Kirkwood is a favorite with skiers in Lake Tahoe

Kirkwood receives the most annual snowfall in the Sierras. (Photo courtesy of Kirkwood Ski Resort)

By Marlene Greer

Improving your skiing is all about taking a new skill and being able to use it on a smooth groomed run or a steep pitch. Especially if you’re zigzagging through trees or bounding through a gully.

And Lake Tahoe’s Kirkwood Mountain Resort has what it takes to get skiers and snowboarders moving across the mountain.

“What is brilliant about Kirkwood is the natural terrain of the mountain allows that natural progression to take place,” said Nick Brittain, a college student from New Zealand who was spending his summer break teaching at Kirkwood’s Learning Center.

The beginners’ terrain is a mix of wide groomed slopes of varying pitch, a set of funny bunny rollers, and little gullies with treacherous names like Ditch of Doom and Ditch of Gloom.

“We start at the magic carpet,” Brittain explained. “Our first aim is to move from the carpet to the chair lift, then from less gradient to higher gradient to off-piste. We build their confidence. What we love is involving different terrains and seeing skill level improve. Kids absolutely love those terrain variations.”

So do his adult students.

“We take aggressive and fun-loving adults through the same progression as the kids,” the Kiwi said. “If we did nothing but groomers, it would get boring.”

For a couple intermediate skiers out for the first time this season, Brittain started with easy groomed runs to get a feel for our abilities. Then, with comfort and confidence restored, he led us down a short, but steep advanced level groomed pitch.

“This is how we build confidence; we take a blue (intermediate level) run into a portion of the black,” he explained.

Then it was on to some easy tree trails and a deep gully. Brittain showed us how to use the gully’s high sides to slow down and turn rather than plow straight through or use quick hockey stops. This skill is needed on the steep terrain at the mountaintop, where plowing doesn’t work.

Kirkwood is known for The Wall, a long ridgeline at 9,400 feet, where expert skiers blast off into Wagon Wheel Bowl, and Thunder Saddle, a collection of difficult gullies. The ski resort is what one local resident calls an “aficionados mountain.”

A skier takes a run down Once is Enough Chute at Kirkwood. (Photo courtesy of Kirkwood Ski Resort)

“It has open ridgeline skiing, above treeline skiing, lots of tree skiing, secret stashes, and one-man and two-man chutes,” said Mike Frye, a former Kirkwood ski instructor. “Their brand is off-piste. It’s big mountain skiing. To get the most out of the mountain, you need to be a good skier.”

Kirkwood is one of the lesser known ski resorts around Lake Tahoe. It’s located about 35 miles south of the lake off Highway 88.

The Kirkwood shuttle costs $15, less with a lift ticket. The bus picks up skiers at major South Lake Tahoe hotels beginning at 7:30 a.m. and arrives at the mountain at 9 a.m. The shuttle leaves Kirkwood at 4:30 p.m.

Kirkwood may be a little out of the way, but it’s a favorite among locals. “Fewer people, more snow and steeper terrain,” one admirer said.

That’s definitely Kirkwood. I skied there on a Thursday and there were no lift lines. No dodging around people stopped on the slope in front of you. There was just the three of us on some runs in the morning.

Kirkwood has 15 lifts, including a high-speed quad for its beginning area. Two new lifts opened last year. Seven lifts at the bottom provide many points of entry for skiers.
The mountain has two base areas – Mountain Village and Timber Creek. The beginners’ area at Timber Creek is separate from the rest of the mountain and has its own lift. There’s no through traffic. Parents see this as safer for their kids, Brittain said.
Though known for its expert terrain, Kirkwood is great for intermediate skiers, with 50 percent of its terrain designated as blue runs. But much of that terrain, and most of the mountain, isn’t groomed.

“Our customers prefer it that way,” said Tim Cohee, senior vice president Kirkwood-Mountain Springs. Kirkwood skiers, he says, are the more adventurous type.
“If your kid jumps on a trampoline and skateboards, those are the people we get here,” Cohee said.

That doesn’t describe me or my mountain ski lesson buddy for the day. We preferred the cushy groomers and stopped frequently to take in the gorgeous mountain vistas.
But before we ended our lesson and mountain tour, we couldn’t resist trying the Ditch of Doom and the Ditch of Gloom.

Now that’s progress.

Marlene Greer is a La Verne freelance writer. She can be reached at