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The Downhill Time Warp

At Donner Ski Ranch near Truckee, you can ski right into the sport's rustic past

September 16, 2007|HUGO MARTIN | Hugo Martin is a Times travel writer.

The sign on the shoulder of U.S. 40, west of Truckee, says it's "Old School Thursday" at Donner Ski Ranch, lift tickets $10 a day. They must be pretty desperate to offer tickets that cheap, I think as I pull into the rutted parking lot that is only a quarter full. It's late January, the mountains are covered with snow, and ski season is well underway.

Talk about old school. The main lift to the summit is manned by a middle-aged guy in a thick flannel jacket, jeans and hiking boots. His long gray hair sticks out from under a baseball cap. The lift is a renovated three-seat chair that moves as if it's being pulled by a team of mules. On the lodge patio, customers shuffle along on wooden planks and eat on picnic tables. The lodge, built a decade after the resort opened in 1937, looks like a roadside diner: worn hardwood floors, exposed drainage pipes, fluorescent lights, metal chairs and Formica tables.

And the slopes. The slopes are wide, clean stretches, cutting through 500 acres of pine trees, free of the ramps, rails and other heavy-metal protrusions that snowboarders crave, and there's no wait for any of the lifts.

I think I just found my new favorite ski resort.

I step inside the lodge, lay down my 10 bucks (for the 2007-'08 season, the price for Old School Thursday has jumped to $15) and make my way to the mountaintop. From the 7,781-foot summit of Signal Hill I look down on the icy, cobalt-blue waters of Donner Lake, where the Donner party suffered through the winter of 1846-'47 on the pine-covered shore. To the south are the snow-covered mountains that border Lake Tahoe.

Just across U.S. 40, I see Sugar Bowl, and on the mountain to the north is Boreal. Fifteen alpine and nine cross-country ski resorts are within an hour's drive of Lake Tahoe--the highest concentration in the country. For skiers, it's a sweet accident of geology and meteorology that makes this region a premier winter playground. As I pull on my goggles and get ready to take off, I think about how special this place is.

For the last 15 years or more, private equity groups and big-money corporations have been gobbling up the biggest, most popular and most profitable ski resorts, and with good reason. From 2001 to 2006, U.S. ski resorts saw revenue increase 22%. Now, nearly 1 in 3 ski trips takes place on a mountain owned by one of the four biggest resort corporations. It's a trend that some decry and others believe has saved skiing. I'm not sure how I feel.

When I hauled my equipment off a plane at the Reno airport, I had decided to avoid Heavenly, Boreal and Alpine Meadows. I was tired of all the corporate remodeling, upgrading and refashioning of resorts that have turned them into "ski destinations" with high-speed quads, high-end ski villages, ultramodern lodges--and all the intimacy of an airport terminal. Instead, I was searching for a different experience: a place with personality and oddball charm, a place where I'd feel comfortable wearing jeans tucked into my ski boots.

I'm competent enough on skis to hazard a single-diamond run, but I shy away from uncharted backcountry slopes with sheer faces and avalanche hazards. So I wanted a place where I could explore challenging terrain without ending up in an emergency room or plowed over by hot-dogging snowboarders. Happily for me, I stumbled into a time warp.

On my first day at Donner, I ask the kid behind the ticket counter where I might find Marshall Tuttle, the resort's owner. I expect to be directed to a corporate headquarters in Lake Tahoe or nearby Truckee. Instead, the kid points to the bottom of the mountain and says, "He's running the lift today."

Tuttle does this on a regular basis. If he's not operating the lift, he's shoveling snow or clearing a run on the mountain. I sit down with him while he eats a submarine sandwich and chips for lunch at a worn picnic table on the lodge's sun deck. He has rough hands, collar-length gray hair and sun-dried skin; his employees call him by his first name. Tuttle knows he can't compete head to head with the big nearby operations such as Alpine Meadows and Boreal. His strategy is to stay small and familiar. "Maybe the trend will all come back to this someday," he says.

His is one of a few family-owned resorts that thrive in such little-known places as Logan, Utah; Taos Ski Valley, N.M.; and Harrison, Mich. And he's happy to talk about the path that brought him to this mountain.

Tuttle first visited Donner on ski trips when he was a Boy Scout, living in the Bay Area. His grandparents also would rent cabins along the shores of Lake Tahoe. A few years ago he invested some of the profit from his welding and foundry business to buy Donner Ski Ranch out of Bankruptcy Court.Tuttle also bought some of the cabins his grandparents used to rent.

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