Lake Tahoe backcountry skiing is skyrocketing in popularity — but is everyone prepared to make it out alive?
December 21, 2015
Hit up the Tahoe backcountry
Below is a quick-hit list of Tahoe/Truckee-based backcountry guide services, and some of the classes and options each provides. It’s not an all-inclusive list, so be sure to visit each website for full details:
Alpine Skills International
530-582-9170 • alpineskills.com
Backcountry Ski Tours
Location: Silver Peak, Razorback Ridge, Anderson Ridge, Castle Peak
Dates: Most Sundays through March 21
North America Ski Training Center
530-386-2102 • skinastc.com
Backcountry Day Tours
Cost: $150 (two person minimum)
Location: Donner Summit
Dates: Upon request Dec. 2015 – May 2016
Tahoe Mountain School
530-414-5295 • tahoemountainschool.com
Location: Diamond Peak Backcountry
Dates: Jan. 9, Jan. 23, Feb. 20
209-258-7360 • expedition.kirkwood.com
Out of Bounds Private Guides
Cost: $635 (half-day also available)
Location: Kirkwood Backcountry
Dates: Upon Request Dec. 2015 – May 2016
TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — Expansive vistas of sparkling, untracked snow with no lift lines in sight — the lure of the backcountry is undeniable, and more skiers and snowboarders are answering the call of the wild than ever before.
Snowsports Industries America reports backcountry participation by skiers and riders rose 49 percent from 2008-09 to 2013-14, and purchases of women's-specific AT equipment alone increased 87 percent to $2.2 million last season.
But as backcountry ski and snowboarding equipment continues to fly off the shelves, it begs the question if buyers are investing as much in avalanche safety education as they are on high-tech Dynafit bindings and splitboards.
'INVESTMENT IN THE FIELD'
From free online courses to local workshops, avalanche education is readily accessible; at Truckee-Tahoe, the Sierra Avalanche Center lists 18 qualified providers on its website.
But experts caution that classroom work alone is not enough, as safely navigating uncontrolled terrain requires contextual knowledge only gained in the field.
"Operating safely in the backcountry involves investment in field time, as well as ongoing education in avalanche awareness," said Brandon Schwartz, lead avalanche forecaster for the Tahoe National Forest Sierra Avalanche Center. "If you have a limited window of time to spend in the backcountry, guides are going to be a much better option."
American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) echoes Schwartz's sentiments and notes a growing trend for guided tours in its 2013 position statement on access.
"With the public having less time to develop technical skills and local terrain knowledge, the demand for guided recreation is increasing," writes AMGA.
CHANGE IN PERCEPTION
Five operators in the Tahoe-Truckee area currently offer guided backcountry tours, including Alpine Skills International (ASI), Tahoe Mountain School, North American Ski Training Center (NASTC) and Expedition Kirkwood.
ASI, perhaps the most well-known, has been offering avalanche education, backcountry skiing courses, and guided tours since 1979.
Despite recent low snow seasons, ASI co-founder Mimi Maki-Vadasz has seen a spike in demand over the past three years.
"It used to be that backcountry skiing was just for us oddballs," said Maki-Vadasz. "The media and athletes like Jeremy Jones have changed that."
For those looking for their first taste of the backcountry, Maki-Vadasz recommends ASI's lift-accessed backcountry program in partnership with Sugar Bowl Resort.
The program offers skiers and riders the opportunity to enjoy fresh tracks out of bounds without the uphill climb.
Though she has seen backcountry interest spike, Maki-Vadasz notes it is difficult to know exactly what the potential for demand is if the region sees sufficient snowfall this season.
"As of yet, there is no unmet demand," she says. "We've had a few bad seasons, and before then (backcountry skiing) wasn't as popular as it is now."
Maki-Vadasz hopes this year ASI will have a chance to see if the sport's increasing popularity will translate into sold-out programs, and other optimistic local operators are vying to get a piece of the growing pie.
Founded in 2004 by Adrian Ballinger, locally owned Alpenglow Expeditions offers guided high-altitude mountaineering expeditions around the world.
The company recently expanded its offerings to include international ski mountaineering and found many clients asking if they would be leading tours closer to home.
"We previously haven't offered any domestic tours or expeditions due to the challenges of securing permits to operate on U.S. land," said Sean Kristl, director of marketing and sales for Alpenglow Expeditions, noting the business has received an increasing number of requests for backcountry skiing courses and guided tours in the Lake Tahoe area.
Alpenglow is not alone in their challenges to secure U.S. Forest Service commercial operating permits.
In its position statement on access, AMGA reports, "American access for the mountain guiding profession is highly complex, inconsistent and elusive for many."
GOVERNMENT RED TAPE
The sentiment among guides is that U.S. Forest Service permits are difficult, if not impossible, to get, and pose the greatest challenge and frustration to their operations.
The bureaucratic red tape varies forest by forest, but guides report some administrators will not return calls regarding commercial permit requests or have pulled existing permits without explanation.
As guide operators continue their efforts to gain access to government land, private land trusts offer an alterative to securing approval to guide in the backcountry.
This route recently proved fruitful for Alpenglow Expeditions, which, on Dec. 9, secured permission from the Truckee Donner Land Trust to guide on its land. Kristl says the company plans to offer avalanche courses later this month.
Only time will tell what the demand for guided backcountry tours will look like this winter, but with more than 100 inches of snow already on the ground, operators have reason to be optimistic.
After all, the pull of what Mimi Maki-Vadasz calls "wild snow" is visceral. Out there, she says, "You are so awake. So alive."
Amelia Richmond is a North Lake Tahoe-based freelancer writer.