(This is the third story of a five-part series that highlights a handful of the most iconic lines in the world. From Portillo's Super C to Central Couloir in Jackson Hole, these are the classics to dream about during the doldrums of summer.)
Known for being the stomping grounds of the late, great Shane McConkey and the birthplace of G.N.A.R., Squaw Valley has also garnered attention for hosting the most insane spectator event in skiing. Every snowy morning, the masses turn out in droves at the base of the KT 22 chair for Squaw's classic: The Fingers Race.
For those committed to taking part in the pow morning ritual, The Fingers Race begins at ungodly hours, but no one will ever tell you what time they actually lined up to make sure they keep their spot in the front. Tahoe's locals start visualizing which line in the fabled Fingers zone they're going to tee-up as soon as the KT 22 chair starts spinning. Spectators roll out at a more comfortable time, around 8:30 in the morning, to watch the skiing and carnage over a cup of coffee. For both sides of the sending coin, The Fingers Race never disappoints.
"The Race is definitely one of the main things that sets Squaw apart from any other mountain I've seen because it is right at the base of the mountain in view of everybody who just showed up on a powder morning," says longtime Squaw Valley local Ingrid Backstrom. "The whole base of the mountain looks right at The Fingers, so, it's an incredible venue for spectators."
Here's how The Fingers Race plays out according to Dr. Robb Gaffney's infamous how-to-Squaw-properly guide, Squallywood: "On a sunny powder day, show up at the base of KT 22 really, really early armed with your fattest skis, a mental Polaroid of your run, a mindset that you are going to straightline the upper 2/3 of the mountain, and confidence of being on stage in front of everyone on the chair and in the liftline below..."
The Fingers is a rock-reef outcropping that sits underneath the KT chair on the lower portion of Squaw's mountain, in direct view of hundreds of onlookers waiting in liftlines, riding on the KT 22 or Expedition chairlifts, or sipping drinks at the sundeck. The Fingers boasts nine prominent lines and a handful of variations and all count as a Fingers' line except for "Reverse Traverse." There are big airs, technical billy-goating lines, and puckering straightlines to be farmed out in the zone. According to Gaffney's Squallywood, "the closer you are to the center, the harder your line." Transitions get bombed out, snow sluffs away exposing the sharky rock, and take-offs get hammered. Hence, the mad dash to the zone on powder mornings because of the prime sending conditions.
"As far as The Fingers Race goes the two iconic lines are probably Main Air and Middle Knuckle," says Gaffney. Main Air is the line that gets hit earliest, so when everyone's racing down to [The Fingers] the person going the fastest usually hits Main Air. It's a good 40-foot air that gets the whole chairlift and liftline roaring. There's a broad shelf for the take-off. And, when you come in to Middle Knuckle you have to slow down a little bit because it's a blind roll over to a steep--about 60 degree--pitch. That's when you can hear the people yelling from the chair."
"I personally like Middle Knuckle," says Backstrom. "If it forms properly the line looks like something out of Alaska, with a spine and a few airs."
Regardless of the line you ski, you're going to have to rely on a visual inspection of The Fingers to get your bearings. Getting the area figured out before dropping in is important because the rollover and steep pitches promise you'll be blind as you drop in.
"I like the close proximity to the chair because you get to see The Fingers while you're riding over on the chairlift," says Freeride World Tour competitor, and Squaw local Jackie Paaso. "You get a really good view of the zone, get to scope your line, and see other people hit it while you're on the chairlift."
After weathering the lift line and getting a visual inspection of the lines, it is a full-tilt race off the KT chair for The Fingers. Chargers skate off the chair, point their skis over The Nose, and nuke toward The Fingers. It's mass chaos. Occasionally, someone kicks a ski or tomahawks in the tranny, but the caliber of skiing during The Fingers Race is pretty mind-blowing across the board.
"When you're the head of the pack you really want to stick it," says Robb Gaffney. "Not because of the people on the chair watching, but because of the people coming down behind you. They're definitely coming. There is so much energy going down the mountain."
"No one waits up top," adds Paaso. "It's nonstop, rapid fire; one person after the next at like 40 miles per hour."
There's a crew of usual suspects who set the pace. "Right now the guys that were in G.N.A.R. the Movie are at the forefront of the Race," says Robb Gaffney. "Usually, I'll see them on the first 10 chairs and when you see them in the KT lift line you know something is about to happen up there."
"It can be a bit much for the uninitiated but the lift line is definitely part of the fun," adds Scott Hanichen, a Squaw local for 11 years and one of the stars of G.N.A.R. the Movie. "People never stop jockeying for position, and it seems like anything goes to try get yourself a few chairs up. It gets real physical with people throwing elbows and literally standing on top of you just to gain a little precious real estate. All in good fun, of course."
Why is The Fingers Race a classic? "You never can shake the feeling that you’re on stage while skiing The Fingers," says Hanichen. "Everybody down in the maze can see you and the chair is close enough to the zone that you could have a personal conversation with a friend, or just heckle the shit out of him. When the first few skiers come over the rollover coming down to The Fingers all eyes are up there. You really gotta give’er to draw a reaction out of the crowd. But the feeling of greasing a line that intimidating on that big of a stage in front of that many people is pretty special."
"My personal favorite in there is probably Engerbretson’s," says Hanichen. "It lies in the heart of The Fingers and requires a few different moves to really nail. The rollover in the top section gives a great feeling of exposure and if things are set up right you get a few nice spine-type turns before you drop into the chute, which requires a bit of slough management before airing out onto the apron and claiming the shit out of it.”
There's one way to ski The Fingers properly, a top to bottom run off of the KT chair, done in style, with speed and fluidity. And if you ask anyone at Squaw--from Gaffney to the G.N.A.R. guys--who exemplifies the requisite approach, one name is bound to come up: Kevin O'Meara.
"A lot of guys are one and done in The Fingers; they go put a bomb hole in there, and claim the shit out of it for the rest of the day," says Hanichen. "O’Meara will lap all morning. Gaffney’s book made it easy for people to understand what’s going on in The Fingers area, but O’Meara gets creative, he’ll find clean bomb holes and transitions long after people have cleared out for other parts of the mountain."
Whether you're there to huck with O'Meara and his band of gnarly pranksters or just there to soak in the scene, Squaw Valley's Fingers Race is an undeniable classic.
"It's such a fun thing to be a part of," says Ingrid Backstrom. "The environment in the KT line is special. You know you're going to see a show, you know people are going to go for it, and it can inspire you to go for it. The whole environment feeds off itself."