Star of the Family

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Flakes are swirling, cars are skidding and traffic resembles a line of creepy-crawlies stretched out for a hundred miles on Interstate 80. One of those classic Sierra Nevada dumps-the kind measured in feet-has made the Friday drive from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe an endurance test. The freezing level is so low that farmers in the foothills are shooing their chickens indoors. Forecasters are predicting blizzard conditions all weekend, with 4, maybe 5 feet of snow. There are mandatory chain requirements, highway closures, blowing drifts, whiteouts.

It's a powder skier's dream, but it's an utter nightmare when you're trying to organize a family ski trip with 16 people. In my case, I consider this to be a great experiment, a way to bring four disparate families together. But this reunion in the high country, the first we've ever attempted, begins more like a mission to Luna-as in "lunacy." Our group consists of eight adults, including four who have not skied in nearly 10 years, and eight offspring, who range in age from 4 to 16. Of the younger ones, an 11-year-old niece is a proficient skier, and one of the two teenage boys is a decent snowboarder. Otherwise, we're at zero on the learning curve. Some of my relatives have spent days scrounging up hand-me-down parkas and mittens from storage bins and who knows where else. My in-laws have vehicles to match their patchwork wardrobes, ranging from a beat-up Bronco to a mini-van with rusty tire chains. In hindsight, we should have rented a couple of Humvees.

When you have a convoy of this ilk, and a harbinger of what shapes up to be a perfectly disastrous weekend, you've got to have faith in a place called Northstar-at-Tahoe. It is, literally, a port in the storm, a safe haven near the north end of Lake Tahoe, situated on the lee side of a forested, wind-protected ridge. Gales may rage and lifts may shut down at higher-elevation ski areas nearby, but Northstar chugs along like The Little Engine That Could. If Northstar had a motto, it might be something like, "Bring us your weary and frustrated road warriors, your cold and wind-blown parents, your hyper kids and bored teenagers, your real and imagined disabilities, and we will give you a family that skis and rides together."

Tough challenge. But Northstar has been meeting high expectations for 29 years and justifiably earns its reputation as one of the country's most "family-friendly" ski areas. The resort aims to serve the core of the skiing population, and it usually hits the mark. As Lake Tahoe's first year-round resort, Northstar has always offered a complete experience, including ski terrain that caters to intermediates, a village with restaurants, a residential community of mountain homes and condominiums, a recreation center with pools and hot tubs, and miles of cross-country skiing and snowmobile trails. But more-a lot more-is on the way. Today the resort is poised for the largest expansion in its history. Plans are being unveiled by East West Partners of Colorado, Northstar's development partner, for a larger village with additional shops and restaurants, new slopeside accommodations and more lifts-including a network of gondolas to serve as people-movers.

People already move around Northstar fairly well, except during the busy weekend rush hours when the access road is congested. For those staying on the 8,000-acre resort grounds, a shuttle system whisks skiers door to door, and even down the highway for shopping in the historic town of Truckee. This convenience allows parents to turn kids loose in any direction and have everyone reconvene for lunch.

Or not. In our case, the idea is to impart some skills to the little ones while giving the adults an uninterrupted day of fresh powder. Parents, who keep at least one eye and one ear glued to their kids at all times, can always use a little freedom. Happily, Northstar relishes its multiple roles of baby-sitter, chaperone and mentor.

Parents can even get counseling. free clinic called "Mommy, Daddy and Me" offers "tricks of the trade" on how to ski with children ages 3 to 5. And if you can't let go of your brood for a few hours, the Parent Predicament comes to the rescue. This is an interchangeable lift ticket that allows mother and father to alternate between skiing and spending time with their kids. If you do leave your kids in day care, Northstar supplies a pager to ensure you can be notified if you're needed.

And credit ski-school director Zeke Straw for an enlightened approach to instruction, as well. "Telling parents to move out of the way and let us teach their kids doesn't work in the real world," he says. "Now that I'm a father, I understand how important it is for parents to see their children progress. They would almost rather do that than go skiing themselves. So we've designated staging areas and 'Parent Zones' where they can watch."

