Well, I think I've started a new tradition: a semi-disastrous first mountain winter trip of the year, filled with challenges and tough moments, but that will become one of our favorite memories to laugh over later.
To start, there is no snow in the Sierras. Usually by now there is a base of natural snow that is many feet deep, but right now all the ski resorts in the Tahoe area are relying on snowmaking exclusively, on limited runs.
The whole idea was to play in the snow around the cabin I'd rented, but since there really was no snow, I'd reserved a ski school day at Heavenly, a large ski resort in South Lake Tahoe, one that has a lot of snowmaking equipment and is known for spectacular views of Lake Tahoe. It also has a long steep gondola ride that starts in the midst of a downtown shopping area, and that seemed like it'd be fun.
So the kids and I drove up Thursday morning to our cabin in Strawberry, and arrived about an hour and a half before it was ready. So we continued on to South Lake Tahoe to scope out the gondola, ski school, and parking. Sure enough, the gondola started in a busy downtown plaza, right across from the ski school.
I took this to show how bare the mountains are of snow -- but isn't this an odd scene? A busy downtown outdoor shopping area with people clunking around in ski boots.
We'd been advised to meet in front of the big wooden bear in front of the ski school.
I formed a plan: tomorrow, I'd drop the kids off in a bus stop with mine and Gabriel's ski stuff, put the boys under oath not to fight while I parked at a nearby casino, then I'd run back to check Julian and Katrina into ski school. Ideally I'd have liked to put Gabriel into half-day ski school so I could take a lesson, but this place doesn't have half-day ski schools, so Gabriel and I would ski together all day.
Logistics handled, we drove back to our now-open cabin. Katrina especially was disappointed about the lack of snow, but now she was very excited about a gondola ride tomorrow.
The next morning, my plan worked just great -- we arrived at the bus stop near the gondola and ski school in plenty of time. I dropped off kids, skis, boots, helmets, reminded the boys not to fight, zoomed off to park the car, hoisted a knapsack on my back, and trotted back to the kids without a hitch. I gathered Julian and Katrina to check them into ski school, when I noticed: the gondola wasn't moving.
"Wind advisory," explained a ski school instructor. "The gondola will probably be closed all day. We'll bus the ski school kids over to the California Lodge."
What?! Oh brother. The whole reason for this gondola logistical hullaballo was because the gondola had access to more trails with manmade snow on them. If we'd planned to start at the California Lodge, I'd just have driven there to begin with, and checked J & K into the ski school there.
So after saying goodbye to Julian and Katrina, Gabriel and I lugged our stuff over to the ski bus area, heavedourselves on, and rode about 15 minutes to the California Lodge. I was glad we were wearing our shoes and carrying our boots -- lots of people huff around in their ski boots, which I HATE doing.
It took a while to orient ourselves and find the lockers for our shoes and my bag, but finally Gabriel and I were ready to tackle the lifts.
But no snow! This is what it looked like from the lift. Like, no! snow!
Gabriel was happy to be on the lift anyway.
Our first run of the year, woo-hoo!
Gabriel and I followed the open lifts and the snow until we were as high up as we could go. Then there was a decent run that took us back to just one lift, and we skiied around that a bunch of times. That was great -- despite the manmade snow and wind, it really was nice to be skiing again. I was reminded just how far I have to go and how unsatisfied I am with my tentative, flawed technique.
At the top of Ridge Run, there were photographers -- who didn't know about the "Bad Weather" paper lift tickets being issued today. This meant I didn't have a card they could scan to link our photos to their Web site. At least he was kind enough to take a photo with my crummy camera.
(As an aside, I'm pretty sure I don't look that dumpy in real life -- my ski pants are NOT flattering!)
This is a pretty run though -- views of the lake the whole way down, if you can take your eyes off the ground immediately in front of you, something I'm still working on!
Gabriel got a lot of compliments on his psychedelic ski helmet, which I'd bought to identify him from a distance. Turns out, it doesn't work that well - a solid blue or red would have worked better. Actually, a brightly colored jacket is much better for picking kids out of a crowd from afar.
When it was time for lunch, we had to ski down two runs, go up one lift, ski down slightly to another lift, then go down the lift to get to the lodge. First time I've ever taken a lift down!
Gabriel and I had a nice lunch chatting, then got ourselves geared back up for the series of lifts to take us back up.
We ran into Julian's lesson on the way up, and he seemed like he was having fun.
He was excited to show me his new "hockey stop."
Gabriel and I spent most of our time on Ridge Run, though it had one area that was particularly windblown, and so was pretty icy. Other parts were deep in the mandmade snow, and this was almost worse for me. I don't know how to deal with big piles of snow that grab your skis and suddenly slow you down.
