snowboarders are hooligans; they think they bloody own the place. I also enjoyed cross country surprisingly well… but snowboarding was ’till this point only a todo point. I wasn’t sure if my rather ancient surfing & skateboarding experience would be of assistance, but, I was pretty confident I could reach my modest goals – to ‘board comfortably, and tackle some good blues – within three days.

‘course, what you never think about when you’re looking ahead at this is the fact that the very first ‘snowboarding’ you get to do is when you hop off the top of the lift, with only one boot strapped in, and you somehow have to instantly acclimate to the board, the snow, and steering with a loose foot.

I did well enough, actually… we paused, as snowboarders do, on the cusp of the hill to strap the loose leg in, and then we were off… I can’t recall exactly, but I vaguely remember falling over about five feet down the hill… but it didn’t take too long before I was able to slowly slide down the hill, facing forwards and slaloming hesitantly. Francisco had boarded a few times before, so he was a bit steadier, but he too took it easy on the first run, letting the balance and feel come back.

I don’t know how to describe the difficulty… I guess it was both trickier and easier than I’d expected… I didn’t have too much trouble with the fundamentals – i.e. staying upright in the general sense – and I quickly got comfortable with the whole sort of feel, but it did take a little while to work up the sort of… motions involved in turning and general handling. For the first couple of runs, which were pretty easy going, I was mostly going down by ploughing forwards… once Francisco got his groove back he started going at it properly – turning to slalom – and that prompted me to push myself harder. So I did start doing that… lots of false starts, naturally… I stand left-foot forward (i.e. ‘natural’, as opposed to goofy-foot) and found turning left much easier than right… I think it was just psychological; starting out you feel more confident on your heels, and you naturally dig in harder, so you go slower. So turning left off your toes is relatively easy, and feels ‘safe’ because you’re going into a more comfortable situation.

The other way, as soon as you start turning right, downhill, you pick up speed quickly and it psychs you out a bit. I eventually learnt I could just throw my weight fairly well, and do a hard right turn like you’d do in an emergency or if you needed to carve really hard, which gave me enough confidence to try slaloming regularly. It’s bad form, as Francisco later pointed out, but it was a crucial step.

I forgot to mention… that morning when we’d been in the ski store I’d been trying to think back to my surfing days, and while I was thinking “I recall standing left-foot forward”, for some reason I was also thinking “I’m goofy-foot”, so I mentioned the latter to the guy, and he setup my ‘board as such. Turns out of course I’m not goofy-foot. Luckily he didn’t angle the right foot too hard out, so I ended up just stomaching it for the three days; I was going to get the bindings turned around Saturday morning, but.. basically didn’t care enough. It did mean that I was slightly off balance; the bindings were set more forward (relatively to my ‘natural’ stance) than backwards, which probably didn’t help my learning, but hey, I managed.

So anyway… we only did four or five runs that first morning… slow going, though Francisco was infinitely patient – throughout the whole trip, which I really appreciated. Then we met up with Nils again – he’d skied off shortly after we started, when he realised we sucked and he had better things to do. Bloody Europeans.. 🙂 And we had lunch at the main food place, at the top of the gondola. I’d forgotten how stupidly expensive it is to eat on the mountain – $8 for a mini pizza you’d be hard pushed to charge $4 anywhere else on the planet… but alas, such is resort skiing.

We took a long lunch – my legs were already very sore, particularly my right thigh. In hindsight it really takes it out of you, physically, that first day or so of snowboarding. Skiing is probably exactly the same, though that was too long ago for me to remember. You’re so unsteady, so tense the whole time, that you tire quickly. Plus, the falling-over-every-30-feet quickly leaves you bruised and with pulled muscles pretty much everywhere. When I’d asked Ryan for advice the day before, at work, he’d recommended wrist guards. I’d never thought wrists would be a problem – it’s always the knees in skiing – but I did realise pretty quickly that, yes, you tend to fall your hands a lot, and yeah, it hurts. Sometimes a lot.

