Skiers at Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe Ski Resort, Calif.

Skiers at Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe Ski Resort, Calif. (Hank deVre / Squaw Valley)

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O'Rourke does have a point. A friend once described skiing as standing in a cold shower and tearing up $100 bills.

One way to maximize the experience is by finding the sort of experiences and visuals you'll remember long after the American Express charges come due.

For my money, Lake Tahoe's constellation of 29 resorts provides the most heavenly backdrops in the nation. The region boasted 40 to 70 feet of snow last season.

You read that right: 40 to 70 feet.

Thanks to $100 million in upgrades, Tahoe is greeting the new season with improved lifts, additional terrain, expanded grooming and snow-making capabilities.

At Squaw Valley, the big news is that an equity firm has taken the keys to the formerly family-owned resort and nearby Alpine Meadows, the sort of consolidation you're seeing at resorts across the nation. The good side to that is more money to expand, which both resorts are doing. Many observers expect the two resorts to one day combine, spread across eight Sierra Nevada peaks.

At Squaw alone, $50 million is going into upgrades that include mountainside lodges and what's said to be the world's first ski-in, ski-out Starbucks. The base area features a new restaurant and bar. Fire pits will be scattered across the Olympic House sun deck.

At Northstar, where new owners are spending $30 million, flame-haired Olympian Shaun White is setting up a snowboard training camp; the centerpiece is a 22-foot custom-built half pipe that will be open to the public.

Weather permitting, Northstar plans to have the half pipe open before Christmas. The public can use it whenever White is not training, at no extra charge.

Look for ski standouts in the Tahoe area this season as well: Julia Mancuso, Jess Sobolowski and Ingrid Backstrom (Squaw); and Glen Plake (Heavenly) training and occasionally working with guests on their techniques.

At Heavenly, the resort opened the striking Tamarack Lodge last year, and plans to build a similar structure to house a new kids' ski school. Heavenly is also finishing up a new 700-seat restaurant near the top of the Tahoe Zephyr Express lift, sure to offer spectacular views of the Pacific Crest.

At Kirkwood Mountain Resort, where backcountry adventure is available within the resort's boundaries, a new $1-million facility will be the departure point for backcountry runs. It includes a classroom/conference center, demo gear and a high-end store.

Like Heavenly, Kirkwood is south of the lake. That area received more than 60 feet of snow last season, an astounding amount even during a La Niña year, when the resort's typical snowfall is generally 44% better than during a non-La Niña season.

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"The way to ski these things is to go to total panic, then back off."

—Anonymous

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You don't have to drive eight hours to achieve total panic. Milky hillsides are within 90 minutes of downtown Los Angeles. Anyone who has skied the face at Mt. Waterman, one of the little ma-and-pa operations that still dot the San Gabriels, will vouch for the local mountains' expert terrain and great value. (Be sure to rent before going; the no-frills resort does not have a rental shop.)

The biggest news at Waterman is that Highway 2 has been repaved, making the twisty, hour-plus drive a bit less daring.

Big Bear, two hours from L.A., is offering some sweet deals — midweek lift and lodging packages as low as $69 per person per night, double occupancy. The lift tickets are good at the town's sister resorts: Snow Summit and Bear Mountain.

And the ambitious but underappreciated little resort of Mt. Baldy, 30 minutes up the hill from the 210 freeway exit near Claremont, is offering an interesting new $20 monthly membership that covers lift tickets for skiing, hiking and mountain biking.

All in all, it makes for some expansive choices this season for California skiers, where deals and deep snow are the norm, not the exception. Arctic oscillations willing, let the storms begin.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

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