Ski Pacific: Kirkwood Scrubs Up For Company

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It was snowing hard one day last April when Barry Sgarrella and his family were at Kirkwood for their annual Easter ski fling. Rather than hibernate during the storm, they decided to look at investment property. They found that the resort was selling parcels for condominiums around its planned Mountain Village. Before the storm had lifted, Sgarrella had a handshake on a deal to build an upscale 38-unit residential and commercial project in what was then the core of the village.

Sgarrella, a real-estate developer, is a long-time skier from Marin County in the San Francisco Bay Area and is among a growing cadre of people who are making things happen at Kirkwood. They are part of the turn-around team at Lake Tahoe's most underrated mountain, and they are hoping that the resort will soon be something more than a remote corner of the northern Sierra Nevada.

For 25 years, skiers at Kirkwood have been considered the daredevils of Tahoe-people with nerve enough to negotiate hair-raising mountain trails, sneer at radical dropoffs and spit in the eye of swirling blizzards that dropped 4 feet of snow in 24 hours. And those were just the motorists.

Skiing the mountain-well, that was almost an afterthought. If you could drive over Carson Pass from Tahoe or over Carson Spur from the Central Valley (two of the most avalanche-prone sections of highway in California), you'd be content to hunker down, appreciate the virtue of seclusion and savor every moment of tripping through flour-like powder. If you weren't a skiing purist, there wasn't much else. Apres-ski? How about a Lowenbrau in the bar. Dining? There were burgers and steaks at the Kirkwood Inn. Shopping? Well, you could buy an extra pair of goggles, but that was about it. And for entertainment you could read a few chapters of that five-pound Stephen King novel.

Of course, Kirkwood has always had its loyalists, mostly the locals and cornice-jumpers from South Lake Tahoe who treat it like their private country club. On a typical Kirkwood day, there are no lines, no hassles and lots of ungroomed bowls. And the early season cognoscenti know that Kirkwood's 7,800-foot base is a hedge against droughts and paltry November or December storms.

But with little to offer except incredible skiing and a bunch of condominiums, Kirkwood has been hanging on by a thread. The resort's remote location-two hours from the nearest commercial airport and 45 minutes from the lake-went against every notion of what it takes for a modern ski resort to thrive. Starting in 1994, a few things happened to change what was sounding like Kirkwood's losing playbook.

First, the access problem on the roads was largely eliminated when CalTrans installed some new technology called the Gaz-Ex avalanche control system. No, it's not a laxative, it's a row of cannons or tubes located along major avalanche chutes that trigger blasts of oxygen and propane to create controlled slides.

Remotely, CalTrans crews can fire these charges frequently to clear buildups along Highway 88. Gaz-Ex is faster and easier than tossing hand charges or shooting projectiles, and comes in handy during those record years when Kirkwood gets up to 900 inches of snow.

In 1995, the real estate market suddenly took off, and Kirkwood's isolation went from being a liability to an asset. Seventeen of the first 19 new condo units in the village were pre-sold by lottery within an hour. Most of the buyers were Silicon Valley millionaires looking for more privacy than the shores of Lake Tahoe could offer. Kirkwood, once languishing from buyer indifference, became the hideaway of choice. The management and the resort's new investors from the Telluride Company thought that they had turned the corner.

But as late as last spring, with the Mountain Village under construction, trouble cropped up on the first building. The condohotel that was to house the new skier's day lodge was beset with huge cost overruns, design problems andengthy work delays, making resort president Tim Cohee wonder if any game plan could salvage the thing. Cohee, a marathon runner, is a youthful, indomitable spirit who thinks of winning over adversity in the same vein as catching his second wind. But enough is enough. "It was a multi-million-dollar lesson," he sighs.

Happily, the tide turned again. During the summer, the robust demand for mountain property brought three new developers to Kirkwood, including Sgarrella's Great Sierra Group. As this edition went to press, plans were being drawn for three additional condominium projects, two of them in the village. One of these, another Kirkwood-financed effort, will offer quartershares, similar to what ski developer Les Otten has done at Sunday River, Maine. These and the future full-share units are expected to go on sale around Christmas.

