Monday, Jan. 9, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Smiling broadly in a purple coat and black snow pants, Chasun Irwin waits in anticipation on Lee Canyon’s Bluebird chairlift.
An 11-year season-pass holder, the gleeful Irwin is one of about 50 skiers and snowboarders on the slopes just 10 days into Lee Canyon’s winter season.
• 6725 Lee Canyon Road, Las Vegas
• 400+ acres
• 860-foot vertical drop
• 24 runs
Lee Canyon hopes to grow to about 50 slopes by 2018, Seely said. But the resort backs off promoting specific numbers or figures, primarily because its 200 acres of currently marked lift-accessed terrain and additional 200 acres of unmarked terrain allow for flexibility in how trails are crafted and which ones are used. Larger slopes also are closed or reduced in size during times of low natural snowfall.
Ski and snowboard prices
• One-day lift pass: $70 ($45-$65 online)
• Lift pass + ski/snowboard rental: $119 ($80-$110 online)
• Adult season pass: $549
• Youth (6-17) season pass: $299
• Child (5 and under) season pass: $29
• Military season pass: $299
• Weekday Warrior passes (valid Monday-Friday only): $299 for all ages, plus $20 for season-long parking pass
• Battle Born passes (valid every day except Dec. 25-Jan. 2, Jan. 14-16 and Feb. 18-20, and includes parking pass): $349 for adults, $199 for youths 6-17
• Parking fee: $5 per visit or $20 for a season pass
Making artificial snow
Lee Canyon draws from its 10-million-gallon reservoir of water, pumped from a large pond about halfway up the resort’s marked terrain area. The water is blasted through 20 diesel-powered snow-making machines to produce small circular particles that tightly cluster to cover the mountain. The artificial snow beads are different than their naturally thin and brittle six-armed snowflake counterparts because the beads hold more water and pack together more easily. While ideal snow-making temperatures are between 1 and 10 degrees, the snow is smoothest for skiers and snowboarders at 20 to 25 degrees, Seely said. Regardless of whether the snow is natural or artificial, grooming continues throughout the season to reduce iciness if temperatures fall below the teens. Grooming tasks also include spreading out the base for more complete coverage and building up certain areas such as chairlift-unload zones. When winter turns to spring and the snow melts, much of the water runs down Lee Canyon back into its pond. Most of the 10 million gallons of water in the reservoir is retained, Seely said. The rest runs down the mountain and back into the ecosystem.
Do you know your snow?
There are different types, and each can impact the way your snowboard or skis perform on the slopes. Here’s a guide to recognizing and navigating surfaces, from most desirable to least:
• Powder: Freshly fallen snow that has not yet been disturbed. It’s light, fluffy and often the most desirable for skiers and boarders. Sometimes it can inhibit speed, but it provides a softer surface in case of falls. When this snow has been compressed by other riders or grooming equipment, it’s called packed powder.
• Slush: Snow that has begun to melt. It’s heavier than powder but still passable in most cases. Plan to get wet!
• Crud: Packed powder that has been cut up by a lot of riders, causing extremely uneven surfaces. Snow can be light like powder one minute and heavy the next. It’s best left to advanced skiers and boarders.
• Ice: Compacted snow caused by warmer weather and the weight of riders. In some cases, you can even see through these translucent surfaces. While it’s not common on the slopes, beware. It can cause damaging falls and extremely high speeds because it doesn’t provide much traction.
While the majority of the day’s snow seekers range in age from 18 to 40, Irwin, a native of South Korea, is 70.
“Would you believe that?” she laughs as she lifts up her goggles and pushes down her ski mask to reveal her face. “It’s not just young kids out here.”
Bluebird will run for seven hours this day, moving skiers and snowboarders about 15 minutes from Lee Canyon’s base at 8,510 feet, to the top of “The Strip” at 9,370 feet.
