Night skiers have an odd bravado. I watch their strange cowboy swagger as they clunk along heel-first in their calf-high ski boots, their feet splayed wide with gloves hanging from costumes that would look more appropriate to a Bangarra dance performance. They clip into their designer skis and slalom down to the terrain park, watching me with contempt as I trudge out onto the snow in Lake Tahoe winter with my tennis racquets.
Lake Tahoe winter
It’s just on freezing as I arrive to see the sun fade behind the mountains. Clouds roll over the sierras smudging the landscape grey.
I strap on my snowshoes, odd contraptions that resemble old-school tennis racquets and I walk out into the night at Squaw Valley’s High Camp.
Floodlights flick on across the valley, illuminating the dull white hills like a molten orange river. This is a Lake Tahoe winter activity I’m looking forward too.
Eighteen inches of fresh powder has fallen overnight and another storm is blowing through the valley on north Lake Tahoe as I make for the top of the 2713m Squaw Peak, guided by the full moon; the full moon that is currently hiding somewhere in the thick blanket of clouds above.
I am with a motley crew of tourists, some seasoned shoers and others who have never set foot on snow in their lives.
Leading us on our night time expedition along Squaw Valley’s ridges is Rich Bruner and Samantha Williams, both normally work in the offices below, but they’ve been given a night out to stretch their legs.
As we plan our route past Shirley Lake I look for our torches and suddenly wonder if we were meant to bring our own.
“No, the reflective surface of the snow will be bright enough to navigate, even if the moon stays hidden,” says Rich as he peels himself into various layers of skin-tight snow gear.
I stick near the front of the group as we begin the hike, figuring that I’m less likely to get lost.
We follow cat trails and even though the mountain is flood lit from below, the rolling lake Tahoe winter fog makes it easy to get disoriented.
The cold easterly wind burns against my face as I walk. I get into a rhythm using the wide surface area of the snowshoes to pad lightly against the soft cover of powder.
There is an eerie orange glow pulsing from the ridge below as we climb above the domain of the night skiers whooping at their bunny-hops and tight turns far below on the trails of Squaw Valley.
Squaw Valley is famous for being the location of the 1960 Winter Olympics, an amazing achievement considering that in 1955 when it won the rights, the resort contained only 1 lift and a single 50-room lodge.
As we hike up past the Rainbow Bowl I fall in to step with Rich and we waddle up the ridge through snow that covers our ankles.
Sleet begins to fall and as we pull our legs up the hill every breath feels as if it is being sucked through a pinhole.
With the lists of ridiculous Olympic sports now on offer I’m surprised that something as energetic as snow shoeing hasn’t made the cut, no doubt to make room for the synchronised tobogganing or ice sculpting that we’ll probably see in years to come.
Walk the line
Not interested in a snowshoe race for the time being, Rich and I track up the side of the mountain in the dark.
Everything is dull and fuzzy in this false twilight and we trace a path through the stands of 500-year-old Jeffrey Pines and ochre Californian Red Firs to the edge of The Funnel, which leads to the top of Emigrant Peak above us.
The clouds part for a moment and the moon illuminates the snowfields below.
It is nearly as clear as day and I can see far across the isolated valleys in the direction of Lake Tahoe. The Lake Tahoe winter scenery lifts my spirits.
Rich is surprised that we are alone on the slopes; he says that these mountains are home to Mule Deer, Yellow-Bellied Marmots and Coyotes.
He tells me that he’s often seen Coyotes ghosting through the snow at night, howling across the hills in the search for food.
I’m told that there are also Black Bears around Squaw Valley, though when I tell Rich that they’d all be hibernating in winter he raises his eyebrows, “That’s what people think, but they come out whenever they’re hungry.”
My own eyebrows raise this time and he grins at me, “Black Bears can run 50kms an hour too when they spot a meal!”
Suddenly our pace quickens, and I surge ahead of Rich, who is still grinning.
We approach Siberia Ridge and the gradient of the incline increases. I continue walking and notice that our numbers have thinned.
The fog rolls in again, though there is still enough light for me to see the sheer cliff rising to my right and the 40m drop-off immediately to my left.
The wind hits me head on, feeling like a solid wall as I choke on pebbles of sleet while attempting to gulp oxygen.
The last rise to the top of Siberia is knee deep with soft snow and the few remaining shoers who haven’t turned back collapse behind the shelter of the Siberia Express chairlift as the falling snow increases.
The crown of these mountains, Squaw Peak, is only 70 metres higher, and I implore Rich to let me go to the summit.
He knows these mountains much better than I do and says it’s not worth the risk. Only two days ago an extreme skier fell off a cliff up here and died, so I know it’s no joke.
The wind kicks up the freshly fallen snow and for a moment it looks like an odd version of the Sahara, with sand blowing across the featureless dunes.
We decide to head back and with the promise of hot chocolate on our return we make good time on the downhill run.
I feel confident as we pad back through the trees, more like a sleek alpine Rudolf or Fritz rather than plain old Ben with a pair of racquets on my feet.
We round the Gold Coast trail as snow thumps down from the burdened bows of the trees in the dark.
Following the animal footprints back towards High Camp we meet up with the other snow shoers and walk the last kilometre back to base together.
I shake the ice from my beard and watch the arrival of the night skiers’ as they strut towards the cable car at the end of the night.
I’m exhausted after climbing to Siberia and back, and only now do I start to feel the cold again. I unclip my shoes and approach the skiers waiting in line, this time with a little swagger of my own.
Ben Stubbs travelled with assistance from California Tourism