Vail-Wood, Kirkweed, Kompton, Or Just Kirkwood, The Choice Is Yours. The Mountain Will Always Be The Same.
My first visit to Kirkwood Resort was on Valentine’s Day in 1997. My friend and I hit the resort after he’d been working for some time over on the North Shore at Northstar. The two mountains couldn’t be more polar opposites. And, that’s precisely what drew the two of us into the valley and up the mountain to Kirkwood.
Like quite a few people new to Kirkwood, we had only heard the rumors. Kirkwood was known for some of the steepest and deepest terrain around Lake Tahoe. But, Kirkwood was another 36 miles from the casinos at Stateline. Plus, we knew that we would have to make it over Luther Pass and the more precarious Carson Pass. I hope his Subaru Justy was up for the challenge. But, more importantly, I hope that we were up for the challenge.
Well, back then we enjoyed quite a few of the cheap drinks and “happy hour” food deals that the South Lake Tahoe casinos had to offer. Bill’s and Lakeside were two of our staples for food and drinks. And, this trip was like most of the others. After being pulled away from the casino tables late at night, I was primed and ready for my first Kirkwood experience.
As is often the case, we started our drive from the casinos and were welcomed by a snowstorm going over Carson Pass. They like to say that Kirkwood has the K-Factor. That’s the idea that Kirkwood often gets snow when other nearby areas aren’t as lucky. They also say that the storms at Kirkwood are often double or triple of nearby Heavenly. This was a pretty good indicator that the rumors might be true. Time to put the pedal down and not miss out on any of the fresh snow.
We didn’t quite have to “Fred Flintstone” the Justy up and over the pass. But, it was a slow and steady run out there. The Kirkwood 500, or race to the fresh snow was on. But, we weren’t looking to win the race. We were going to be happy to just finish the race.
Pulling into the horseshoe canyon at Kirkwood is a sight to remember. The first sight is the historic Kirkwood Inn that was built back in 1864. Then, your eyes are drawn towards the Sentinels, past Glove Rock, and to The Wall. The Wall is Kirkwood’s signature, double black diamond, experts only, terrain accessible from the legendary Chair 10. Don’t expect to be whisked up to the top. Chair 10 gives riders more than enough time to reconsider their decision. There is no easy way down. And, the drop after the turn under the lift can be enough to make most people pucker and ask for a ride back down on the chairlift.
Our courage may have stemmed from bravado, inexperience, or we were still feeling the effects from the casino the night before. So, we made the drop and headed out towards All The Way. Well, we cut in a bit early and made it towards Waterfall. This area can really step up the pucker factor.
When Waterfall is filled in, like it is in most Kirkwood Februarys, then it is a bit less intimidating. You have to approach it, make sure you’re comfortable with the speed, then point it and commit to the runout without any turns. Well, let’s just say that we didn’t get perfect, textbook, runs. But, we survived and were exhilarated from surviving a ride down a waterfall in one piece. Now, it was off to the backside.
In all honesty, most of the backside of Kirkwood is filled with Intermediate terrain. But, there are a couple options to help achieve pucker status. First, is to head out of bounds past Covered Wagon Peak and into Emigrant Wilderness on yoyr own. But, the second is to head over towards Thunder Saddle. Since we didn’t bring any avalanche gear (beacon, shovel, probe, backpack, and knowledge), we opted to stay inbounds and tackle The Saddle.
The Saddle consists of the terrain on the lower part of The Cirque and over to the lower part of Lookout Vista. If you’re daring, hug the ropeline and go for Hell’s Delight on the edge of The Cirque. But, if you’re a bit more responsible, then head into The Saddle proper. From there, it’s possible to plinko your way back down to Devil’s Corral and across to Chair 2-Caples Crest or head back towards the village.
After all the traversing and slow going, we ended up back in the village and at the base of chairs 5 & 6. Chair 6-Cornice takes you up to the top of the ridgeline and helps you access the terrain out towards The Sentinels and Palisades Bowl. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this is one of my favorite zones. There are a multitude of gullys, rock drops, bump runs, and the possibilities are almost endless. This is definitely one of my happy places, any day of the week.
Well, to say that Kirkwood was a memorable Valentine’s Day adventure would definitely be an understatement. Too bad I didn’t get to send Heart Chute that day and make it a truly magical Valentine’s Day. I’ve been fortunate to be able to enjoy Kirkwood for the last 20 years. And, I hope to enjoy it for another 20+ years. I consider Kirkwood near and dear to my heart. I’ve met many great people out there. It takes a rare breed to commit to such a destination resort, especially considering the weather, lodging, amenities, etc. But, we all share the same love for the mountain and passion for adventure. So, maybe one day I’ll even finally be able to make a Valentine’s Day Heart Chute send to really bond us together? Until then, I feel fortunate to share the same birthday.