I was mindful of the time, however. I had to be at the gondola area ready to pick up Julian and Katrina at 3:45. Gabriel and I would have to make our way back down the mountain, un-gear and board a ski bus back to downtown, then find a way to get our skis to the car without losing my parking spot, then walk the ~10 minutes to the gondola area to pick up the other two by 3:45 the latest. Whew. We'd better get started on our way back at 2:30.
I timed our round-trip runs: 16 minutes to lift, ski, start the lift again. At the top of our Ridge Run at 2:31pm, I told Gabriel this was the last run, then we'd start working our way down. "Ok Mom!"
Gabriel and I are a decent match skiing. I'm faster than he is on the easy parts, but as soon as there's any ice or deeper snow or challenge, he doesn't slow down and easily passes me. This last run, I made sure to stay behind him even when I could have passed him. He was having fun on the sides where the whoop-de-doo's and jumps were, though he seemed awfully close to the edge to me. I squelched my worried-mom instincts and just let it go. When you have a (almost) 10-year-old boy, you have to do that.
Then on one jump, Gabriel got a little bent out of shape, staggered, then lost control, and then he was tumbling toward the boulders on the side. He landed backward, with his back draped over a rock and his left arm twisted unnaturally behind him.
I was on the scene in seconds and hurriedly took my skis off as I heard him cry out in pain and shock. I sat him up and saw right away that he was able to move all his limbs. He didn't say much, just "OWW!" and complained about his back. I got him to stand up to see if he could put weight on his legs, and he could, but didn't want to. Then he complained about his arm, that he couldn't move it. He could, I could see, but it was hard to tell how much.
Someone stopped and asked if he should call ski patrol. I said I really didn't know, but Gabriel called out, "YES! I can't ski down." I asked the guy to call just in case. Super-tough Gabriel was still resisting moving or trying anything.
Less than a minute later, a ski patrol guy stopped -- he'd just been cruising by. He did quick triage on Gabriel, and was able to rule out a few obvious things, but of course you can't tell everything from there.
I snapped a picture of where Gabriel's skis ended up, but looking at the photo again, the tracks don't suggest that Gabriel was still attached to these skis when they landed here. One of them was wedged nicely between rocks.
My calm demeanor hid my mounting panic: we've got to get Julian and Katrina at ski school soon -- and thanks to a stunning confluence of circumstances, was already about as complicated as it possibly could be, and now I was facing time trouble and a whole other set of logistics with Gabriel.
The ski patrol skiied Gabriel in the sled down to another lift area. I was a good 5 minutes behind them; I didn't have a prayer of keeping up with a skilled skiier even if he had a sled behind him!! But I also knew enough not to try: this was NO time to fall, better I get there late and safely.
Gabriel's sled was attached to a snowmobile. I got on the back and the lady snowmobile driver towed the sled and the ski patrol guy to the next lift area. That was cool.
But we weren't taking the lift down -- there's also a tram that leads down to a clinic near the lodge where my bag and shoes were tucked away in a locker. On the tram, I answered a lot of questions about Gabriel's age, address, skiing ability, and an interesting (and valid) question: what could have prevented this accident. Hard to say -- I'm the first to say if a kid is breaking the rules, but really, he just lost control. I wish he hadn't been so close to the edge, but he wasn't breaking any rules, he just fell.
Once inside the clinic, we thanked the ski patrol guy (who'd stashed our skis and poles nearby), and turned our attention to the medical staff. I answered some basic questions, then alerted them to my increasing time problem: I had to pick up the other two at the gondola, and I was running out of time! Of ALL days to have my bag and shoes, children, and car spread all over the place.
The clinic staff were really helpful, though reluctant to follow the obvious plan: let me leave Gabriel here while I go get the other two and my car. Instead, they called the ski school staff to try to locate Julian and Katrina -- who ironically had been near us at California Lodge all day, but by now were probably on a bus back to the gondola area.
I huffed over in my ski boots from the clinic to the lodge to retrieve my bag (with our medical insurance card) and shoes. Shoes! Thank goodness I'd insisted on wearing my shoes and carrying my boots over. I emptied our locker, changed into my blessed shoes, and carried my boots back to the clinic.
Gabriel's left arm x-ray didn't show up much, though he was still reporting some pain. The staff all commented about what a tough kid he was -- no whining or crying, just very factual answers. But despite his toughness and cooperation, he's still just 9 years old and can't judge how severe an injury is. My instinct was that his arm was basically OK.
By now it was 5 minutes away from when I was supposed to pick up the other two. The kind clinic staff had contacted ski school and figured out a plan: the Ski Services manager would drive over to the gondola area to pick them up and bring them to the clinic. Then they'd call for the clinic's own shuttle van that to take all of us and our ski gear back to my car.