It also really hurts your neck sometimes, when you fall – just the sheer jarring force of falling on your butt, or when you face plant real good, as I did once… winded myself something fierce at the same time… and I slid some comical distance down the slope to top it off, so much so that the women I stopped just in front was like “holy shit, are you okay?”…. my manly pride forced me to grunt and say “yeah, no worries”, all the while praying for a swift death… 😉

Luckily, as evidenced by the fact I’m writing here just fine, I didn’t do any serious injury to my wrists. They were sore for parts of the weekend, but nothing too bad. Not compared to my legs, or worse, my toes… but I digress prematurely..

So, the afternoon was more of the same, really… I think we ventured more onto some of the blue runs, which seemed pretty scary in places, but I noticed I was improving constantly, if only slowly. I did have some thoughts at times, on that first day, about perhaps swapping the board for skis for the remainder of the trip; it was frustrating at times, falling over so often and not getting that feel of comfortable cruising…

But I stuck with it. By the end of the first day I was starting to feel it working a bit, though I wasn’t entirely upset when it came time to finish up, and I could finally sit down and rest my poor legs. 🙂

Things turned out pretty well for us, actually, in terms of organisation and whatnot – it turns out Northstar will store your gear overnight for free, so we didn’t have to try and pack our crap back into my car.. if nothing else, I wanted to avoid having snow & water in the car as much as possible… I don’t want to be a pansy and treat my car as a priss, but, it is still new, in my eyes, you know? 🙂

That night we went out to a place called Azzara’s in Incline Village, a very nice Italian restaurant. Pricey, but good value. F2 & Nils amused each other testing their wine knowledge and general levels of poncery :P, while I twiddled my thumbs and perved on one of the waitresses or somesuch… 😉 [[ both F2 & Nils have girlfriends, so they’re no fun 😛 ]]

I did introduce the two to the term “ski bunny”, though, and after much trial and error started to rough out F2’s taste in women, at least… he’s way too picky. 😛 It was nice to see, you know, girls, as always… I was hoping to have a completely accidental but fateful [and painless] collision with one, but, the only girl I tangled with hit me, and was almost certainly not out of high school yet. Damn it! 🙂

We had a relatively early night – we were all feeling the lack of sleep in addition to the basic physical exhaustion. I slept like a baby. A snoring, drooling baby. 😉

The next morning we caught the shuttle successfully, so we were up on the mountain and throwing on our skis/boards by something like 9am. I immediately found, on the first run, that I’d lost what little balance I’d developed the previous day, so the first one was a bit of falling over and trying to get my meek mojo back. But it did return pretty rapidly, and we pressed on. Francisco was feeling like a professional lesson would do him some good, so he went off to investigate after our first run, while I tightened my bindings and then hit the greens for a bit, working on my confidence and skill. It was during that time, knowing Francisco was probably leaping well ahead of me – further than he already was – that I really pushed myself, and started to finally feel that level of comfort you get once you settle into something. By the time we met up again, at lunch time, I was able to slalom pretty good back and forth, and my confidence was getting up enough that I could go straight down a hill (briefly) without freaking out completely.

I realised pretty quickly – again, yes – that it’s largely about confidence. Once you notice that, and figure you really just have to know what you want and go for it, reality be damned, things are a lot easier. If you’re timid, you get bounced around by the snow and it’s just a lot of hard work.

Also, while getting the gear the day before, the guy at the store had tried to give me the elevator-pitch tutorial on boarding, which was basically “hey, steer with your front foot, lean forwards, etc – opposite of surfing”… I’m pretty sure it’s almost exactly like surfing, but anyway… I’d tried to do what he’d said initially, but after much frustration just said sod it and went with whatever the hell felt natural, which it turns out is entirely correct and way easier. 🙂

So anyway, by lunchtime Saturday I’d improved a lot, though I was still throwing my weight a lot to turn, especially those darn rights… after lunch – this time down in the ‘village’, at the bottom of the gondola, since it was insanely busy up top – F2 joined up with me again and we continued at it. He had improved a lot, too, but I like to think I’d kept up pretty well… he shared a lot of the key tips he’d gotten from the instructor, and I continued working on my form – in particular, turning more gracefully.

