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The sign on the shoulder of U.S. 40, west of Truckee, Calif., says it's "Old School Thursday" at Donner Ski Ranch, lift tickets $10 a day.
They must be pretty desperate to offer tickets that cheap, I think as I pull into the rutted parking lot that is only one- quarter full. It's late January, the mountains are covered with snow and ski season is well under way.
Talk about old school. The main lift to the summit is manned by a middle-aged guy in a thick flannel jacket, jeans and hiking boots. His long gray hair sticks out from under a baseball cap. The lift is a renovated three-seat chair that moves as if it's being pulled by a team of mules.
On the lodge patio, customers shuffle along on wooden planks and eat on picnic tables. The lodge, built a decade after the resort opened in 1937, looks like a roadside diner: worn hardwood floors, exposed drainage pipes, fluorescent lights, metal chairs and Formica tables.
And the slopes. The slopes are wide, clean stretches, cutting through 500 acres of pine trees, free of the ramps, rails and other heavy-metal protrusions that snowboarders crave, and there's no wait for any of the lifts.
I think I just found my new favorite ski resort.
I step inside the lodge, lay down my 10 bucks (for the 2007-08 season, the price for Old School Thursday has jumped to $15) and make my way to the mountaintop. From the 7,781-foot summit of Signal Hill I look down on the icy, cobalt-blue waters of Donner Lake, where the Donner party suffered through the winter of 1846-47 on the pine-covered shore. To the south are the snow-covered mountains that border Lake Tahoe.
Just across U.S. 40, I see Sugar Bowl, and the mountain to the north is Boreal. Fifteen Alpine and nine cross-country ski resorts are within an hour's drive of Lake Tahoe, the highest concentration in the country. For skiers, it's a sweet accident of geology and meteorology that makes this region a premier winter playground.
For the last 15 years or more, private equity groups and big-money corporations have been gobbling up the biggest, most popular and most profitable ski resorts, and with good reason. From 2001 to 2006, U.S. ski resorts saw revenue increase 22 percent. Now, nearly one in three ski trips takes place on a mountain owned by one of the four biggest resort corporations. It's a trend that some people decry and others believe has saved skiing. I'm not sure how I feel.
When I hauled my equipment off a plane at the airport in Reno, Nev., I had decided to avoid Heavenly, Boreal and Alpine Meadows. I was tired of all the corporate remodeling, upgrading and refashioning of resorts that have turned them into "ski destinations" with high-speed quads, high-end ski villages, ultramodern lodges — and all the intimacy of an airport terminal. Instead, I was searching for a different experience: a place with personality and oddball charm, a place where I'd feel comfortable wearing jeans tucked into my ski boots.
I'm competent enough on skis to hazard a single-diamond run, but I shy away from uncharted backcountry slopes with sheer faces and avalanche hazards. So I wanted a place where I could explore challenging terrain without ending up in an emergency room or plowed over by hot-dogging snowboarders. Happily for me, I stumbled into a time warp.
On my first day at Donner, I ask the kid behind the ticket counter where I might find Marshall Tuttle, the resort's owner. I expect to be directed to a corporate headquarters in Lake Tahoe or nearby Truckee. Instead, the kid points to the bottom of the mountain and says, "He's running the lift today."
Tuttle does this on a regular basis. If he's not operating the lift, he's shoveling snow or clearing a run on the mountain. I sit down with him while he eats a submarine sandwich and chips for lunch at a worn picnic table on the lodge's sun deck. He has rough hands, collar-length gray hair and sun-dried skin; his employees call him by his first name. Tuttle knows he can't compete head-to-head with the big nearby operations such as Alpine Meadows and Boreal. His strategy is to stay small and familiar. "Maybe the trend will all come back to this someday," he says.
His is one of a few family-owned resorts that thrive in little-known places such as Logan, Utah; Taos Ski Valley, N.M.; and Harrison, Mich.
After meeting with Tuttle, I warm up on a few easy runs, I take the three-chair lift to the summit to explore the backside of the mountain. I'm nearly alone here. The squawking of blackbirds echoes over the pines. I come off the lift onto a curving, knife-edge ridge. From the crest, I see football-shaped Lake Van Norden to the east and Boreal Ridge to the north.