Anyone who knows how difficult it is to find a dedicated nanny or an inspired teacher will appreciate the level of talent at Northstar. Somehow, even though thousands of people pour onto the mountain on a given Saturday, the resort has figured out how to make meaningful, individual impressions. These relationships aren't hatched in some corporate think tank from a 500-page manual (of course, there is that, too); they are created by employees who enjoy their work. And the reason they are so motivated is that management constantly pats them on the back-sometimes literally. Ski instructors, for example, are occasionally treated to therapeutic massages and chiropractic treatments, under the novel theory that happy employees make for happy guests.

So if you check your tykes into Minors' Camp, the combination child-care and snow-play center in the Village at Northstar, you may have trouble getting them back at the end of the day. When my in-laws went to retrieve their threesome, the kids weren't exactly lined up for a quick departure. Four-year-old Isabel was transfixed in the storytelling room; 5-year-old Jonathan was neck-deep in toys; and 6-year-old Taylor was bodysurfing on a snowbank outside. So there was the inevitable, plaintive reaction: "Do we have to go now?"

Once again, Northstar had worked its magic. That evening, over dinner, I poll the clan. Everyone is thumbs-up on the day's activities. "We should do this more often," suggests one parent, and a sense of relief sweeps over me.

As much as Northstar pleases out-of-town skiers-drawing the bulk of its guests from the San Francisco Bay Area-locals constitute a small but passionate following, accounting for about 15 percent of the resort's 500,000 annual skier days. Many are attracted by the children's programs and the fast-track ski instruction. Joe Rossi, who lives near San Francisco, enrolled his three children in private lessons 18 years ago, and they picked up the skills so quickly that Rossi himself was inspired to take up skiing at 40. Today, the Rossis own a second home at Northstar and spend as many weeks as they can there. "What really sets this place apart is that the people here have such a positive attitude," he says. Indeed, Booth Creek Ski Holdings, which owns Northstar and six other ski areas, including nearby Sierra-at-Tahoe, has made human resources its mantra of operations. Managers cater to their employees almost as much as they pamper guests. That's why development plans include a 300-bed employee-housing complex, which should break ground this summer.

Northstar's clientele represents arguably the greatest polyglot of ethnic groups in the high country. Mirroring the diversity of the Bay Area, Northstar is the United Nations of Lake Tahoe skiing. You often hear a cacophony of languages, such as Tagalog, Korean, Cantonese and Hindi. That's because Northstar provides an unintimidating environment for everyone.

After all, what's not to like? For intermediates, the ski area fits like a well-worn parka. Skiers ride the Big Springs Gondola to the main base area, and from there they select from a mountain of blue runs, branching out in all directions. Trails are carved out of dense forest (the entire resort is on private land), and the slopes are obsessively manicured, with the aid of an extensive snowmaking system that is being upgraded this season. Except for a few black-diamond chutes off East and West ridges, the majority of frontside pistes are cruisers, with favorites such as Logger's Loop and West Ridge. For beginners, there's a separate area next to the Snowsports Learning Center near the top of the gondola. And several terrain gardens, called Paw Park Adventure Zones, cater to children.

Chronically referred to as "Flatstar" by hardcore skiers, Northstar ditched that nickname last season with the opening of Lookout Mountain, a 200-acre, knee-weakening collection of black-diamond runs. The new terrain, situated west of the Pioneer double chair, is served by an express quad. It consists of a half-dozen fall-line runs, named after local reservoirs, that are steep and heavily forested, with the majority left ungroomed for powder and mogul skiing. The view from the summit is something to behold. On a sunny day, you can see Castle Peak and Donner Summit, which are a good 15 miles away. "It's given us the missing piece of the skiing experience that we've wanted for a long time," says General Manager Tim Silva.

