SQUAW VALLEY, Calif. – The snowboarder sitting to my right on the cable car says he’ll tell me what he’s up to as long as I don’t use his name. Turns out what he’s doing is the fastest way to lose your lift ticket in Tahoe.
But he’s piqued my interest, so I agree to his terms.
“I’m racing the cable car,” he says. “Hauling back down the mountain in less than four minutes.”
Racing the cable car has become an underground nighttime tradition at Squaw Valley.
The truth is, if you can cover the intermediate Mountain Run – North America’s longest night run at 3.2 miles – in less than 15 minutes, you’ll make the 2,000-foot descent quicker than the car.
But where’s the challenge in that?
Get down in under four minutes, however, and you’ve got something to talk about.
Just don’t talk around the ski patrol. If they can catch you, they’ll pull your lift ticket. To get down in less than four minutes, you’ll have to ski at least 48 mph.
“You’re not suppose to do it,” says Danny Kerr, a Squaw mountain host. “It’s not safe to go that fast in an area where there are beginner skiers. And you could hurt yourself, too.”
“One night I got into a tuck at the top and stayed in it all the way down,” Kerr says, his voice quieting to a whisper as a smile spreads across his face. “Less than four minutes.”
I was recalling my conversation with Kerr when No Name asks, “Are you going to try?”
But first I had to go through my mental checklist, to make sure I’d gotten a nice heaping dose of Squaw Valley’s nightlife. You know, in case the ski patrol takes my pass.
• I’d explored High Camp, maybe the most expansive mid-mountain lodge. High Camp, the cable car’s upper terminus, is at 8,200 feet and has such amenities as tennis courts, a swimming pool, a bar and an expensive restaurant.
• I’d taken a quick tour through the Olympics museum, a shrine to the 1960 Winter Games hosted by Squaw Valley and, like any good tourist, even posed for a picture on top of the medal podium.
• And I’d taken part in what might be Squaw’s second-most-popular nighttime activity, ice skating.
Every day, tourists take a break from skiing to lace up skates at the mid-mountain rink so they can say they skated where the U.S. hockey team and figure skaters Carol Heiss and David Jenkins won their gold medals.
Only one problem …
“This isn’t that place,” rink supervisor Erik Cleeves said with a smile.
Every night, Cleeves says he has to break this news to skaters.
“A lot of times people are disappointed,” Cleeves said, “but they almost always still skate.”
The roof of the Olympic rink, which was located in the base village, collapsed in the ’80s under the weight of a typical 450-inch snow year.
The new rink won’t have that problem, because it doesn’t have a roof. This is one of the reasons Taryn Law, who works at Plump Jack’s Squaw Valley Inn, loves to skate at night.
“It can be like skating under a canopy of stars,” said Law, who used to work at the rink. “And you can look out at the mountains. In the moonlight, the snow looks blue. It’s very beautiful.”
But much as she likes skating, she prefers being out on the blue snow. And she admits to burning down the Mountain Run in less than four minutes on several occasions.
Satisfied I’d gotten enough out of my lift ticket, I’m ready to try it for myself.
I watch No Name take off as I step into my skis. He tucks so low, that 50 yards later he looks like a backpack strapped to a snowboard.
A minute later, I check my watch and push off.
I’m not going very fast on the flat start, and the lifty running the Bailey’s Beach chair just smiles as I slide by.
But as I tuck across lower Squaw Peak, the speed comes.
As the run turns more directly downhill, I notice my shadow racing me, hands out front and skis shoulder-width apart.
I’m happy to see my shadow is wearing a helmet, too.
After 3.2 miles, I skid to a stop in front of a village sidewalk. No Name is long gone. As I look back up at the Mountain Run’s lights snaking up the mountain to confirm the ski patrol isn’t in hot pursuit, I check my watch and smile.
Three minutes, 26 seconds.