I’m driving through a vast expanse of Joshua trees trying to kill a hangover, brought on by $17 green frozen margaritas, with a Red Bull and cheap doughnuts. Those were the only breakfast options I could find in Durango, the compact suburb of chain restaurants and convenience stores that’s the last bit of sprawl—of anything, really, besides Joshua trees—between Las Vegas and thousands of miles of Great Basin emptiness. It’s already in the low 80s, blue skies. In front of me, the hulking limestone massif of Mount Charleston begins to shimmer over the horizon like a stereotypical mirage. High on its flanks there’s snow.
As I switchback higher, the Joshua trees give way to pinion-juniper forests and then big firs and pines. Soon I’m in a valley tucked into the northeast aspect of the mountains and, yes, there’s snow here. Even better, there’s decent-looking terrain—long lines coming down from steep ridges. (Later I will learn that between the exit from U.S. 95 and the parking lot there are seven distinct ecosystems, an astonishing cross-section of biological diversity that makes the place as surreal as the faux landscapes of Paris and ancient Rome that dominate the skyline down in Sin City.) The parking lot has that sunny end-of-the-season vibe, with a few cars, a few bros smoking butts, and girls in tank tops with tats and dreads lacing up snowboard boots.
The streets of downtown Vegas, just an hour behind me, are still recovering from St. Patrick’s Day—a party that, along with those overpriced frozen concoctions, included a Dominican midget who I swear is the twin of Nelson de la Rosa (good-luck companion to pitcher Pedro Martinez), a Guns N’ Roses cover band, strippers on stilts, and crowds blocks-deep rocking oversize leprechaun hats, plastic beads, and four-leaf clovers. I made a grave mistake when I left my hotel room, hooking up with some friends for cocktails at The Atomic, a bar as Millennial as they come: steeped in classic velvet Vegas irony and featuring drinks served by “mixologists.” Somehow the night devolved, and we ended up at some biker bar where dudes with jean vests and un-ironic beards were wandering around like the Hells Angels at Altamont, and the barely-clad-in-white-fringe bartenders were screaming along to ZZ Top lyrics and dropping obscenities at the crowd through megaphones. That was at 4 a.m.
While the biker meth-heads and other assorted revelers were still sleeping away the aftereffects of that choreographed shitshow, I was stuffing my skins and transceiver into my pack and seeking a man named Greg French, who easily holds the title of mayor of the Las Vegas backcountry. He had promised to take me to the goods, and after years of trying to keep this place on the down-low, he’s ready to share some of his jackpot. Because the skiing up here is damn good.
I first heard about Lee Canyon—which at the time was called Ski Las Vegas—from core friends in the industry who had hit the place after a big storm cycle back when the Snowsports Industry Association Show, the annual gathering of ski and snowboard manufacturers, was still held in Vegas. “The terrain is like Alta or Jackson,” longtime ski writer Tom Winter told me. “Bullshit,” I answered. “Yeah, I’d agree,” said my colleague Lesley Suppes, a beautiful skier whose opinion I trust. Of course I was still incredulous, but I was determined to find out for myself. Only last winter did my plans pan out. The snow reports looked good, and I was finally ready to see if I could find powder turns down the street from the best après town on the planet.
“Mammoth, bro?” A dude asked me when he saw the ski bag I was hauling through the train at McCarran airport.
“No, here. Lee Canyon,” I told him.
“Oh yeah, I need to get up there with my kids,” he said. He was a native but had been working in the oilfields and had just gotten back to see those kids, who lived with his ex. He gave me a big bro shake.
Lee Canyon caters to these Vegas locals—the people who work in the casinos and restaurants—as well as those who live far from the Strip and really want nothing to do with it. A destination resort, it is not.
