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The pros' snow: Lake Tahoe a big draw for skiers of all stripes

Jay Gentile, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Travel News

Lake Tahoe isn't just a ski destination. It's a way of life -- one that attracts both powder-hungry tourists and professional athletes to this scenic area, anchored by an alpine lake straddling the California-Nevada state line.

"Your backyard is basically a giant playground," said Olympic gold medalist Julia Mancuso, who grew up in Squaw Valley (aka Olympic Valley), host of the 1960 Winter Games and home to what's arguably the best-known ski resort in Tahoe.

"Squaw Valley is one of the more difficult mountains in the region ... really in the world," said Mancuso, the country's most decorated female Olympic alpine skier. She used to pass the Olympic rings adorning the entrance of the ski area every day on her way to school. "I think that's why it really challenges athletes to be at the top of their sport, just because you have no other choice."

Those who aren't training for Olympic bling or a World Cup podium spot have no shortage of choices in Tahoe, whose north shore is accessible via a roughly 45-minute drive from the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. With a dozen ski resorts carved into its rugged landscape at an elevation around 6,200 feet, North Lake Tahoe is home to one of the largest concentrations of ski resorts in North America.

Plenty of diverse, challenging terrain is here for those who want it. That, and the wide-open backcountry protected by strong environmental polices that limit development, help differentiate Tahoe from the pack, giving the place a wild feel that fuels the adventurous spirit amid the beaches, mountains and small towns that line its shores.

The snow here is something of local legend. Residents refer to last January as "Januburied," thanks to three consecutive weeks of snowfall. North Lake Tahoe resorts recorded six of the top 10 biggest snowfall totals in the U.S. last ski season, while Tahoe resorts also claimed seven of the largest single-day snow totals in the country. Squaw Valley stayed open until July 15, the latest closing date in history, with some skiers even cruising down the mountain in bikinis. (Nude skiing is not out of the question here, so we are told.)

All of this attracts a bevy of pro skiers and athletes who live and train in the area, including Mancuso, World Cup downhill ski champion Travis Ganong, U.S. Ski Team member Lila Lapanja, and Daron Rahlves, one of the most decorated U.S. downhillers in history.

"We're just dotted with athletes all over the lake," said Lapanja, who grew up at the base of Diamond Peak Ski Resort on the Nevada side of the lake. "You get this blend of nature, of color, of really good snow, of people who are pretty open. ... I really can't imagine living anywhere else."

Even after 22 years of calling this place home, the alpine ski racer who's training for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea said she's still "blown away" every time she sees the massive lake, especially when gazing down on it from the top of the ski run at resorts such as Diamond Peak.

HITTING THE SLOPES IN LAKE TAHOE

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