If you stop for a moment to catch your breath at the bottom of the chair lifts at California's Donner Ski Ranch, you can look across the hill toward 7,135-foot Donner Pass. There in a low opening, an icy wind whips up the snow covering the ruts of the old Emigrant Trail across the Sierra Nevadas.
Snow has always fallen deep and lasted long in these steep valleys. In the spring of 1847, a rescue party from Sacramento fought its way through 20-foot drifts to reach the starving remnants of the Donner Party of pioneers, snowbound without food since the previous October.
As every California schoolchild learns with a quiver of thrill and horror in history class, the survivors had clung to life for six long months, eating first their horses and oxen, and toward the end, as the weaker ones died, each other.
Today things are different. A multilane highway -- Interstate 80 -- crosses Donner Summit, connecting Sacramento in the west with Reno, Nev., to the east. What once was an exhausting four-week wagon trek on rocky, rutted tracks over the Western Divide now is a spectacular, comfortable two-hour drive.
And nearby, on the rugged mountain summit, is something the despairing wayfarers could hardly have imagined: Four family-style ski resorts clustered together: Boreal, Soda Springs, Sugar Bowl and Donner Ski Ranch.
Winter weather in this part of the Sierra Nevada Range hasn't changed much since then, occasional warm cycles to the contrary. Donner Summit, about 10 miles west of Truckee, remains a region of rugged peaks and shaded valleys, and it still collects -- and keeps -- some of the Sierra's deepest, longest-lasting snow.
Usually by the first of December, the first dozen inches cover the ground; by spring, snow depths often exceed 20 feet. Despite all the wonderful white stuff, the Donner Summit ski resorts don't get much press, even in the ski world.
Instead, nearby Lake Tahoe gets all the attention -- and most of the crowds, too. So the Donner Pass area has become a favorite for local skiers -- residents of central California, families who drive up from Sacramento, Grass Valley and San Francisco.
The Donner Summit resorts are small and don't pretend to be glamorous or glitzy, but they're low-key and uncrowded. Among the four are only 23 ski lifts and 145 runs. The lowest elevation is 6,700 feet and the highest is 8,383 feet. The longest single run is two miles. Except for Sugar Bowl, which has a vertical drop of 1,500 feet, the others average about 650 feet.
There are few high-style cafes, glass-walled hot tubs or designer ski-wear shops, but there also aren't
roving bands of hot doggers, long lift lines or traffic jams in the parking lot. Celebrities do ski there -- particularly at Sugar Bowl, which has a hideaway, European-village flavor -- but they keep a low profile.
A few out-of-state skiers visit Donner Summit each winter, because these resorts are the closest to Sacramento and the Bay Area. Business travelers who plan to stay over the weekend can drive up from the Sacramento airport in 90 minutes on roads that are kept plowed and clear.
Coming east on Interstate 80, you'll find all four resorts just off the Soda Springs exit. Boreal, a favorite of locals, is a friendly, family place where the lift-line wait averages about 5 minutes. Nine double chair lifts and one triple feed skiers onto 39 groomed runs -- 75 percent rated as intermediate slopes, 15 percent expert and 10 percent beginner.
Want to ski a half-day, or at night under the lights? Boreal sells half-day tickets for $19 (adults) and $12 (children), and night tickets for $13 and $10. Day lift tickets are $27 and $14. Boreal's "Ski School Specialists" gear lessons toward beginners, with a two-hour group lesson at $18.
The resort also runs "Animal Crackers," a children's day-care program. While the parents ski, children are entertained with a variety of indoor and outdoor-snow activities.
Boreal also has a large ski rental shop, a cafeteria, snack bar and sports shop, and a video game room. Overnighters usually stay at the Boreal Inn, a square brick building that's hardly glamorous but comfortable. The inn is moderately priced; room rates include Continental breakfast.
For more of an old-time Sierra ski weekend and a Swiss resort flavor, veteran skiers prefer 1,000-acre Sugar Bowl, the second-oldest resort in the Tahoe-Donner area (it was built in 1939). Sugar Bowl resembles an Alpine village on a hillside, with an old hotel, a group of hillside chalets and no cars. How do skiers get there? They park on the opposite hill and ride across a deep valley on the gondola to the village, lodge and lifts.
The gondola, a quad lift and six double chairs take skiers to runs that are 50 percent expert, 25 percent intermediate and 25 percent bunny slopes. Tickets are $32 and $14, with children under 6 free. Half-day rates are $21 for adults and $11 for children. Sugar Bowl's ski school gives two-hour lessons for $27; the "Introduction to Skiing" package is $39 and includes a two-hour lesson, equipment rental and beginner lift ticket.
There are 30 rooms on site at Sugar Bowl, with more condominium rentals close by, connected by a shuttle bus. Rooms range from $80 to $110. You can get a five-day ski package including room, breakfast and dinner, lift tickets and ski school.
If Sugar Bowl isn't to your taste, you could rent an entire ski resort for a party or a club reunion. Soda Springs, a 200-acre resort built in 1935 and operated by Boreal, is rented out to groups during the week. On unrented days, however, it's open to everyone.
Although Soda Springs features the first ski lifts installed in the Sierras, somehow the place never grew; it still has but three lifts and16 runs. Lift tickets are $20 and $11 and, for half-day skiing, a very affordable price of $15 and $9. Children under 5 ski free.
The 360-acre Donner Ski Ranch, across from Sugar Bowl, has the most reasonable rates, as part of its plan to be the "best family ski resort on the summit." One triple chair and three doubles lead to 40 runs on the front and the back side of the mountain, half for intermediates and a quarter for experts. The longest run is a mile; lift lines are short.
On weekends and holidays, lift tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for children under 12 and seniors over 60; half-day tickets are $16 and $10. On weekdays, tickets are $10 and $5. Friday- and Saturday-night skiing, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., is $5 per person.
The ski shop has rentals and group lessons. If you want to try snowboarding, there are rentals and lessons.
To stay at Donner Ski Ranch, try the Summit House Hotel and Condominiums; telephone is (800) 422-0443. Rooms for four, with two double beds, are $75 midweek and $85 on the weekend; condos for eight are $140 and $170. Meals are available in the Donner Ranch cafeteria.
For hotel reservations and information call Boreal and Soda Springs at (916) 426-3668, Sugar Bowl at (916) 426-3651 and Donner Ski Ranch at (916) 426-3635.
The sixth annual Baltimore Ski and Travel Show will be held Friday through next Sunday at Festival Hall, adjacent to the Baltimore Convention Center.
The show will feature exhibits by ski-equipment manufacturers and ski-travel planners, and representatives of more than 50 ski resorts will be on hand. There also will be a ski sale, free ski lessons for beginners, tips for racing and a fashion show.
The show will be open Friday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 for adults; children are admitted free.
For information call 347-7500.