The Two Sisters mountains and a blanket of ponderosas and aspen trees highlight the journey down the powdery slope. It’s a cloudy and windy 40-degree afternoon, in which a setting sun fights for attention in the distance over Lee Peak.
Near the base, the Rabbit Peak bunny hill and The Line terrain park are the only other two of 24 marked trails open, largely because of a lack of natural snowfall. (Snow since then has allowed all 24 trails to be open, now with a 30 to 36-inch base.)
With only 7 inches of natural snowfall through the first two weeks of December, workers blasted an additional 20 inches of packed powder from 12 high-powered snowmaking machines to open the three slopes.
“If we can’t get it naturally, we pack it in with the machines,” said Lee Canyon marketing director Jim Seely, a UNLV graduate and self-proclaimed ski bum. “You’ve got to have that solid base to open a slope.”
On Lee Canyon’s most difficult marked trails this early in the season — the black diamond Slot Alley, Snake and Jacks — soggy dirt and rocks sit mostly uncovered between trees.
Ditto for almost 200 acres of unmarked trails at higher elevations near the summit, which Seely affectionately calls “touring terrain.”
When the mountain is covered, advanced skiers and boarders can hike up (after advising Ski Patrol), as far as Lee Peak at 11,289 feet and ride down through unmarked terrain. Seely estimates that fewer than 1,000 of Lee Canyon’s 80,000 to 100,000 winter visitors brave the hike.
“It’s very challenging, but there’s a lot of gladed area that more expert skiers do take advantage of,” he said.
At the base, massive solar panels provide supplemental power to the Bristlecone Bar and Bighorn Grill, where freshly made cheeseburgers and fries sit briefly before they’re swiped off a grab-and-go counter by hungry snow hounds.
For some, a heavy meal with beer is a fitting end to a day’s worth of carving out the powder-like conditions, which just a day before were icier and harder to navigate.
“Much better today,” Irwin says. “No complaints at all.”
• • •
About 60 percent of Lee Canyon’s patrons are Las Vegas locals, Seely said. But the ranks of tourists are growing, whether from California, Mexico, Brazil or China.
He described those Brazilian and Chinese visitors as “experience seekers.” For some, the chance to ski is a rare one.
“This might be the first and only time they ever see snow,” he said. “They have a way of finding us.”
Lee Canyon also attracts first-time visitors with complimentary ski and snowboard coaching, an idea mirroring the comp-style practices of Vegas casinos, Seely said. Beginner and intermediate skiers and boarders can approach one of as many as 15 red coat-clad coaches at the base and join them for an assisted jaunt.
About 15,000 people take advantage of the free coaching each year, and those hoping to learn at a more advanced level can purchase private lessons for time periods ranging from two hours to the entire day.
Coach Sonja Wenzel said more than half of her complimentary coaching clients are international, and most of those clients are non-English speakers.
For first-timers who don’t have an English-speaking family member or friend to interpret, Wenzel focuses on “visual cues and feel,” by pointing at key movements and demonstrating them slowly. She’ll go as far as physically positioning a learner’s skis or helping hold up a snowboarder to ensure they learn comfortably. “It’s definitely a lot more visual and making sure they can feel it,” she said. “I might take the back part of their skis and push the bindings together so they can feel that movement.”
Wenzel, 32, like all other Lee Canyon instructors, is certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors. A Wisconsin native, she has been skiing for most of her life. But the coaching program is the first she has seen across the country where people can try lessons for free.
In the four years since Lee Canyon launched complimentary coaching, the number of skiers and boarders working with instructors at the resort has tripled, she said. “For a lot of people, this is a new opportunity, an escape from the city and everything else,” Wenzel said. “We have a lot of fun out here.”
Lee Canyon also is part of a Western partnership with eight nearby resorts, in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, California, Wyoming and Arizona. A season pass to one gets you some free access to all. “We don’t want a bigger piece of the pie,” Seely said, “we want to grow the pie.”
• • •
As much as the resort caters to tourists, its local roots are undeniable — especially on weekdays.
