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Lake Tahoe Ski Vacation 2.0

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

It is a busy Thursday night at Bar of America, an institution in Truckee, California, since 1976. Set on the corner of Bridge Street and Donner Pass Road in the old railroad town, just 20 minutes north of the neighboring Lake Tahoe area resorts of Squaw Valley and Northstar California, the iconic spot has the trappings of a well-loved ski haunt: a dark-wood bar that’s been worn smooth; the smell of beer and wood-fired pizza permeating everything; and a small platform where guitar-heavy bands with names like Rustler’s Moon and Thick Newton play. The bar feels stuck in time (in a good way), channeling the laid-back, rough-hewn feel of northern California in the 70’s—as does the lineup of locals in flannel shirts and jeans, their jackets flung over the backs of chairs.

Tonight they’re joined by another group of regulars who, though not exactly from the neighborhood, do have northern California zip codes. At first glance, they seem indistinguishable from the bar’s usual clientele, but they bear the telltale marks of their tribe: this season’s brand-name ski jackets and pants and a higher quotient of cutting-edge tech gadgets (and a greater propensity to use them mid-conversation). The Silicon Valley set has pulled into Tahoe for the weekend.

Although the 1960 Olympic Winter Games put Lake Tahoe definitively on the global map, its resorts—Alpine Meadows, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Northstar, and Squaw Valley among them—maintained something of a provincial feel in the decades that followed. The area was like a neighborhood restaurant: reliably interesting, close to home, and filled with regulars. Some of the mountains simply didn’t have the infrastructure to attract outsiders. Northstar, nicknamed “Flatstar” by some locals, lacked diverse trails and had rather basic lodges and condos. The family-owned Squaw, on the other hand, didn’t seem to want outsiders. The terrain was aimed at hot-dogging experts, with few concessions made for beginners. Many ski runs didn’t have formal names and little to indicate their level of difficulty. Until recently, most of the chairlifts had only basic safety bars. Squaw was the quintessential anticorporate ski resort, infused with the independent, DIY spirit of its glory days in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Freestyle skier and Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley, who grew up skiing Squaw and now serves as a spokesperson for the resort, says it used to be a local weekend place, filled with families and friends from California, particularly the Bay Area, where he lived. It was the sort of place where, say, a fearless young mogul racer could develop and perfect a physics-defying jump called the Dinner Roll—but where a visiting skier would have trouble locating a single mid-mountain sign indicating easiest way down.

That was then. With the latest tech boom, wealthy entrepreneurs and early-stage employees at Silicon Valley’s behemoth companies (along with the whole monied-hipster-cool set that followed them) started coming in droves for winter getaways. Tahoe had long attracted Bay Area skiers, but these visitors were different: they had more cash to spend. They would bring not only their cars and equipment, but also their entourages and staff. They wanted space for all of them. The Silicon Valley techies first started coming in groups to rent houses. Then as they entered their early thirties and forties they started buying second homes.

And where there’s money, there’s development. The private equity firm KSL Capital Partners bought up Squaw in 2010 and began what became a $70 million improvement campaign. Colorado-based Vail Resorts, meanwhile, was fulfilling its manifest destiny by snapping up Heavenly, Kirkwood, and Northstar, the latter anchored by the area’s first true luxury hotel, a Ritz-Carlton. Then came the rest of the country, as new owners started marketing Tahoe as an alternative to Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. It wasn’t long before Moseley started hearing skiers speaking French, Italian, Korean, and Chinese on the lifts.

Nowhere is the remaking of Tahoe more evident than at the formerly unremarkable Northstar, which emerged about five years ago as the area’s Cinderella. Today, members of the Ritz-Carlton’s ski concierge staff help guests off with their equipment at the end of the day, while a white-coated “marshmologist” assists children in gently pressing graham crackers around their toasted marshmallows during afternoon s’mores sessions. In the village below, a central ice-skating rink is lined with such stores as Patagonia and the North Face, while the popular Chocolate Bar serves chocolate martinis and fondue. Nearby, the four-year-old luxury residential development Martis Camp (which is a “camp” in name only) has become Tahoe’s de facto country club for tech millionaires and billionaires.

Family-friendly and unabashedly luxe, Northstar has raised eyebrows among some old-timers in the area. Take the Ritz-Carlton’s Manzanita restaurant: though arguably Tahoe’s best, it’s pricey, and a far cry from local haunts such as Bar of America. But Northstar has nonetheless been building its street cred. It recently debuted a Shaun White–designed super-pipe for boarders, and even former detractors have praised the mountain’s newly opened gladed areas and backcountry terrain—perfect for skiers getting off-piste.

Eighteen miles away in Squaw, a different process is at work. “Squaw used to be a ski mountain, a bar—Plaza Bar—and not much else,” says Patrick McKenna, a San Francisco–based entrepreneur and investor who has been coming to the mountain since the 1990’s. When Andy Wirth became CEO of Squaw, in 2010, his mandate was to bring the resort up to international standards. He put in new lifts; he spent $4 million on new grooming machines; he named runs and created a formal trail map for the first time in the resort’s history. Wirth also lobbied Delta and United to bring more direct flights into Reno, and is working to get some well-known hotel brands into Squaw—an escalation in what’s shaping up to be a luxury-ski arms race with Northstar. There is also an ambitious plan in the works to connect the mountain to neighboring Alpine Meadows, creating the country’s largest ski resort in the process. In the meantime, Wirth has pushed for more dedicated investment in the town itself.

Squaw’s long-standing chalet-chic PlumpJack Café, manned by Ben “Wyatt” Dufresne (no relation to Wylie, but the closest thing the town has to a celebrity chef), now has some competition: the high-design wine bar Uncorked, which draws a stylish crowd after dark; the sushi restaurant Mamasake, serving California-fied rolls such as the kitchen-sink-style “mamazilla,” in which everything from spicy tuna to sriracha makes an appearance; and (perhaps inauspiciously) the world’s first ski-in, ski-out, mid-mountain Starbucks. But in all these places, no matter how serious the food, the mood is casual, aggressively unpretentious. The shearlings and furs of Aspen will not be appearing here. Despite the resort’s dramatic changes, the essence of Squaw remains the same, namely because the people it attracts, irrespective of wealth or status, share the same passion: a love of skiing and, most important, of this place, idiosyncrasies and all.

Perhaps no one embodies the new Tahoe more than Ron Schneidermann and Evan Reece, who’ve combined the area’s traditionally independent spirit with its current high-tech, entrepreneurial ethos. In 2005, the thirtysomethings cofounded Liftopia, a kind of Expedia for lift tickets, inspired by their years of skiing Tahoe. They wanted to make the area accessible to more people—to finally share it with others. “Tahoe has something for everyone on and off the slopes,” Schneidermann says. “Now more than ever before.”

Alexandra Wolfe is a reporter living in New York City.

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