There's more. Two express quads reach the summit of Mt. Pluto, which, at 8,610 feet, is also the jumping-off point for the Backside. Until Lookout Mountain arrived, this was where expert skiers went, down steep, fall-line runs-such as Burn Out, Rail Splitter and Iron Horse-that are more like advanced-intermediate trails than black-diamonds. One express quad serves this entire face, though more lifts are envisioned for the future. Within the next three years, Northstar will likely add two lifts resortwide, which could increase skier capacity. Right now, the resort limits the skier count to 8,500 or less, depending on how many lifts and runs are open. Not surprisingly, there's a rush of early arrivals on weekend mornings to beat the cutoff, which is often reached on holidays and busy weekends.

Given Northstar's popularity, it could hum along as California's premier family resort without much change, if it wanted to. But change is coming. Its major priorities are to expand the base village and add more condominiums and home sites. Under the imprimatur of East West Partners, half of the existing village-including Northstar's trademark clock tower and the building that houses the day-care center and Pedro's restaurant-will be demolished, starting next summer.

Six new buildings in the first phase will extend the mall uphill, forming a half-circle facing the mountain. Covering 63,000 square feet, these will house more shops and restaurants, as well as condominiums on the upper levels. Up to 200 new residential units will ensure constant foot traffic, and a large plaza with an ice rink will create a center of activity. Planners are also considering a fitness facility, conference spaces, and an upscale restaurant and day lodge in the village.

As the expansion works its way through the permit process, initial renderings depict a Sierra Nevada-style destination resort. Roger Lessman, project director for East West Partners, says the theme will reflect traditional influences from national park lodges in Yosemite and Yellowstone, with cut logs, natural stone, variable roof pitches, big dormer windows and overhangs. The buildings will be much grander in scale-comparisons are made to Sun Valley, with its timeless slopeside architecture-than the ones that were built in the early Seventies. When skiers arrive, Lessman promises there will be a sense of drama as they walk through the village toward the lifts.

To minimize vehicle traffic, parking for residents will be in a 102,000-square-foot underground garage, beneath the village core. And since future phases of the village will ocand from there they select from a mountain of blue runs, branching out in all directions. Trails are carved out of dense forest (the entire resort is on private land), and the slopes are obsessively manicured, with the aid of an extensive snowmaking system that is being upgraded this season. Except for a few black-diamond chutes off East and West ridges, the majority of frontside pistes are cruisers, with favorites such as Logger's Loop and West Ridge. For beginners, there's a separate area next to the Snowsports Learning Center near the top of the gondola. And several terrain gardens, called Paw Park Adventure Zones, cater to children.

Chronically referred to as "Flatstar" by hardcore skiers, Northstar ditched that nickname last season with the opening of Lookout Mountain, a 200-acre, knee-weakening collection of black-diamond runs. The new terrain, situated west of the Pioneer double chair, is served by an express quad. It consists of a half-dozen fall-line runs, named after local reservoirs, that are steep and heavily forested, with the majority left ungroomed for powder and mogul skiing. The view from the summit is something to behold. On a sunny day, you can see Castle Peak and Donner Summit, which are a good 15 miles away. "It's given us the missing piece of the skiing experience that we've wanted for a long time," says General Manager Tim Silva.

There's more. Two express quads reach the summit of Mt. Pluto, which, at 8,610 feet, is also the jumping-off point for the Backside. Until Lookout Mountain arrived, this was where expert skiers went, down steep, fall-line runs-such as Burn Out, Rail Splitter and Iron Horse-that are more like advanced-intermediate trails than black-diamonds. One express quad serves this entire face, though more lifts are envisioned for the future. Within the next three years, Northstar will likely add two lifts resortwide, which could increase skier capacity. Right now, the resort limits the skier count to 8,500 or less, depending on how many lifts and runs are open. Not surprisingly, there's a rush of early arrivals on weekend mornings to beat the cutoff, which is often reached on holidays and busy weekends.