Jacob Perciful, 24, an Ohio native who moved to Las Vegas 15 years ago, said he had been a season-pass holder for about a decade — longer than just about all of Lee Canyon’s 200 employees have been working on the mountain.
Although Perciful admitted that the partially crumpled Silver Bullet can in his hand was prohibited, he said drinking and shredding is a time-honored tradition.
“This has been going on for years,” Perciful said before sitting down and snapping his feet into a turquoise-and-black board. “It’s chill. As long as you pick up after yourself, handle yourself right and there are no problems, that’s all they really care about.”
Las Vegan Jace Wachstetter, 25, visited Lee Canyon only twice last year but bought a season pass this winter because of its closeness to home.
While he prefers Utah’s Brian Head for a “top-level’ snowboarding challenge, it’s a three-hour drive from Las Vegas and fills daily with skiers and snowboarders. Lee Canyon’s terrain park stays “virtually empty” from Monday to Friday, he said. That makes the nearby venue a viable alternative.
“Most of the snow is artificial at the start of the season, and it can get icy,” Wachstetter said. “But once it starts coming down naturally and you get that powdery snow, it’s the only way to go.”
Wachstetter was one of at least 15 snowboarders catching air on small ramps, grinding rails and sliding across boxes at The Line. He said only one person during the seven-hour day had a “yard-sale” — slang for when skiers or boarders fall and lose most of their gear, from skis or boards to poles and even goggles and helmets.
“They happen, but few and far between out here,” Wachstetter said.
Despite Lee Canyon’s perks, convenience and relative tranquility, Seely admitted it wasn’t for everyone. While Las Vegas celebrities like magician David Copperfield, DJ Diplo and comedian Carrot Top have been seen on the mountain, Seely said there was a specific group of skiers and snowboarders who likely wouldn’t feel at home.
“If you want to go train for the Olympics, then, yeah, maybe we’re not the resort for you,” Seely said. “But if you actually want to come up and have fun, then we have what you’re looking for.”
Which winter sport is right for you?
Impact of climate change
Despite a series of warm winters, Seely said the resort had adapted to a shortage of natural snow by using more artificial snow on the mountain and hadn’t seen a noticeable decrease in visitors. Once an artificial snow base of about 20 inches packs on a slope, it’s good to go, he said. Limited water resources prevent Lee Canyon from adding much more than a 20-inch coat on marked slopes. “It just depends on if we want to focus our snowmaking on only a few trails or several trails to spread a base,” he said. Any additional snow coverage is up to Mother Nature. “Obviously we want it to snow throughout the winter to freshen things up.”
In addition to slopes for skiing and snowboarding, Lee Canyon offers two lanes of tubing on Rabbit’s Peak and snow play at nearby Foxtail recreation area. This month, Lee Canyon is set to open its first-ever snowshoeing course on 3 miles of McWilliams Campground land — about a half-mile walk and 300 feet below the ski resort’s parking lot. While winter is Lee Canyon’s busiest season, the mountain is open year-round, even during the summer months, when residents escape the scorching valley floor.
• Cross-country skiing: Skiers use their bodies and poles to generate momentum rather than the angle of a hill. Their heels are not attached to their skis, and skiers often travel uphill or on flat terrain.
Pick this if you want to get away from crowds and are looking for a full-body workout that’s easy to learn. Start on groomed trails, and then venture off for a harder back-country adventure.
• Snowboarding: Riders travel downhill with both feet strapped onto a single board. The learning curve for beginners is much steeper than skiing, and injuries are more common. But after overcoming the initial awkward phase, it’s an easier sport to master.
Pick this if you like surfing, wake boarding or skateboarding. It’s also a great way to boost your leg and core strength.
• Alpine/downhill skiing: Riders use lifts to travel uphill and ski down. Unlike cross-country skiing, their boots are fully attached to their skis. Because it requires the use of a chairlift, alpine skiing is more expensive than cross-country skiing.
