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ASK KIRKWOOD LOCALS WHY THEIR MOUNTAIN gets it so good and you’ll get an earful: It’s orographic cloud-lifting, it’s Cousin Marvin’s good karma, it’s sheer-luck geography. But mostly they’ll attribute it to something they call the K Factor.
We’re still not sure what that means-coherent definitions of the K Factor are hard to come by. But the numbers don’t lie: Kirkwood reported a whopping 804 inches last year, a full 250 more than some Tahoe resorts. And with 9 percent moisture content, its snow is much drier than your average Sierra cement.
Which is where Kirkwood Powder Cats (KPC) comes in: Their half-day structure-four runs for $100-and convenient staging grounds (the base area’s Red Cliffs Day Lodge) make KPC the ideal way to access Red Cliffs, a 100-acre, northwest-facing aspect of sparsely wooded and above treeline terrain: 1,000 feet of vertical through open faces and glades that funnel into powder-filled chutes. See for yourself, and if you come up with a sound definition of the K Factor, drop us a line.
Storms get colder as they rise in elevation up the Sierra. By the time they reach Kirkwood, the highest resort in the region, they’ve dried out a bit, which adds stability as lighter inches fall on top of wetter layers and then consolidate. And because most aspects are northwest-facing, they also stabilize in the sun. Even so, Red Cliffs still has six major avalanche paths, and patrollers control the ridgeline after storms.
The right side is mellow (30 to 35 degrees). Head farther left and it gets steeper and tighter. The Third Chute features a 40-degree pitch and an exit with a five- to 10-foot mandatory air.
The driest months are typically January and February (but that’s relative-you can get 24-inch pileups all winter long). The rest of the season, 80 percent of the storms blow in from from Alaska, and usually last just 48 hours. March is probably your best bet: Last year, a front deposited 10 feet over six days.
Six KPC employees and six Kirkwood Resort patrollers share the benefits of guiding; all of them hold Level II avalanche certification.
Many of Kirkwood’s condo units are owned by Silicon Valley types who pimp them out with exotic art- work. Basic hotel-style rooms start at $125; luxury, 2,300-square-foot three-bedrooms go from $620 a night (kirkwood.com). All have access to a brand-new recreation center-complete with outdoor heated pool, fitness center, and 20-person hot tub-across from Red Cliffs Lodge.
The resort isn’t exactly brimming with options. Monte Wolfe’s, in the base village, serves a breakfast croissant sandwich the size of a sixth grader. For lunch or dinner, head to Bub’s for basic bar fare, or try the Kirkwood Inn for the house specialty, Zak Fries.
BANG FOR BUCK
Huge. Drop an additional $25, and you can ski the other half of the day inbounds. So let’s do the math: That’s $125 for a full day of cat/lift skiing. We’ve looked around, and this is probably the best powder-to-loot ratio we’ve found. Trust us.
Because the skiable terrain is so small, and it gets pretty tracked out in a day or two, KPC runs the cats only when there’s fresh snow. But finally they’re permitted and set to move the entire operation over to Martin Point, on the northwest side of the mountain, which features bigger vert (2,000 feet), steeper terrain (up to 55 degrees), and more trees. Plus, it means they’ll be able to operate more often.
MAX ELEVATION: 9,000 feet MAX VERTICAL DROP: 1,200 feet AVERAGE VERTICAL LOGGED PER HALF-DAY: 4,000 feet PRICE: $100 for four runs GETTING THERE: Head west out of South Lake Tahoe on Highway 50, take 89 South for 15 miles, then take 88 West for another 14. INFO: 209-258-7360; kirkwood.com