As the Californian leg of his tour continues, Pingu visits God's country. Illustrations by Kieron Black
If the Griswalds were going on a snowboard holiday, they’d go to Heavenly.
More accurately, they would probably have driven hundreds of miles in their station wagon to South Lake Tahoe, desperately trying find a way to pay for Joey’s college fees by gambling Grandma’s retirement home fund on slot machines in one of the multi-storey casinos that lie literally twenty yards over the stateline into Nevada.
Having lost all but their last $500, they would resolve to do something wholesome with what remained of their money. Most likely they would have taken the gondola up to Heavenly, splattered in rental gear, with a view to trying out the new sport of snow-surfing. Two fractured wrists later, they’d find themselves utterly broke and facing the prospect of a $10,000 medical bill, at which point they would return back to the casinos by the lake and put their daughter’s virginity up as collateral for a $1000 advance, which they would stick on number 47 on the roulette wheel. And lose. Much to the delight of the 85-year-old casino owner.
"It feels like Heavenly is a resort that happens to be at the top of a hill in South Lake Tahoe - a town which is really all about the lake, and the casinos"
Anywhere other than Monaco, casinos are a peculiar melange of impoverished desperation and grotesque excess, with drunken bravado acting like cheap sausage meat stuffed up the ass of the gambling turkeys. To my mind they are one of the most effective vehicles for rich people to take money off poor and/or drunken people, just pipping pay-per-view motel porn and despotic third-world regimes to a close second and third respectively.
South Lake Tahoe, splitting itself between California and Nevada and sitting at the base of Heavenly mountain, is like a really messed-up fruit salad that your Grandad has sprinkled with toenail clippings and pissed on before serving it up in a nice glass bowl.
It sits (evidently) on the southern shore of Lake Tahoe, which is quite possibly one of the most beautiful spots I have ever visited in my 40 years on the planet, let alone whilst snowboarding. Crystal blue and emerald green waters nestle up against long spits of deserted sandy beaches, and are framed by impossibly perfect azure skies and the thrusting peaks of white that are the Sierra Nevada mountains, whilst all around ancient trees pepper the landscape with their history-encrusted bark and their hopeful, reaching branches of green. In his celebrated opus Roughing It, Mark Twain tells of his time as a paid-up member of the 19th century gold-rush, calling Lake Tahoe “the fairest picture the world affords". And he was probably right.
Juxtapose this incredibly raw natural beauty with a splattering of gaudy fast-food outlets, tacky motels with promises of heating, running water and no cockroaches, and the thrusting totems to man’s greed and stupidity that are the 18-storey high casino hotels.
But you have to scrape behind the plasticised veneer of sub-Blackpool tat – because if you do, you will find some great snowboarding, and some fantastic places to hang out.
Heavenly is almost unlike any other resort that I have been to, in that it doesn't feel that it is at the heart of what is going on in its own town. There is no denying that Vail or Val D’Isere are ski resorts, with every cobblestone, rivet, square inch of carpet and slate tile being oriented towards the pursuit of sliding downhill on plastic-coated wood. By comparison, it feels like Heavenly is a resort that happens to be at the top of a hill in South Lake Tahoe - a town which is really all about the lake, and the casinos.
Despite having to vie for attention with less wholesome pursuits, Heavenly is a great place to shred. Like the town below, the resort straddles the state-line which separates California from Nevada. The majority of the skiing is on the Nevada side of the mountain, which is also less exposed to the sun - and thus tends to hold the snow for longer (either over the course of a season or following a dump). The base of the mountain sits at 2000m above sea level, and the top just sticks its nose above 3000m, but all the terrain sits within the comforting environs of the treeline.
"It appears that during the snow-starved winter of 2014/15, Heavenly just pretty much wrote off the prospect of maintaining their parks"
And it is the trees that struck me most about Heavenly’s terrain - they left me with the impression that it would be an awesome place to snowboard during a storm, with hundreds of acres of tree runs through perfectly spaced (by Mother Nature’s hand) glades. We had a decent fall of snow during our stay, which afforded us the opportunity to snake our way through the trees and get some pow turns, albeit with the risk of gouging out our boards, given the relatively thin base.