One problem we’d had the first day was that we’d have to stop every few hundred feet to pause for a minute or two; let the legs recover. The second day was much the same… though I didn’t feel I was fatiguing nearly as quickly as the first day, I started out way sorer, so, we still had the same issue of having to pause all the time.

That night we went back to Incline Village and tried out a Chinese place there, which was very nice, though I felt pretty poor at that point, so I couldn’t eat much. I don’t recall ever being so crazily dehydrated when skiing before… it’s probably because I don’t normally ski in -10°C, or with blisteringly dry winds coming over the mountain… I was drinking four litres or so each day, but that was far from enough. So, Saturday night I was fearful I was coming down with a cold, but luckily it turned out to simply be dehydration, and my conscious efforts to drink constantly did turn the tide overnight.

It felt very much like scuba diving again, oddly enough.

The weather Saturday turned a little foul in the afternoon – lots of snow, and the wind really picked up. It was cold. We kept out of it for the most part, though when we did go up to the summit a handful of times, you really copped it right at the top.

So, Sunday… we were all ready to go in the morning, and the shuttle never turned up… we waited nearly an hour. Eventually I just said buggerit and we drove. Luckily we’d put the chains back on the night before to go out for dinner – there’d been heaps of snow overnight; apparently nearly two foot just at lake level. Luckily I’d parked around the side of the hotel and somehow avoided collecting all that on my car; it had a layer of a couple of inches, but was hardly snowed in. We watched several jackarses in their stupid trucks, digging themselves nice holes in the mushy ground… sigh… I’m from Australia and I know more about driving in the snow than that… jeez..

‘course, on the drive up on 80, before Truckee, I did slide sideways momentarily… it caught me a little off guard, and disappointed me somewhat as I liked to think I had uber magic snow-driving powers, but alas, my wee Civic is still only human… so to speak… anyway, since we were driving anyway Sunday morning, I pulled over to the lakeside in King’s Beach so we could get some photos. It really was beautiful. And we got to laugh at a bunch of people with their stuck little 4WD stationwagon. Then I needed a quick shove from F2 & Nils to get out of a minor jam as we were leaving, which was sadly predictable in its cruel irony, and entirely my fault – I basically slowed down linearly, when I should have kept up speed, and got stuck, which was completely retarded. And largely because I was well aware of the gross potential for predictable irony, and psyched myself out. D’oh.

Anyway… the last day. F2 & I took a green first up to get back into it, but were quickly feeling like more of a challenge. There was a lot of powder about, and relatively few runs (maybe half) had been groomed, so many of them – particularly blues – looked like a lot of safe fun. While on the chairlift up to the summit we watch the relatively few people on said powder runs… the vast majority were snowboarders, and they were all in various states of stuckness. We laughed at them… bloody noobs.

One. Hour. Later. Powder and snowboarders are mortal enemies… at least when the powder is three feet deep. Even going straight down hill you barely move, and when you fall over… urgh… it sucks the big one… by the time we got down that one run, Sodergrens, I was so exhausted I was just about over it for the day. It was really frustrating. It wasn’t even close to amusing, or fun, or challenging… just ridiculously tiring and frustrating. And I was really looking forward to a solid day, given I was now feeling pretty confident, so it really stung me that I was being tired out so early.

After that disaster – I swore I’d never, ever, ever do that run again – we went off in search of better ones. We found some that weren’t bad nearby; groomed ones. And we then thought to check out “Logger’s Loop”, over one far side of the mountain, near where we’d been playing on greens in earlier days.

And it was frickin’ awesome. There was almost no-one else there – seriously, the first run down I think we saw a whole three other people – and it was wide, and groomed, and had just enough powder – ten or fifteen centimetres, mostly – as to be soft on the butt, but still perfectly good to board on. It’s hard to emphasise how incredible it was, especially in comparison to the false starts earlier in the day.

