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Ski Bus

Started: 2018-01-15 13:54:24

Submitted: 2018-01-15 18:05:01

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator takes the Bay Area Ski Bus to ski at Kirkwood

In the two years before I left Colorado to move to San Francisco, I started skiing more, finally buying my own new gear, plastering stickers on my ski helmet, and picking up various ski passes. (In Boulder, I could easily make a Saturday day-trip to any ski resort in Summit County with a two-hour drive, one-way, in normal traffic.) When I moved to San Francisco I knew skiing at Tahoe was a couple of hours away, but I failed to appreciate how much further a three- or four-hour drive is, especially when Bay Area traffic conspires to make that a six-hour drive. I didn't ski at Tahoe at all in my first year in San Francisco, and last year I managed only one weekend trip (despite buying an Epic Tahoe pass). This season I'd like to ski more.

With self-driving day-trips out of the question due to the distance involved, and weekend trips difficult to arrange for my entire family, I found the Bay Area Ski Bus, offering round-trip bus trips from the Bay Area to various resorts around Lake Tahoe. I decided to give it a try for Saturday.

My alarm woke me up at 04:10 on Saturday morning, giving me enough time to get out of the house and drive to Rockridge BART Station in Oakland in time for the scheduled 04:50 departure. This was one of the few times I've driven east across the Bay Bridge into the East Bay without any traffic -- few people were awake and up and about that early in the morning. San Francisco was shrouded in fog, limiting visibility on the highways approaching the bridge, and the fog enveloped the bridge entirely, giving me the impression of driving through a cloud bank to nowhere.

I found the ski bus board passengers in the parking lot at the BART station. (The irony of driving across the bay to park at a BART station was not lost on me, though the BART system was not running that early in the morning.) Walking through the foggy parking lot in the overnight dark I remembered I had forgotten my jacket -- I was heading up to ski with only my base layer and sweater. I stowed my gear in the cargo bay under the bus and found a seat inside for the ride up the mountain. I brought a neck pillow and managed to get about two hours of sleep as the bus left the Bay Area (making one more stop in Walnut Creek to board more passengers), then drove through little roads in the Central Valley that happened to be the most direct route to Kirkwood. I'd feel the bus slowing to a stop and I'd open my eyes to see a stop sign, then check the map on my phone to see we were somewhere in the vast expanse of the fertile Central Valley.

I woke up when the bus entered the Sierra foothills and started winding up a two-lane highway through scrub-covered hills lit by the pre-dawn sky. The sun rose as we hit pine forests and the bus kept climbing through tree-covered hills with small settlements that looked like the countryside leading up to Leoni Meadows. (I checked the map and verified that we were in fact only a few miles from Grizzly Flats and Leoni Meadows at that point.)

Our bus hosts began walking down the aisles of the bus serving a light breakfast: bagel or pastry, yogurt, orange juice, and canned cold-brew coffee. I augmented the yogurt with the granola I brought with me for breakfast. As we approached the resort traffic slowed and stopped as the Highway Patrol dealt with an accident ahead. (When we passed the accident I saw a sedan with its left side destroyed, and an SUV with damage to its front.)

The delay meant we pulled into the resort's parking lot at 09:00, then picked up our lift tickets and hit the slopes. The day was bright and sunny, and I felt fine wearing just a sweater and base layer, except for windy moments at the very top of the lifts when I got a bit chilly. Had I actually brought my jacket I would have been much too warm.

Main hill at Kirkwood
Main hill at Kirkwood

This was my first time skiing this season, so I started on some easy groomed blue runs on Solitude, then took the nearby Cornice Express to the local summit. The snow coverage was good -- Kirkwood had received on the order of a foot of snow earlier in the week -- but the condition of the snow left much to be desired. It had all melted and frozen into place, giving the misleading impression of soft snow while instead being solid ice. My skis, optimized for skiing bumps on packed Colorado powder, lacked the sharp edges I needed to gain much purchase on the stiff snow.

I stopped for a break at the base area and consulted the map when a resort employee dropped by with a tray of cookies and suggested "following the sun" to sunny slopes where the snow was already melting in the morning sun. The next lift operator volunteered the suggestion that Sunset was the place to be, so I followed a series of lifts and found myself in the Sunset back bowl. The conditions here were better -- the snow was in full sun and was somewhat softer than the front side. I spent most of the day skiing in the Sunset bowl, mostly the trails "Hully Gully" and "Cold Shoulder", two ungroomed cruiser runs to the right of the lift. They weren't quite the bumps I was hoping for, but anytime I saw anything resembling a bump it was too icy to ski.

I ate lunch at the resort's small outdoor grill at the bottom of Sunset (where my veggie burger took an inexplicably long time to be prepared), then headed up for a couple more runs before getting bored with the bowl. The lift line remained generally short, but I'd spend more time riding the slow-speed quad lift than I would spend skiing back down. I headed back to the front side for one more run on Cornice Express, only to find that the top was even icier than it had been in the morning, so I called it a day at 14:30 and hung out at the base until the lifts closed at 16:00 and the ski bus opened.

I headed back to the parking lot, stowed my ski gear under the bus (narrowly avoiding someone else's ski bag that looked exactly like mine except theirs had been decorated with a chain of bright green beads), and snacked at the snack table and talked to the hosts before boarding the bus to return to the Bay Area.

According to DoT rules, the commercial driver operating our bus needed to have an eight-hour rest period between the time we arrived at the resort and the time we left. He clocked out of his electronic log book at 09:08, so we waited until 17:08 to head back down the mountain. Our host put the movie Logan Lucky on the bus' DVD player, which turned out to be an amusing heist movie (with the added bonus that the main characters are a pair of brothers with the family name Logan). When the movie finished, the bus had left the Sierra foothills and was driving westward through the Central Valley, and our host put in Wonder Woman. This was one of the few recent movies I've actually seen, so I was somewhat less interested in seeing it again. The drive through the Central Valley in the dark seemed even longer than my previous trips, during the daylight when I was driving, until we reached the San Joaquin Delta somewhere west of Lodi. I couldn't make out much out the bus windows aside from the occasional bridge or brightly-lit waterfront industrial facility but on the map we were driving through a piece of the delta I've never visited.

We crossed the San Joaquin River into Bridgehead and Antioch, joined the California Delta Highway, and passed the stable where new diesel railcars in BART colors sat waiting for the start of BART's extension service beyond Pittsburg, then passed several stations in the middle of the highway with the platforms fenced off waiting to be opened, and finally the terminal Pittsburg/Bay Point station, the disembodied destination of some of my BART trains.

We stopped at Walnut Creek to drop off some passengers, then continued through the Caldecott Tunnels to stop in Oakland a little before 21:00. I disembarked, grabbed my gear, found my car, and drove across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, finally returning around 21:15 -- seventeen hours after waking up to go skiing.

So, how did my trip on the ski bus go?

I got to sleep on the bus in the morning, mostly making up for having to get up at an ungodly hour to catch the bus in the first place. Skiing at Tahoe is still a long ways from the Bay Area, but taking the bus meant I at least didn't have to drive myself.

My biggest mistake was not bringing my jacket -- though it turned out to be warm enough that I didn't need it, so that falls in the "were we got lucky" category instead of "what went wrong".

As long as I'm still interested in skiing, and provided that the snow conditions merit an actual trip, I expect I'll take the Bay Area Ski Bus again.