Given Northstar's popularity, it could hum along as California's premier family resort without much change, if it wanted to. But change is coming. Its major priorities are to expand the base village and add more condominiums and home sites. Under the imprimatur of East West Partners, half of the existing village-including Northstar's trademark clock tower and the building that houses the day-care center and Pedro's restaurant-will be demolished, starting next summer.

Six new buildings in the first phase will extend the mall uphill, forming a half-circle facing the mountain. Covering 63,000 square feet, these will house more shops and restaurants, as well as condominiums on the upper levels. Up to 200 new residential units will ensure constant foot traffic, and a large plaza with an ice rink will create a center of activity. Planners are also considering a fitness facility, conference spaces, and an upscale restaurant and day lodge in the village.

As the expansion works its way through the permit process, initial renderings depict a Sierra Nevada-style destination resort. Roger Lessman, project director for East West Partners, says the theme will reflect traditional influences from national park lodges in Yosemite and Yellowstone, with cut logs, natural stone, variable roof pitches, big dormer windows and overhangs. The buildings will be much grander in scale-comparisons are made to Sun Valley, with its timeless slopeside architecture-than the ones that were built in the early Seventies. When skiers arrive, Lessman promises there will be a sense of drama as they walk through the village toward the lifts.

To minimize vehicle traffic, parking for residents will be in a 102,000-square-foot underground garage, beneath the village core. And since future phases of the village will occupy land now used for day-skier parking, the resort plans to create two outlying lots, close to the main entrance at Highway 267, and transport skiers to the base area by shuttles or, perhaps down the road, a people-mover. New neighborhoods, built in clusters, will also link to the village through some type of alternative transportation, perhaps gondolas.

At about the time village construction begins next summer, motorists passing through Truckee-where bottlenecks occur-will be diverted onto a new bypass from Highway 80.

The key question that looms over the reinvention of a successful ski resort is whether it can absorb so much growth and maintain its intimate, family focus. Larry and Ann Kulchin of Redwood City, who have owned a vacation home at Northstar since the area's inception, expect great things. "The new plans are dynamite," says Larry, who just turned 70. "It's going to be a vibrant and exciting place for our kids and their families." Or, as Tim Silva puts it: "We're going to be more of what we already are."

Which should be great for anyone planning a ski trip for a family of 16. In my case, one of the stormiest weekends of the season does anything but dampen the spirits of eight children, who are now Northstar fanatics.

How magical is this experience for young and old? Consider the mail that I receive from my nieces and nephews a few days after our return. One note, scrawled in crayon next to a drawing of what looks like a scarecrow on skis, reads simply, "Thank you for our ski trip, Uncle Ken. When are we going again?"l occupy land now used for day-skier parking, the resort plans to create two outlying lots, close to the main entrance at Highway 267, and transport skiers to the base area by shuttles or, perhaps down the road, a people-mover. New neighborhoods, built in clusters, will also link to the village through some type of alternative transportation, perhaps gondolas.

At about the time village construction begins next summer, motorists passing through Truckee-where bottlenecks occur-will be diverted onto a new bypass from Highway 80.

The key question that looms over the reinvention of a successful ski resort is whether it can absorb so much growth and maintain its intimate, family focus. Larry and Ann Kulchin of Redwood City, who have owned a vacation home at Northstar since the area's inception, expect great things. "The new plans are dynamite," says Larry, who just turned 70. "It's going to be a vibrant and exciting place for our kids and their families." Or, as Tim Silva puts it: "We're going to be more of what we already are."

Which should be great for anyone planning a ski trip for a family of 16. In my case, one of the stormiest weekends of the season does anything but dampen the spirits of eight children, who are now Northstar fanatics.

How magical is this experience for young and old? Consider the mail that I receive from my nieces and nephews a few days after our return. One note, scrawled in crayon next to a drawing of what looks like a scarecrow on skis, reads simply, "Thank you for our ski trip, Uncle Ken. When are we going again?"