Honest Resort Reviews: Northstar

Now in Cali after adventures in Colorado and Utah, Pingu approaches Northstar resort at low tide. Illustrations by Kieron Black.


[series align=left]I think most shredders’ strongest association with Northstar is probably Torstein’s seminal top-to-bottom one-take run, which saw him slay a near endless array of rails, boxes, old gondolas, kickers and the pipe – and which arguably still defines him to this day, even more so than when he broke the seal of pandora’s box when he unleashed his triple cork.

For snowboarders of a certain age raised on the relatively confined park set-ups of Europe, seeing him ride at full tilt for nearly 4 minutes and hit feature after feature, was like a siren call to the freestyle-friendly slopes of the US, and specifically Northstar. And in any normal year, if such a thing still exists, Northstar’s terrain would be littered with features, allowing those of us with much less talent to attempt to imitate Torstein’s run, and experience the thrill of doing more than 3 hits in a row before having to hop on the button lift back to the top of the park.

“Seeing Torstein ride at full tilt for nearly 4 minutes and hit feature after feature was like a siren call to the freestyle-friendly slopes of the US”

But unfortunately in the spring of 2015, as California rolls into its 4th year of drought, the sprawling freestyle terrain has had to be curtailed for the good of the general skiing and snowboarding populous – as the precious little snow that has fallen (or been spewed from snow canon) has been harvested to simply keep the resort open.

So in trying to boil down my thoughts about Northstar, such that it could inform someone else considering coming here for a holiday or even a season-long stay, I will attempt to distance myself from the fact that effectively just 3 different pistes were open when I was there (I’m sure official stats would be more favourable, but that was basically it), and talk about what the resort and the surrounding area could offer, were mother nature to return to something approaching her normal form.

The village at Northstar was built specifically to create a ski resort near a hill that had snow on it, to make money from skiing. So whilst it has everything that the mind of an architect (or a computer programme) would imagine you would need on a winter holiday, it inevitably lacks the quirky charm of a real village which has developed iteratively over of the course of several decades (or centuries), mutating along the way to meet the changing demands of its inhabitants and clientele.

If truth be told, my impression was that Northstar village was really set up for a long weekend, rather than a week’s stay. There were only a handful of restaurants, most of which were shut by 9pm, and the nearest supermarket is 15 minutes drive back into the nearest town of Truckee (more of which later), so if you are intending to enjoy some of your own home cooking whilst in resort, it is a bit of a mission to get your olive oil and mushrooms if you don’t have a car at your disposal. If you are intending to make party like you were at the Mooserwirt in St. Anton…well, you won’t.

It could have been a function of when we were visiting, (i.e. Easter, not during the frat-boy/girl fest that is spring break), but the resort had a very low-key family-oriented vibe. The liveliest part of town was the ice-skating rink, which had been transformed into a roller-skating rink (which thus brought back childhood memories of love bites and being dared to snog people in West Wales) and was being heavily sessioned each evening by about 20 six year olds (and their wobbling parents).

You can’t say the village isn’t well configured, because it is, but it just lacks a bit of soul, which for me is a prerequisite for a legit travel experience. Were I to return next year, I wouldn’t stay in Northstar village, rather would base myself and family in Truckee, and drive the 15 minutes up to Northstar each day (thus sacrificing the ski-in/ski-out convenience in return for a more authentic taste of Americana).

“Truckee, a frontier-era town which is literally sliced in two by a river and the railroad, has a stetson-full of charm.”

Truckee, a frontier-era town which is literally sliced in two by a river and the railroad (around which it was built in the latter half of the 19th century) has a stetson-full of charm. It has classic Western architecture that will turn you into a photo-snappin’ tourist, a gaggle of great bars fuelling patrons with locally brewed Sierra Nevada craft ales, an awesome diner (Jax) which has one of the best burger and shake combos I have ever stuffed into my face, some great boutique shops, and a sprinkling of Californian hipster pixie dust which makes you want to roll up your jeans and buy an obscure brand of sunglasses. Importantly however, any high-falutin’ aspirations of the tattoo-wearers are grounded and kept perfectly in balance by the industrial grinding of the guffawing freight trains which lumber through the middle of the town, reminding anyone with moustache wax of what originally made America great.

Couple this with a macabre episode of cannibalism that is spliced into Truckee’s history, and you have the perfect recipe for a cultural exchange, not just a holiday. The most infamous moment in Truckee’s past to which I allude came when a group of settlers (now known as the Donner Party) who were travelling west from Illinois to Sacramento became snow-bound and stranded near Truckee during the winter of 1864. Several members of the party starved, and were then eaten by the surviving members of the group. A cautionary tale if ever there was one to make sure you brush up on your backcountry survival tips before you start your hike for fresh tracks.

Speaking of fresh tracks, it is clear that Northstar has the potential to be a great place to make some powder turns. New areas of the mountain have recently been opened up off Sawtooth ridge (on the West side of the mountain) to provide a more back-country/off-piste experience, with an abundance of glades which will test whether you have got your back foot close enough to the tail of your board and no doubt put a smile on your face if you make it to the bottom without twatting yourself into a tree.

But in reality Northstar is all about the freestyle terrain, as the vast majority of the east side of the mountain is given over to Torstein-friendly shredding on its perfectly pitched blue runs. These runs would struggle to lodge themselves in the memory were it not for the abundance of man-made features which create ample opportunity for showing off/expressing yourself/imitating better riders. And despite my preamble stating that the parks had been sacrificed this year to make sure there were groomed beginner-friendly runs from top to bottom, the one surviving park was still way better than many of those to be found in the old-world resorts in Yerp.

“I think I saw a single-celled amoeba on a board dropping 900s like it was nuttin’.”

As has been required in the last couple of years, Northstar is totally set up to handle meagre natural snowfalls, and there is an abundance of snow-cannon that would have made even Napoleon happy, had he been into snowboarding and had wanted to fight the British, in California, using snow. The piste-bashers here are also well practiced in “turning sour lemons into sweet lemonade” (to quote a wrinkly and wise local), and did an incredible job during our stay of transforming pistes overnight from mud-flats into perfectly groomed corduroy the next day. I suspect witchcraft of some sort was used, but whatever they did, it was incredible.

Also worthy of mention is the Burton Academy in Northstar. This is basically a snowboard school with all the bells and whistles that come with an endorsement from/affiliation with the Big B. If you have taken good advice and decided to teach your kids to snowboard in conjunction with professionals (rather than just shouting at them and zooming off into the distance in a huff, which was my technique for several years), then there is probably no better place in the USA to do it than here in Northstar. All the teaching I observed on the mountain was informed, patient and just pushy enough to be effective. And they start the kids way younger than 8, so no excuses. I think I saw a single-celled amoeba on a board with a Burton coach on the last day I was there, dropping 900s like it was nuttin’.

So, all things considered, Northstar can’t really claim to be in the uber-resort category inhabited by Breck or Whistler, but it is definitely a damn good place to come and shred, particularly if you are in the early parent life-stage, and if coupled with a stay in Truckee, has the makings of a great family holiday.


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