Trees Made In Heaven
Most of the time, skiers are checking out resort maps for the manicured and marked trails carved between acres of trees. At Heavenly, 91 trails are laid out on 4800 acres. While it's true trees divide and define the trail system, in these acres and acres of trees lie deep harbors of powder snow that the trees effectively guard from the wind and from major skier traffic. In other words, there's a paradise of skiing in Heavenly trees.
During my visit I was fortunate to ski with a resort host, Russ Pecoraro, who took some time out of his busy schedule to introduce me to some of the best tree skiing in the country, and even shared a few of his favorite spots with me. I felt honored to be led into what are usually sacred and secret stashes, but it quickly became apparent Russ's favorite lines were quite safe. We skied through so many glades and woods that, in all likelihood, I wouldn't even know if I passed the same tree twice - in my lifetime.
The trees at Heavenly are much more thinned out than trees at eastern ski resorts. The altitude and environment have effected this natural culling of the trees - a sort of survival of the fittest at high elevation. However, there are locals who swear that, Heavenly is so named, and the trees are so spaced for nice skiing and riding, because a deity likes to ski the trees here. I personally did not run into a god in the Heavenly trees but I had a heck of a time skiing her favorite stashes.
Well Marked Glades and Woods Funnel You Home
As a eastern skier who doesn't spend a lot of time in the thicker glades common in the east, my first question was: What if my host, Russ, goes one way and I go another? Am I going to find my way out? Well, not to worry, because the many identified areas like Eastbowl Woods, Maggie's Canyon, Powderbowl Woods, Ski Ways Glades, Aries Woods, Dipper Woods, Scorpion Woods, Galaxy Woods, and Nevada Woods all drop into trails or catwalks that route you to civilization.
However, in the trees, going one way while your partners go another is a big lure of tree skiing. Within three turns and twenty feet or so, I had absolutely no idea where Russ was headed and skiing your own line is actually easier, because most of the time you are making the first tracks around most of the trees and you don't get caught in someone elses carving.
Skiing in these woods, I found you are as alone as you want to make yourself. Once you get comfortable knowing your not going to get lost, and that there is plenty of room between trees to safely flounder in the powder, you can map your own tracks any way you wish. All the designated areas are graded for difficulty. The expert only Mott and Killerbrew Canyons have well marked gated entry points so you won't accidently head into them unaware.
Look for the Right Skis
This adventure, being another to prove my theory that eastern skiers can not only learn to ski western powder, but ski it in trees, again called for skis a little fatter underfoot than my back east skis. Since this was on a beautiful bluebird sunny day, after a good 8-12 inches of overnight powder, the techs at Tahoe Boot 'N' Bike Works set me up with a pair of Volkl Mantras. At 96mm underfoot and 170cm these skis were recommended by the boys as being good for the powder and also a good length for getting around in the trees. I was ready to go.
Prepare and Be Safe
A good practice, if you personally don't know the area, is to ski with a buddy - preferably one who does know the terrain. As I mentioned, at Heavenly, most of the woods are identified and will lead to marked trails, but don't count on that being the case at every resort.
Knowing I was still in a learning mode, Russ never got too far ahead of me without stopping and either seeing or calling me, so that at no time was he out of earshot when we skied differing lines. He also paused several times to put several groups of other "visiting" skiers at ease by explaining that here "down" meant they would eventually emerge on a marked trail.
The Eyes Need It
When skiing in glades and woods, there are a few other cautionary steps for safety that really need to be noted. The Number One rule here is that goggles are needed for eye protection against even the smallest of branches that could cause serious damage. You are not going to find too many places that are sunnier than Heavenly but, as Russ, my resort host repeatedly did - put the sunglasses away and get out the goggles before entering the trees.
A Pass On Mott Canyon and Why
When Russ offered to guide me into Mott Canyon, the double black treed area that borders Heavenly boundaries I graciously opted for a raincheck - until I felt comfortable in the steeper treed terrain. Being in control and confident in being able to stop at will is imperative in the trees.
These are not breakaway slalom poles and smacking an arm or leg into a tree can be, at the least, very bruising. So, ski the trees to your ability, with the goal to be always in control. As you get more proficient ratchet up the vertical, but be sure to give yourself that edge of being able to traverse to slow or stop.
Russ and I skied pretty much non-stop all morning pausing only to meet Maddy, the Search and Rescue Golden Retriever, her handler, Tom Burkhart and her special ski patroller friends. When we did pause during lunch time at the Lakeview Lodge, we were able to look down The Face. This is 1800 feet of vertical moguls that most everyone in the world has at one time or another seen Glen Plake take at full bore and with incredible grace and agility.
Trees for Another Day
Russ gave the choice of more trees or the opportunity to downride the Gunbarrel Express quad directly over The Face. I opted for the lift and to save a few good tree lines for another day. Actually, Russ could have left me to loop the Comet Chair and ski Aries Woods all day and I would have had a ball.
At Heavenly, you will have to do a lot of skiing over a lot of days before you even think you might have skied the same line twice - and I guarantee you won't get bored trying.