It's only a 750-foot vertical drop — compared with 3,500 feet at Heavenly and 2,840 feet at Squaw Valley. But a few yards into my descent from German Ridge into a chute called the Gully, I catch my skis on a rock or a root and tumble like a marionette without strings. Donner's biggest drawback is that it doesn't get the same snowfall as many of the higher Tahoe-area summits.
Fickle snowfall is one of the reasons the small fish are getting swallowed by the big fish. Corporate resort owners can ride out the thin snow years by turning ski slopes into year-round real estate developments. Golf courses, shopping villages, condos and time shares bail out mega-resort operators such as Intrawest Corp. and Vail Resorts Inc. during lean winters.
This trend has spawned critics such as Hal Clifford, author of Downhill Slide, who argues that corporate giants have converted many of America's best-loved resorts into sterile, high-priced, snow-covered versions of a Carnival cruise.
"If you go to an Intrawest resort, it may be a great experience, but it's like going to every other Intrawest resort," he says.
The giant resort operators reject such statements, saying that skiers can choose from among nearly 500 resorts of varying sizes and character throughout the country. "There is still something for everyone," says Vail Resorts Chief Executive Robert A. Katz.
Others believe this criticism has to do with change itself.
"People are always nostalgic ... remembering the resorts being nicer than they were," says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. "The fact is that the skiing experience has never been better."
Back on my feet in the Gully, I finish my run, speeding over a narrow washboard lane bordered by pine trees. It gives me a double-espresso jolt of adrenaline. I waddle to the lift, eager for another challenge.
At the summit, there's Tuttle again. The guy is everywhere. Now he's helping kids get off the three-seat lift. For my next descent, I join a group of parents and kids on a long, swooping run called South Bowl Road. It's a snow-covered access road that begins with a steep drop into a gentle chute bordered by pine and ends at the bowl at the bottom of the lift.
Later at the lodge, I dig into a bowl of hot chili. In a corner, a group of kids are watching Tom and Jerry on a small color TV while they scarf down chicken fingers and chips. Twelve-year-old Reno snowboarder Josh Zeme plops down at the table next to me. He has been coming to Donner since he was 8 or 9. He has skied other places in the area but prefers Donner, saying, "You don't get lost here like at some other resorts."
The next day at Donner, I explore several runs on the backside of the mountain before I ride the lift alone to the summit to watch the setting sun shimmer off the surface of Donner Lake.
As I get ready for my last run, I think about the previous evening I spent in Truckee, the closest thing to what you might call Donner's ski village.
After a day of skiing, I had gone looking for Mexican food and a place to enjoy a beer with the locals.
Truckee is a historic lumber town, now built around a train depot near U.S. 80. In the mid-1800s, the place was known for its hard-core drinkers, gamblers, gunfighters and citizens of flexible moral standards. Now downtown Truckee is a stretch of mostly brick buildings, with a mix of small shops, posh boutiques and restaurants running parallel to the railroad tracks and the Truckee River.
Inside one of those brick buildings I found a noisy, dimly lighted saloon called the Tourist Club, with worn wooden floors and deer heads crowding the walls. I bellied up to the bar, which I was told was converted from an old horse trough not long after the place opened in 1937. I ordered a beer and heard the bartender and a lanky man chalking a pool cue complain about the future of Truckee and quirky places like the Tourist Club.
Their venom was aimed at Vail, Colo.-based East West Partners, which had purchased a sizable chunk of this railroad town with plans to develop a resort destination, including two golf course-adjacent developments, cafes and shops near downtown. Construction on the $1 billion project, which includes rows of condos planted among clusters of pine trees and surrounded by bare lots waiting for more development, began four years ago and is expected to continue for years. It is exactly what I was afraid might happen.
But for now, I strap on my helmet and push toward my favorite run, the South Bowl Road. The only sounds are of my skis slicing through the mushy snow and the wind blowing past my ears. Spears of amber sunlight cut through the pines as I take my last leisurely jaunt. Near the bottom, I shoot out between two clusters of trees and coast to a stop near the lift.
As I step out of my skis, I think about Tuttle — nowhere in sight, but surely on his mountain somewhere, fixing something.