As ski resorts go, there’s not much to it. The main attraction is the park, and when I arrive it’s buzzing with a SoCal vibe, lots of boarders enjoying the sun and sliding rails. Otherwise there are three lifts and a modest amount of terrain out of the base area, which sits at 8,510 feet. The runs are short, but big, widely spaced trees grow between them, enough to hold stashes when the resort gets its claimed average of 212 inches per year (about the same as Sun Valley’s). But the resort has big plans for expansion and, in 2011, the Forest Service put the stamp of approval on seven new lifts—for a total of 10—by 2023, along with a new LEED-certified base lodge.
The resort has also realized it has a problem trying to get desert dwellers to come up and ski—no matter how good the snow—and it has put itself on the forefront of ski instruction to get people on the hill. Here’s how it works: Instructors wait in an area at the base of the lift, and interested skiers and snowboarders simply approach them and tell them they want a lesson. Then they head out for as long or short a time as they want. There’s no booking lessons or paying for a full day if you don’t want to, and even experienced skiers can take a teacher out for a run or two just to work out a kink in their form. It’s been a huge success for the area, which had its best season ever last year and is creating customers who keep coming back.
But I am not here for lessons or to chill out in the park and dink around on blue runs. I have a ticket to the real meat of this place with the guy who knows it the best. Greg grew up here; his father was a biologist who monitored how nuclear tests affected the flora and fauna in the vast deserts of Nevada, where the U.S. government exploded bombs. And he has a secret. Lee Canyon is far bigger than the lifts. The area controls 400 acres of steep chutes and trees that hold damn fine snow, and nobody skis them, not even most of the people who work for the resort.
We meet at Greg’s folksy patrol cabin at the top of the lift and head up a ravine choked with snow and a few dead tree trunks. Greg tells me that in 2004, before he started working in snow mitigation, this whole gully slid, knocking out a lift, killing a 13-year-old boy who was riding it, and sweeping away 2,000-year-old bristlecone pines. “We had so much snow here that it created a new slide path,” he explains. The Forest Service has since empowered Lee Canyon with greater control of the avalanche terrain, but one thing is certain: This mountain is no joke.
We skin higher and higher up this island in the desert. It’s a truly unique spot, graced with bristlecones that are older than Christianity. In summer, these mountains harbor the only existing specimens of Mount Charleston blue butterflies, an endangered species that has slowed down the development process up here but, ironically, would actually benefit from the cutting of ski runs because the butterflies feed on plants that grow in meadows. Still, I’d rather not knock down even one of these bristlecones, even for something I love as much as skiing.
Greg’s hot on the skin trail, and I follow, sweating out all the St.-Paddy’s- Day-and-Red-Bull abuse I have heaped on my body. His new pup, an avalanche dog in training, porpoises alongside us, glad to be out of the shack and up here. At last we reach the top ridge at the resort boundary, a place no jibber down below is likely to reach. “I want you to see this,” Greg says. I peer into the next valley and at the slopes of Mount Charleston itself. It’s true: I could be looking out on the back bowls of the Wasatch. It’s a big-mountain playground, with chutes and cliffs and snow everywhere. I turn around and look at the view behind us.
Nothing but brown land, Joshua trees, and nuclear test sites. You can see the purple shadows of the Sierra only on a clear day, with Death Valley in between. This place seems like it should not exist.
It does, however. And Greg is ready to let people know about it. “There’s all this beautiful skiing up here,” he says, “and not many people tour here yet. But some do, and more will, and there’s no one making sure it’s safe.” Since skiing is not the most popular activity up here, the Forest Service doesn’t put out an avalanche bulletin or even monitor the snow safety. Greg wants that to change.
We sit a bit longer, and then, at long last, it’s on. We drop into the inbounds terrain, which may as well be backcountry since it is untouched. And on the day after St. Patrick’s Day in Vegas, I am dipping into deep, soft snow. The bristlecones and shadows have kept it good in the right seams despite the heat. It beats the hell out of Brazilian strippers and Millennial cocktail parties and tattooed dealers dancing on blackjack tables. Everyone could be a winner here, if they only knew how to find this.
Doug Schnitzspahn, editor of Elevation Outdoors, has been pitching this story for years. And still blew his deadline. But as always, it was worth the wait.