Backcountry Skiing and Riding: Going Beyond the Boundaries
Once the winter snowstorms close the high mountain passes in California for the season, the spine of the Sierra Nevada Mountains becomes the largest roadless area in the lower 48 states including the highest peak in the contiguous U.S., Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet. Lake Tahoe sits at the northern end of this high alpine paradise serving as an ideal base camp for backcountry-savvy skiers and snowboarders looking to hone their skills before heading out into the region’s endless powder playgrounds.
The Pacific Crest winds its way along the west coast of Lake Tahoe alternating between granite bedrock and volcanic outcroppings, the first providing for perfectly spaced pillow drops on a powder day and the latter forming bold couloirs that hold corny turns well into spring. Backcountry skiers and snowboarders stopping to catch their breath are instantly rewarded with reinvigorating views of Lake Tahoe itself with its brilliantly clear water and shimmering blue hues.
The seven resorts surrounding Lake Tahoe have responded to the growing interest in the backcountry side of the sports of skiing and snowboarding by creating numerous guided backcountry programs, immersion camps/clinics, avalanche awareness programs and even a handful of snowcat skiing/snowboarding operations – some of which aren’t found anywhere else in the U.S.
With the 2016-17 winter off to a record-setting pace, longtime locals are already comparing it to “The Dream Seasons” of 2010-11, 2002-3, 1997-98, and 1992-93, all with snowfall totals over 500 inches, unprecedented base depths cresting the 200-inch mark and extended operating seasons as late as the Fourth of July. Make this the season you step up your skiing and snowboarding game and expand your boundaries of mountain exploration by learning from the best guides and backcountry experts in the business.
Resort-Based Backcountry Programs
Boasting some of the most committing lines and deepest snow in Tahoe, Kirkwood Mountain Resort is home to Expedition: Kirkwood, one of the preeminent backcountry awareness programs on the planet. E:K offers backcountry education courses and big mountain riding clinics for those looking to take their riding to the next level in a controlled, professional environment. In addition to daily guide service, Expedition: Kirkwood offers an array of camps hosted by industry professionals throughout the season along with AIARE certification courses promoting avalanche awareness. Kirkwood also has a guided snowcat skiing and snowboarding operation that accesses over 600 acres of powder stashes and reserved terrain located in the resort’s highly-coveted Red Cliffs and Martin Point zones.
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is known around the world as a top destination for winter enthusiasts and a mecca for extreme skiers and snowboarders hoping to become the next ski porn sensation. Heralded as one the most famous lifts in North America, Squaw’s KT-22 Express provides access to 2,000 vertical feet of advanced/expert terrain with its open bowls, steep chutes, granite spines and exposed finger lines serving as the ultimate “Squallywood” proving grounds on powder days. The resort’s North Face Mountain Guides program pairs up to four like-minded guests with the resort’s best instructors to explore hidden stashes and hike-to terrain, all the time enjoying express lift privileges making it easy to rack up vertical. Skiers and snowboarders can also sign up for the resort’s Dawn Patrol program to access the mountain with iconic guides such as Jonny Moseley prior to the general public.
The Alpine Skills International Backcountry Center at Sugar Bowl Resort offers a variety of courses focusing on the technical aspects of backcountry skiing and snowboarding along with guided tours between a number of the resorts on the north side of the lake including an overnight excursion between Squaw Valley and Sugar Bowl resorts. These courses teach important uphill, downhill and mountaineering techniques to enjoy the above tree-line, alpine terrain – the zone where some of the best skiing experiences are found. Courses range from the introductory level to tackling the summit of Mt. Shasta and are offered throughout the season at various locations around Lake Tahoe.
The North American Ski Training Center (NASTC) is headquartered in the town of Truckee and partners with a number of the Lake Tahoe resorts including Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, and Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort to offer all-mountain freeskiing clinics and backcountry skills courses providing upper-level instruction at the world’s premier mountains. These multi-day total immersion clinics are led by PSIA Demonstration Team members and AMGA guides including a number of team members named to the nation’s top ten ski instructors, selected every four years.
Backcountry Outfitters, Overnight Lodges, and Huts
Pacific Crest Snowcats operates on more than 2,000 acres of reserved terrain between Squaw Valley and Sugarbowl Resorts and offers California’s only true backcountry snowcat skiing and snowboarding operation. Trips consist of up to twelve people and two guides with terrain options ranging from wide open bowls to some of the most advanced north-facing terrain offered by any snowcat operation in the lower 48 states. Guests have the opportunity to ski/ride with some of the best guides in the business as many of the crew have logged an impressive number of hours in the Chugach Mountains near Valdez as part of their spring season gig guiding for Alaska-based heliski operations.
Lying six miles northwest of Squaw Valley and four and a half miles northeast of Truckee, the Lost Trail Lodge offers modern amenities in a rustic atmosphere, making for a comfortable backcountry destination. Hidden four miles deep in Coldstream Canyon, the lodge offers an ideal starting point to access some of the Sierra Nevada’s best skiing and ice- climbing terrain. With its proximity to I-80 and the historic town of Truckee, the lodge is in the perfect location for a week-long adventure or a weekend getaway.
Looking ahead to the 2017-18 winter season, Heli-Vertex plans to offer Lake Tahoe’s only heli-skiing and snowboarding experience accessing some of the most remote, pristine terrain in the Northern Sierra. Four guests and a guide will be whisked away to chase first descents and bottomless powder making for an unforgettable climactic experience to cap off an ideal winter getaway to Lake Tahoe. For now, skiers and snowboarders can stop by their locations at either the Truckee Airport or the South Lake Tahoe airport for scenic helicopter tours perfect for scouting backcountry stashes and committing lines.
The Sierra Club also maintains four backcountry huts in the Donner Pass/Lake Tahoe area – Peter Grubb, Benson, Bradley and Ludlow huts. Each hut consists of little more than a rustic shelter, a wood burning stove and bunking arrangements. They are all located about a day’s journey from various roadheads near the town of Truckee.