TRAVELING IN STYLE : Meanwhile in California

Sims has covered skiing for 35 years and is a Western regional correspondent for Skiing magazine.

California has historically bred superlatives, so it's no surprise that they can be applied to the latest in the Far West world of skiing, too.

For openers, Squaw Valley, celebrating its 40th anniversary (and the 30th anniversary of the Olympic Winter Games held there), now has the largest number of ski lifts--32--of any resort in the Western Hemisphere. It also has the greatest uphill capacity, and can deliver 47,370 skiers an hour onto the high ground. That should "un-wait" a lot of lift lines.

One of its five new chairlifts (two were replacements) is the Squaw Peak Express, a detachable quad 7,618-feet long that will rise 2,000 feet and carry 3,040 skiers an hour.

Squaw Valley is not California's lone flag-bearer. As a matter of fact, the second-largest lift network, at Mammoth Mountain (30 lifts, 43,000 rides an hour), and the third, Heavenly Valley (24 lifts, 31,000 an hour) maintain California's superlative hemispherical lead.

Such pace setting tells the world the Golden State is a skiing state despite all its other attractions. And nowhere else does such a mix of choices await a snow-going visitor.

From Lake Tahoe's ring of playgrounds and night excitement to Southern California's ski-and-surf-same-day possibilities; from Royal Gorge (North America's largest cross-country destination resort) and Yosemite's quiet grandeur to the close-to-100-m.p.h. night speed-skiing at Snow Valley and the half-pipe snow boarders at June Mountain and Snow Summit; from the gentle ski school spawning grounds that induce beginners to stay in the sport to the extreme steeps that magnetize the most daring, the sporting challenge and the pursuit of pleasure lead to the sale of some 7-million lift tickets a year.

That figure, according to the California Ski Industry Assn., is second only to Colorado, which has some 50 fewer lifts.

Squaw Valley, with its $15-million expenditure last summer and a groaning drawing board of projects, isn't the only ski area with new toys. Southern California this season gets its first high-speed detachable quad--the state-of-the-art in chairlifts--with a $2.5 million Doppelmayr shuttle at Mountain High East. Compared with old Chair 7, it will carry four times as many riders from the bottom to the top in less than half the time.

Northstar-at-Tahoe is getting two of these. Alpine Meadows and Sierra Ski Ranch each are getting one. Mammoth Mountain, which focused this year on trail upgrades, has emplaced five quads in its $40-million expansion program (including the purchase of June Mountain) of the past four years.

Resort retailers love the high-speed quads. Often by mid-afternoon the skiers are so burned out that they spend their remaining energies shopping.

Growth can come in several forms. For example, while Bear Mountain, at Big Bear Lake, has made pronounced improvements in its Learn-to-Ski Center and in trail design, one of its major thrusts is to train the visitor. A free Ski Evaluation program will have an instructor videotaping skiers, then critiquing the immediate on-screen "replay" and issuing a card rating the performance. This can be an introduction to a $17, 45-minute tips class limited to three students per instructor. Also, Bear Mountain will be the pilot area for a video presentation to lift lines, covering updates on conditions and a vast array of educational topics related to skiing.

Snow Summit, confident that it can provide a good experience, continues its "Skier Satisfaction" guarantee. Anyone unhappy after one run--for any reason, from conditions to a hangover--may exchange the lift ticket for a voucher good for another visit. Other Snow Summit innovations include considerably increasing the size of the beginners' area, storing repeat rental customers' statistics in computers for quick access, and establishing a parents' "hot line" to the expanded day-care center from two chairlift locations.

Snow Valley is launching a Midweek Club that offers members free lessons, free rentals, ski shop discounts and other privileges during the week (except on holidays) all season long for a one-time fee of $5.

No matter how good the facilities and the service, however, the vital ingredient is snow. Good natural snowfalls mean big crowds in California. In the last several years, though, the science of snow-making has made the presence of carpet almost a certainty. For example, in nine of the last 10 years, Snow Summit, Snow Valley and Goldmine (now Bear Mountain) have opened the weekend before Thanksgiving, whether or not natural snow had been sufficient to cover the runs.

A leader in this field is Heavenly Valley, which has the world's largest snow-making system coating great sections of its 12,800 acres. Now, the capacity has been increased, and Heavenly Valley can offer skiing off all its lifts on the California side, as well as off five lifts on the Nevada side, without natural snow.

To sum it up, it isn't difficult to find an adjective to describe California's skiing resources.

Superlative.

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