The Ski Services manager arrived soon with Julian and Katrina, barely able to contain himself with laughter. He pointed to Katrina and mouthed to me, "She's hilarious!" He said they both talked nonstop on the way over. I thanked everyone profusely as we bundled everyone and everything into the clinic's van, and the bored young driver took us back to the Nevada casino parking lot where my car was.
All items and people reunited, we drove gratefully back to our cabin. I'll be darned, is that a snowflake?! We thought we saw one or two. So many businesses and jobs in that area depend on snow. C'mon Mother Nature! We had an easy dinner, lots of treats, quick showers, and some TV. Gabriel was still saying his arm hurt.
In the morning, we packed up to clear out by 11am. The only hitch in this plan was when I just about had the car packed, and went back into the cabin one last time to retrieve Katrina and the key, when I found the door locked. "MOM-MY!" Katrina called from inside. She'd locked the door and didn't know how to unlock it!! I called to her several times to "turn the knob," but she didn't know what I meant. After a quick run around the place to find another way in, I returned to the front door and calmed my voice. "Katrina, see this knob?" I wiggled the main lever. "Not this one -- turn the one above it." She cried out, "But it might LOCK it!!" I assured her that was OK at this point, and finally, I heard the deadbolt click open. Whew.
The cabin wasn't huge, but it was nicely laid out and the general living area had plenty of space.
Pretty mountain view too.
Since we had to leave by 11am, I figured we'd drive back to South Lake Tahoe again, then drive around the east side of the lake for a little sightseeing. This plan basically worked, with several stops along the way.
We stopped to see Cave Rock, which wasn't much in the grand scheme of things.
The best stop was at a vista point within the Lake Tahoe State Park (in Nevada), with some trails down to the lake and some great climbing rocks.
My plan had been to stop in Truckee for lunch, but the kids were all set on Denny's, and my iPhone reported the nearest Denny's was in Reno. Gabriel was in command of the iPhone, so I couldn't see his searches, but by the time we figured anything out, we were on I-80 and on our way to Auburn. "Can you guys hold out another hour?" A quick snack stop and then we made great time to Auburn, where the Denny's milkshakes made up for the delay.
I was stunned to see that there was actually snow on the mountains around Donner Pass -- far more than there had been on the south side of Lake Tahoe. Not enough to ski on by itself, but still a lot more.
I'm the meanest car travel mom, but I also have very few kid car travel issues. I don't know which is the effect and which is the cause, but we travel with no electronics (well, Gabriel had his new MP3 player, and the boys did get to text Dad with the iPhone), no screens and no food. We stop for meals, and only in emergencies (such as a last-minute decision to wait another hour for lunch) will I give them snacks, and then only at a stop outside the car.
At our last gas/break stop before the final push home, they were getting restless, so I played my last card and gave them all new activity books and flashlights. It was only on the last leg of the trip that I had to do even that -- and then not a peep until we got home at 6pm!
Of course, there were the usual peeps about helping out once we arrived. I'd rehearsed and talked with the kids well before we got home: when we arrive, please help carry stuff inside from the car. I've learned from my new experience with camping and skiing that if I don't unpack the car in the first 10 minutes, it won't happen for days.
Gabriel was a huge help, one arm notwithstanding, and not only helped me carry things from the car to the house, but he brought his own knapsack upstairs, unpacked it, and hung it in his cubby without being told.
Julian, meantime, was exactly opposite. After numerous reminders, he finally spilled out of the car carrying nothing, then played with the Christmas lights after I'd told him not to, then wouldn't go back to the car to help carry things in. He'd been a big problem with following instructions all day, and I was way too fried for more from him, so I delivered him a sound spanking after he'd defied me one more time. I know the anti-spanking advocates say there's another way, but I'm sorry: his attitude was markedly changed afterward -- so much so I wished I'd done it hours ago. In fact, he seemed happier after the initial shock was over.
With the car unpacked and a quick dinner made, I had time to reflect on the trip.
How much can we take? First, no snow. Then we pick the ONE day to ski that high winds shut down the gondola and many of snow-blown trails for which I'd chosen this large, hassle-rich ski resort. Then Gabriel has the worst crash he's ever had!
Well, despite allll that, it was still completely worth it. I was so happy to be in the mountains again, happy to share it with my children and get them to see the beautiful state we live in. We talked a lot about snow and how I grew up with it (now they all want to move to New York), but I told them that I really love California (and Nevada, where we spent the better part of the morning) and the mountains and all the beautiful things here.
I'm hoping our trips to the Tahoe area will become a permanent part of their childhood memories. I'd love to add summers to that too -- but first, let's find some snow up there this winter!