What skiers will see this season is the opening of the $11.5 million Lodge at Kirkwood. The four-story, steel-reinforced building houses condo units on its upper floors. On the ground floor is an array of skier services that includes a spacious lobby with fireplace, a store called Kirkwood Trading Company and a bar called Off the Wall, named after the hairball slope framed in its windows. There is also a check-in center for all of the resort's properties. Cohee describes the architectural style as contemporary Rocky Mountain, with warm woods, log detail and rock accents.

The Lodge is the nexus of the Mountain Village, and all other buildings will have a similar mix of lodging and commercial space. The 35-unit quartershare project is designed to offer all the trappings of a first-class hotel, including a spa, fitness club, saunas, ski check and concierge service, which are expected to be in operation for the 1998-99 season. By the year 2000, says Cohee, skiers will be able to enjoy a full pedestrian village with a plaza, several stores, at least one new restaurant, an ice-skating rink, a recreation center with an indoor swimming pool and 111 new condominium units, many of which will be on a rental program for public use. Adding these units to the existing bed-base will increase total lodging capacity to 1,500.

Skiers who stay at the Mountain Village won't have to walk far for a chairlift. Six lifts, including new ones and replacements, will originate from the village, literally within steps of the condos. "We think that this will be the most uphill access from any mountain ski village in North America," says Cohee.

It's no secret that Kirkwood's mountain facilities are still retro, with fixed-grip, double and triple chairlifts that have long been surpassed by modern high-speed quads at other Tahoe resorts. But with money from its real estate sales, the ski area can now afford to remake its mountain. High on the list, maybe for next summer, is the replacement of Chair 4, the double in Sunrise Bowl, with a high-speed quad. The update will increase access and shorten liftlines at this popular intermediates' playground. Following that Kirkwood will install another quad lift-or possibly something called a "chondola" (one gondola cabin for every nine chairs)-from the base of Chair 1 (in front of the main lodge) to the top of Chair 2. That lift will turn what is now a 30-minute journey on two chairs into a quick six-minute ride to the trail that accesses Sunrise Bowl. And to sweeten this project, Kirkwood intends to build a mountaintop restaurant on Caples' Crest that will have a 360-degree view of the peaks surrounding Kirkwood.

Beyond that, maybe around the new millennium, Cohee has his sights set on what would be the largest terrain expansion in the resort's history-a 500-acre advanced intermediate area called Martin Point, which extends along a ridge above homes in the West Meadows north of the existing ski boundaries

. While there was a flurry of hammering and sawing at the Village last summer, other projects also were under construction. This season Kirkwood takes the wraps off its new million-dollar, state-of-the-art Children's Center at Timber Creek Lodge. Parents will now be able to offload their tykes at a convenient drive-up, and let the staff take over. And to enhance Timber Creek (a learning center separated from the more difficult trails), there will be two new surface lifts and a series of new terrain parks specifically designed for children.

Cohee is aware that a dozen buildings may not seem like a village that is on the order of Whistler or Vail, but they will be sufficient to give Kirkwood's dedicated clientele more amenities to enjoy a weekend stay without getting bored and without having to eat at the same restaurants every night. "For people who want to stay at the base of a great mountain and walk to the lifts, we will have an excellent combination of lodging, dining and shopping," he says.

Kirkwood's rejuvenation was long in coming, and it has been overshadowed by ambitious villages that are in the works at Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain. But buyers who are snapping up condos and homesites at Kirkwood know that the best-kept secret at Tahoe is about to get a whole lot better. the wraps off its new million-dollar, state-of-the-art Children's Center at Timber Creek Lodge. Parents will now be able to offload their tykes at a convenient drive-up, and let the staff take over. And to enhance Timber Creek (a learning center separated from the more difficult trails), there will be two new surface lifts and a series of new terrain parks specifically designed for children.

Cohee is aware that a dozen buildings may not seem like a village that is on the order of Whistler or Vail, but they will be sufficient to give Kirkwood's dedicated clientele more amenities to enjoy a weekend stay without getting bored and without having to eat at the same restaurants every night. "For people who want to stay at the base of a great mountain and walk to the lifts, we will have an excellent combination of lodging, dining and shopping," he says.

Kirkwood's rejuvenation was long in coming, and it has been overshadowed by ambitious villages that are in the works at Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain. But buyers who are snapping up condos and homesites at Kirkwood know that the best-kept secret at Tahoe is about to get a whole lot better.