It was a shame that we didn’t get more runs on that… it really was great, and though I wasn’t confident enough quite yet to keep up with Francisco, I think I was doing pretty well. And we were making it down the whole run with only a couple of stops, which were largely just to chill a bit and less about pure exhaustion…

So in a nutshell it was a really great day, and a fantastic way to wrap up a ski weekend. It made the bum weather the day before well worth it.

So yeah, after that F2 & Nils took the rental gear back into town on the shuttle, while I went to the car. I’d have to go meet them at the shop in King’s Beach, but them taking the shuttle meant less wet gear in the car.

When I pulled onto 267 from Northstar, it looked pretty clear – we’d had little snowfall that day, and the road looked very clear and dry. So I decided to take the chains off – I was hoping we might not need them at all, the whole way back. (ha) Unfortunately, it turned out that the inside buckle on the left wheel’s chains had frozen solid. As in, giant block of ice. As in, here I am having trouble getting my not-terribly-fat arms between the wheel and the arch anyway, let alone having to then somehow rattle around this stupid chain to break the ice. Twenty minutes later, the ice finally snapped… at that point I couldn’t really have told if it were the ice or my fingers snapping, they were that cold. I wasn’t too happy right at that point.

But, the chains came off, and I was correct in being able to make it down into town and back out without them – and it was much quicker & smoother going without them.

So we were heading back to civilisation. And things seemed to be going pretty well… until not far south of Truckee… chain control, WTF?!? I was very surprised… I figured, once we made it through Truckee without issue, that we were home free. Pfft, what naivety.

So, chains back on. That sucked – it was cold – but wasn’t too much of a hassle. It was more the idea of having to spend another two or three hours on chains again that sucked. It was indeed slow going – it’s downhill most of the way, of course, heading southwest, so the going was even slower than on the way up.

I’m not a fan of driving on snow.

And to just rub it in, even once we did finally get the chains off, it was still raining and at times snowing, so it was still slow going… at one point I was finally doing 65mph again, on the highway… and we’re cruising along, and it’s raining a bit and wet, but I’m determined at this point to just get the hell out of there ASAP rather than chance conditions getting worse… and I look down at the road and it’s white again. 65mph. Snow. Holy shit.

Luckily, for the most part there were clear tracks from all the other traffic, so there were precious few moments of “oh crap this could be fun”… though there were a couple… I don’t know if F2 & Nils noticed, but I felt myself concentrating hard for that bit… white knuckle hard, I don’t doubt…

Anyway, we got past that, and then once we were within about forty miles of Sacramento again, things started going fine. We stopped in Sacramento, at a place called California Burger – which was actually really nice… we had very good luck with food throughout the weekend, all in all – before pushing on through, through the evening, all the way back home. I dropped Nils off at his place up in Mountain View – nice area, there – and then F2 back at his place… I think that was shortly before midnight. I was finally home and back in my very welcome bed by 1am or so…

So yeah… a really, really good trip all over. I wish I’d done it sooner… I’m thinking I’ll have to head back up there at least once more this winter… luckily the season here extends well into May, apparently, so there’s plenty of time. It was fairly pricey in the end… probably around the $400 or so I estimated… but, I guess that’s how it is. As dad pointed out – given today’s Oz-favouring exchange rate – lift & resort prices in Australia are way up on here, so, I guess I can’t complain.

It took me a few days to catch up, though… with work and life in general. I worked about twelve hours Monday & Tuesday – came back to some rather pressing tasks, an affliction our whole group suffered from, though that’s petered off now, finally… and aside from that, I’ve had just enough time to do washing and sleep. Mostly. I nearly fell asleep at work today… I wish that darn couch had turned up already..

Which sounds like a really good idea, right about now, actually: sleep… thus I wrap up my account of the Adventures & Escapades of Travellers Nils, Francisco & Wade, Esq. In The Far Land of Snow and Lakedness.

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