Pick this if you enjoy speed and have time to learn the technique required to master this sport. It’s easier than snowboarding to start, but advanced phases are tougher to master.
• Sledding/tubing: Riders climb to the top of a hill and ride down using a sled or inner tube. You have complete control of the intensity of your workout, depending on the steepness of the hill, though some resorts offer lifts.
Pick this if you’re looking for a way to enjoy the snow that evokes your inner child. This is a great option for kids or adults who welcome the occasional wipeout.
• Snowshoeing: If you can walk, you can snowshoe. Snowshoes strap to your boots and prevent users from sinking into deep snow by distributing their weight over a wider area. This makes it much easier to explore snow-covered areas.
Pick this if you want an inexpensive, entry level way to exercise and explore winter wonderlands.
WINTER PLAYLANDS WITHIN 6 HOURS OF VEGAS
Brian Head Resort
• Where: Southern Utah
• Distance from Las Vegas: 3 hours
• 650+ acres
• 1,320-foot vertical drop
• 71 runs
Brian Head is the go-to for local snow-hounds seeking bigger action without the monster drive. It gets more than 360 inches of snowfall a year and boasts Utah’s highest base elevation, at 9,600 feet. The ski school offers “terrain-based learning,” so beginners are paired with the right sport on the right surface.
Don’t miss: The Last Chair Saloon, for signature No. 9 Pale Ale and a tasty bite. If the cheese-stuffed elk burger isn’t your jam, go on a Saturday for the special Kansas City barbecue and live bands.
Mammoth Mountain Ski Area
• Where: Central California
• Distance from Las Vegas: 5 hours, 20 minutes
• 3,500+ acres
• 3,100-foot vertical drop
• 150+ runs
The near-constant California sunshine is a bonus at Mammoth, where alpine trails for skiing and boarding meet nearly 20 miles of wooded terrain for snowshoeing and cross-country fun. For those who love the snow but want to take the sweat out of it, there are snowcat tours and snowmobile adventures showing off the lush Eastern Sierra backcountry.
Don’t miss: The Village. Mammoth has a new Ski Back Trail, so you can cruise straight from the mountain to this complex of shopping, dining and lodging. Shuttles and gondolas make it super-accessible, and 53 Kitchen & Cocktails makes it a must-do with $6 dishes and specialty drinks at happy hour.
Big Bear Mountain Resorts
• Where: Southern California
• Distance from Las Vegas: 3 hours, 41 minutes
• Bear Mountain: 748 acres, 1,665-foot vertical drop, 28 runs
• Snow Summit: 240 acres, 1,200-foot vertical drop, 31 runs
It’s two mountains in one, as your lift ticket works interchangeably. But the general rule is that snowboarders belong on Bear Mountain’s many jibs, rails, boxes and walls, plus California’s only superpipe. Snow Summit draws skiers with its mix of dynamic face terrain and pristine side trails, and the Family Park, ensuring young and inexperienced athletes have a place to get comfortable.
Don’t miss: Night Sessions, for skiing under the stars and snowboarding in the Westridge terrain park after a full evening groom.
Salt Lake City area
• Where: Northern Utah
• Distance from Las Vegas: 6 hours
The Salt Lake area is as close as it gets to a literal definition of “skiing mecca.” With seven so-called powder-magnets close by, the city is a hub for mountain hopping, from Park City Mountain Resort — 7,300 skiable acres cut by more than 300 trails, eight terrain parks, six natural half pipes and a superpipe, plus ski-in/ski-out lodging — to Snowbird — especially rich in expert runs, including 26 double-black diamonds that can be followed with mountain-specific treatments at Cliff Spa.
Don’t miss: Sundance Ski Resort. It’s the farthest from Salt Lake City proper, but Ski magazine recognized it as one of the sport’s sweetest hidden gems. The scenery is stunning from the base of 12,000-foot Mount Timpanogos, and the slopes aren’t crammed with people.