The trail off the east ridge has the kind of steep initial descent that shoves your stomach into your throat and makes your blood go all John Bonham in your ears.
I take it and tuck, accelerating to a speed worthy of a run called “Dutchman,” because now I’m flying.
This kind of controlled free fall is the height of skiing enjoyment for adrenaline addicts like myself. What allows me to pin the speedometer needle and explore the far edge of my ability is a trail at Northstar ski resort that’s free of other people and covered with freshly groomed snow that somehow is the shade of sapphire this early morning.
Moments like these make skiers obsessed with getting what’s known as “first tracks,” or the first run of the day on a trail. Northstar has taken this desire and formalized it through a new service called “Platinum First Tracks.” Pay $200 and you will get 90 pristine minutes on the mountain, which includes a full hour before regular pass holders are allowed on the lifts at 8:30 a.m.
Northstar caps the service (available on select Sundays) at 25 people each day. Participants are accompanied by instructors, who guide them in smaller groups based on ability and what type of terrain individuals want to enjoy. The program ends with a gourmet breakfast at the stunning Zephyr Lodge on top of the mountain.
I have seen retirees who ski every day beg like children to get on the mountain before others, hoping ski patrol will take them along for the first runs of the morning when the snow looks like frosting on a supermarket sheet cake. I have friends who eschew ski lifts all together and haul their gear into the back country, so they can have the same kind of unspoiled, under-populated fun.
First Tracks makes it easy, with professional guides leading the way.
“It’s a very intimate experience,” said Kenneth McCarty, supervisor of private instruction at Northstar.
McCarty accompanied me when I did First Tracks on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday. The instructors are there to keep you safe and guide you to the runs with the best snow. But McCarty would have needed a leash to keep me in tow, as I kept taking off down the mountain with wide-eyed glee.
One time, as I blasted down an advanced run called Grouse Alley, my skis separated from snow and gravity decided to collect my unpaid bill. It was not an unpleasant experience. You know you are having a good time when you laugh throughout a wipe out.
First Tracks is part of Northstar’s series of “Platinum” services, which are exclusive and expensive, and include perks like champagne lunch on the mountain and valet parking. Despite the top-shelf cost, the access they allow can make them worth a splurge.
Other Tahoe-area resorts offer variations on First Tracks, including the “Dawn Patrol” at Squaw Valley and an early-morning run available only to season-pass holders at Mount Rose.
This ski season has been most notable for the lack of snow, especially compared to last season’s record-breaking snowfall. While Northstar has been able to mitigate Mother Nature’s frugality (to some degree) with snow-making machines, conditions have been marginal much of the season. So it is a treat to be able to enjoy the runs when they’re at their finest, and without the hordes of people that show up when the lifts open to all.
Julie Shaw and her Bay Area friends were all smiles after their “First Tracks” experience. “It was amazing having the mountain all to yourself and not have to worry about hitting anyone,” she said.
Shaw and others were enjoying breakfast at Zephyr Lodge, a classic piece of mountain architecture with high ceilings and picture windows overlooking the Sierra Nevada. Executive Chef Aramis Torres came out to make sure everyone was enjoying his or her meal. The spread included fresh fruit, eggs, bacon and monkey bread.
Platinum First Tracks
What: Through this program, skiers and snowboarders can enjoy the mountain early in the morning before the crowds arrive at Northstar resort. The morning is capped with a gourmet breakfast at Zephyr Lodge.
When: 7-10 a.m. on select Sundays, including Feb. 11 and Feb. 25