The pitch of the mountain isn't steep, rather predominantly fits into the category of “undulating blue to steep blue" - which is pretty much perfect if you are riding with your kids, and great for general bezzing around. “Fun" is the word that springs most to mind. You won’t be stumbling into anything gnarly here, which isn't to say that some gnar can’t be found (the terrain in Milky Way bowl and off Mott Canyon lift filling that gap), but you are unlikely to run down the battery on your Pieps transceiver whilst staying in Heavenly.
In terms of parks… Well, if you went onto the Heavenly website you’d be left with the impression that this was a big part of what the mountain offers. Theoretically this is true, with three decent size terrain parks (two on the California side, one in Nevada) offering plenty of scope for spinning and sliding and zeaching and winding down the windows. However, this year, Heavenly didn't really do parks, and during our visit in April, there was absolutely nothing, nowt, rien du tout in the way of organised freestyle terrain. Compared to Northstar (which was blessed with even less natural snow this year, but managed to maintain a solid park) this looks pretty rubbish.
"Heavenly is the perfect place to come for mantlepiece-enhancing shots that will make your Gran happy"
Speaking to a few locals, it appears that during the snow-starved winter of 2014/15 Heavenly just pretty much wrote off the prospect of maintaining their parks, and didn't divert its snow cannons toward creating a base capable of supporting even some baby jumps or rails. There was actually plenty of snow from what I observed, but apparently (it was alleged by a local shred) not plenty of willing on the part of resort bean-counters, who didn't feel the cost of snow-shoving to create some jumps was worth it. Here’s hoping it snows properly next year and the accountants don't have to make that call again.
It should also be said that Heavenly is probably the most photogenic resort you will ever visit. You encounter breathtaking view after breathtaking view, with Lake Tahoe providing an ever-changing yet consistently stunning backdrop. My wife loves taking photos, an intermission to shredding with which I usually begrudgingly comply, but shit got out of hand in Heavenly as we were stopping pretty much every 100m to capture a new once-in-a-lifetime vista with my ugly mug gurning in front of it. For a normal human being not insistent on uploading multiple terabytes of photographic content to the internet every day, Heavenly is thus the perfect place to come for mantlepiece-enhancing shots that will make your Gran happy.
Even as a photo curmudgeon, I would also highly recommend a short trip to Nevada beach - which is about five minutes in the car from the base of the main gondola. It will remind you just how bloody brilliant nature is, and might even make you weep a little bit.
"Eating there felt like having my dipped my head in sherbet and force-fed pancake syrup through my eyeballs whilst trying to squeeze myself into my first cousin’s lederhosen, but it was brilliant"
For feeding, I would call out Heidi’s, which is a trippy genetic mutation of a restaurant which has spliced together the body of an Austrian chalet with the organs of an American diner. Eating there felt like having my dipped my head in sherbet and force-fed pancake syrup through my eyeballs whilst trying to squeeze myself into my first cousin’s lederhosen, but it was brilliant. Go there, and feed.
For a more refined experience, we found Cafe Fiore and Nephele’s, which are two tiny (separate) restaurants spooning each other, hidden away in the more residential part of South Lake Tahoe. Eating here made me feel like a grown up again, definitely worth a visit if you are craving some white linen and fine Californian wine. Also recommended are the somewhat more prosaically-named ‘The Brewery’ (get a taster rack, so you can try all the beers that are cultivated at the back of the pub) and the Base Camp Pizza restaurant that will get you good pizza, quickly, within twenty yards of the gondola.
Whilst I have dissed the casinos, Harrah’s clearly wasn't all mint-sucking grannies pummelling quarters into the slots. This is the place to go if you want to lose yourself for a night, either by gambling or by drinking. On the weekend this place gets lively, so dust off your winkle pickers and make sure you have plenty of travellers cheques about your person, and you could find yourself re-enacting a scene from the Hangover the next day.
So, would I travel all the way across to the west coast of America just to go to Heavenly? In short, no. It is a good resort, perched above a slightly weird town. But is it worth a visit as part of a broader Californian shred itinerary? Absolutely. Especially if you have a gambling problem, or need to replace the photos above your fireplace.