Bulbous rocks the size of Mack trucks protrude from the headwall, which is bisected by deep, ice-filled chutes. Slide into one of those and it's easily a 30-foot drop onto a negligible patch of snow. Farther down lies a minefield of jagged rocks. One slip and you'll lose more than just your nerve. This isn't skiing: It's throwing yourself off a cliff with a couple of sticks bolted to your feet.
It's also the proving ground for competitors in the North American Freeskiing Championships, held at Kirkwood Mountain Resort every spring (March 30-Apr. 3 this year). The headwall is called the Cirque, and except on competition days, it's closed. Today, I skirt the gnarly stuff and we cut over to a runout just below the Cirque's final section. My guide, Jon Copeland, launches into a primer on avalanche safety using the severe terrain of the Cirque to prove his point.
"You can see where the slide was," he says, squinting up at a jagged shelf where the snow tore away. We make our way over the "death cookies"-chunks of snow and ice that have skittered down the rock face after the avalanche-to an icy gully that spits us out onto a sun-drenched slope. The impact of sun position on snow quality becomes immediately evident. In one quick glide, the surface goes from crunchy to corn. "The snow over here is much less stable," says Copeland, director of Expedition Kirkwood, the resort's new backcountry-awareness program. He pokes a hole three feet deep through the crust. It rained earlier in the week, and the new snow that fell didn't adhere well to the slippery surface, making avalanche a risk. "If this slope were at a more severe angle," Copeland says, "we could be in trouble."
Like so many resorts in the West, Kirkwood has given a cautionary nod to backcountry access, loosing miles and miles of terrain accessible-and mostly visible-from the lifts. Tempting? Overwhelmingly so. Which is why Kirkwood is taking the backcountry bull by the horns, introducing out-of-bounds skills classes directed toward the average skier.
It's a progressive program for a mountain resort, and Kirkwood certainly has the right terrain for it: Hemmed in by a horseshoe of cliffs and blessed with 500 inches of snow per season, the 'Wood attracts expert freeskiers from across the country. It's a place best defined by what it's not: It's no Heavenly, with its casinos and shiny new village; it's no Squaw Valley, with its celebrity hucksters and Olympic cachet. Located 35 miles south of Lake Tahoe, Kirkwood has always had to vie for attention. Yet it's not the resort's 65 trails-65 percent of which are rolling intermediate groomers and beginner runs-that have earned Kirkwood its reputation as Lake Tahoe's local secret.
One morning, I ride Chair 10 to the summit. Just before unloading, I glimpse a lone skier trekking along a ridge searching, perhaps, for powder or an inviting chute. I scan the cliffs and more dots appear, each charting a solitary course. This, I realize, is the Kirkwood way.
With such rich offerings come the inevitable drawbacks: skiers heading into unpatrolled terrain frighteningly unaware. Ski patrol foreman Todd Rudhall, who leads many of the backcountry-awareness clinics, remembers a couple of snowboarders who lit out for the weekend with a six-pack and a tent. Needless to say, they didn't make it back without a little help. So far, that's not Expedition Kirkwood's clientele, says Rudhall. Rather, his groups of 30- to 50-year-olds can hold their own on steeps such as double-diamond Dick's Drop and the slippery chutes below the Cirque. They're here, he says, because they want to push their limits even more.
"The term 'out of bounds' scares some people away," says Rudhall. "But these are skiers who have both the skills and the desire; they're just intimidated by the equipment."
Which is where Expedition Kirkwood comes in. The six-hour course, open to strong intermediates and up, begins in the classroom. Thee day's slope conditions are the primary topic, though the discussion varies according to the combined experience of the group. Then it's over to Beacon Basin, where avalanche transceivers are buried and skiers armed with their own transceivers set out among the tall pines and spruces to ferret them out. Then it's up the mountain. According to Copeland, the ability level of the group determines where they ski. "We may head straight for Lookout Vista," says Copeland, which offers a prime vantage point from which to observe the avalanche-prone Cirque headwall. It's also a good place to dig a snow pit and analyze the different layers of snow. They also might check out Red Cliffs, the territory worked by the only catskiing operation on the South Shore, also run by Expedition Kirkwood. The Wave, on the mountain's backside, is another spot that Copeland uses for burial simulations, as it offers a chance for transceiver training. Sometimes groups will just "play around on the frontside," he says, in Thunder Bowl, off Chair 10, or the hike-to terrain off Thimble Peak, on the backside.
Like many mountains worth their yearly snowfall, Kirkwood's amenities are taking slightly longer to catch up to its slope appeal. The European-style Kirkwood Mountain Village was launched in 1995, and to date, comprises 20 or so condo and townhouse complexes and a small pedestrian plaza, which is home to the Expedition Kirkwood offices, a Salomon Test Center, a gear shop and the laid-back Monte Wolfe's Coffee House & Deli (where clam chowder bread bowls make a hearty lunch). Over the next several years, the pedestrian village will swallow the original base area a few hundred feet down slope and offer more shops, bars and restaurants.
Right now, though, the pickings are slim. Bub's Sports Bar & Grill, a rowdy aprè3-ski joint, serves half a dozen beers on tap and a munchies-heavy menu. The resort's lone fine-dining option, The Wall Bar & Grill, is inside the 180-room Lodge at Kirkwood. The food is fresh and California-influenced, and the ambience-with a blazing fireplace and intimate tables-is surprisingly pleasant. Future plans for the resort also call for a series of new lifts-including two more high-speed quads-and a mountaintop restaurant.
Yet you only need to spend a couple hours here to see that Kirkwood is not about the wine list or the day spa. Just before the sun begins to set, I snag an outdoor table at The Wall with a view up the mountain's lower slopes. Maroon 5 bursts from the sound system, and small groups huddle around tables throughout the plaza, boots unbuckled, jackets hanging open. Someday, boutique hotels and martini bars may populate this plaza, but Kirkwood's laid-back Cali vibe will always shine, and the skiing will always trump the spa. Should you ever forget, just look up at the Cirque.