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Tahoe Unbound
Hard-earned and long overdue, there's a new era of backcountry openness in Lake Tahoe. Here's how to reap the rewards. By Steve Casimiro

Photo: Lynn Kennen and friends trek up Jake's Peak
FREE AND CLEAR: Lynn Kennen and friends, taking full advantage of Tahoe's newly liberated boundary, trek up Jake's Peak

We're headed out-of-bounds on a sunny morning, in full view of the patrol, with a large and boisterous group of skiers—and I'm smiling to myself because nothing could be further from the way I used to hit the backcountry. Not so very long ago, we'd sneak O.B. illegally, under cover of storm, two at a time, swift and silent, into the poacher's paradise that surrounds Lake Tahoe's acclaimed resorts. Now, as I approach Sugar Bowl's orange boundary rope, it feels more than a little strange to be so conspicuous. Is this how rumrunners felt when Prohibition ended? I take a quick breath of sweet mountain air, touch the avalanche transceiver beneath my jacket for good luck, and duck under the rope lifted by Eric DesLauriers, a friend and veteran ski guide. Old habits die hard, though, and I catch myself glancing back to make sure no one is following—not a bad idea anyway, since the backcountry isn't a place for the uninitiated to go on a lark. We throw our skis onto our shoulders and hike north up Mount Judah toward Donner Lake.

Going O.B. in plain sight isn't the only novel thing about this trip. For starters, there are half a dozen kids in our party, ages 14 to 16, even though teenagers are more often found on snowboards than on skis. And if they are two-planking it, they're much more likely to be riding lifts and perfecting tricks in the area's terrain park than hiking for turns. Another thing is that most Lake Tahoe resorts have a history of ambivalence, animosity, and even antagonism toward skiers wanting to use their chairlifts to gain access to the backcountry. But our little foray is not only legal, it's touted in Sugar Bowl's promotional literature.

As DesLauriers leads us up Mount Judah's windswept summit ridge our hard plastic boots crunch through exposed and broken rock. We step back into skis on the leeward side of the hill where snow has migrated and settled for the spring. The ski area is less than 20 minutes back, but we're already in a different world—few signs of humanity, no evidence of other skiers, just white snow, fat Douglas firs, and brilliant blue sky overhead.

I'm offered first honors, which, depending on your perspective, is either a polite gesture or setting me up as a crash-test dummy. I point my skis downhill and carve sweeping turns through snow the consistency of Slurpee. There's no hiding the spring conditions—no powder, this. But fatties underfoot tame the slush and the sensation feels like some wonderful fusion of snowboarding, surfing, and waterskiing. We leapfrog through widely spaced ponderosa pines—the young freeriders bouncing and jumping off every rock and stump in sight—down and across gullies, through broad powder fields, nothing remotely threatening but for a few small wet avalanches that make a shhhhhhhhh sound as they sag and slowly crumble downhill.

For the past decade, in every snowy corner of the continent, skiers have been pressuring local resorts for better access to the untamed terrain beyond their permit areas. They've argued that ski areas built on public lands should allow unobstructed access to the public lands outside the areas, too, and that, with proper education, backcountry skiers and snowboarders can travel safely and responsibly in avalanche terrain. In the late nineties, resorts, mindful of lagging attendance and unwilling to turn away customers, responded with a wave of boundary openings, most notably in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the new border policy effectively tripled the size of the resort and reinvigorated its ski culture within months. And also in Aspen Highlands, Colorado, where the freshly opened, hike-in only Highlands Bowl swiftly became known for having some of the best resort skiing in the state.

During all this, Tahoe remained a holdout. Hank deVre, Óminence grise of Tahoe ski photographers and a local since 1972, says, "We've been pushing on these boundaries for years, risking getting caught, and fighting with the patrol. Not only did they close the boundaries, they even closed stuff in-bounds. Why, they used to throw people in jail who hiked the Chutes at Mount Rose."

Reasons for the holdout varied. The resorts abutting private land, such as Squaw Valley, feared lawsuits over accidents. Kirkwood, which borders on public lands, faced a Forest Service reluctant to commercialize wilderness. And throughout the region, the ski areas were fearful of the added cost and risk associated with rescues. "It's difficult to offer an open boundary knowing that some people will take advantage of the policy without taking personal responsibility for their own safety," says Rachel Woods, public relations manager at Alpine Meadows.

Tahoe watched while the popularity of more rugged terrain swept resorts as tame as Colorado's Keystone into the "backcountry adventure" market. "Attitudes on the patrol and in management changed, although slowly," deVre reflects. With the exception of Squaw Valley, which keeps a closed boundary, lakeside resistance crumbled over the past two years. This winter, Kirkwood instituted Expedition Kirkwood, a program that teaches advanced mountain skills. Mount Rose's Chutes, some of the steepest skiing in Tahoe, are legally open this winter—a first—and Heavenly Mountain Resort just installed three gates to provide legal access O.B.

"We've always had people here accessing the backcountry, but in the past couple of years the number has grown tremendously," says Kirkwood's marketing director Tracy Miller. "If you get slapped in the face with a wet fish enough times, you say, 'Hey, we need to do something about this.' "

The irony of Tahoe's resistance is that there may be no better place for backcountry skiing in the United States. Wilderness stretches for many miles beyond the ski areas of not only Squaw Valley, but Heavenly, Sugar Bowl, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Alpine Meadows, Homewood, Kirkwood, and others. The terrain ranges from Bambi-gentle to X Games-sick—ideal for those making the leap to backcountry while ensuring that old pros never get jaded.

Ready to go out-of-bounds in Tahoe? Pick up the February 2005 issue of Adventure to get the rest of Casimiro's story.


GETTING THERE: Fly in to Reno-Tahoe International Airport. From there, it's a 45-minute drive to the North Shore and 90 minutes to the South Shore. The Tahoe Casino Express (www.tahoecasinoexpress.com) operates 14 coaches a day between the airport and hotels in South Lake Tahoe ($34, round-trip), or you can rent a car at the airport.

BACKCOUNTRY SKI SCHOOLS: The author's guide, Eric DesLauriers, runs All Mountain Ski Pros (www.allmountainskipros.com), where you can customize the curriculum to suit your needs—and budget. Or enroll at Alpine Skills International, which offers two- and three-day courses ($292 and up; www.alpineskills.com). Most classes begin on lift-accessed terrain and progress to the steeps and deeps. Instruction covers hike-in options (using snowshoes and approach skis), route planning and finding, avalanche hazard awareness, and survival techniques.

LODGING: The tidy, nondescript Tahoe City Inn is all about location: It's a five-minute walk to the lake and more than a dozen restaurants. The Inn's standard room ($85; www.tahoecityinn.com) sleeps four, and an extra rollaway costs $10. Tahoe City's Travelodge ($90; www.travelodge.com) is a similarly no-frills affair, though some of the cookie-cutter rooms have a lake view beyond the parking lot. Those game for a more Kerouacian experience are advised to brave the Sierra Club's flagship Clair Tappaan Lodge, near Soda Springs ($52; +1 530 426 3632), a 71-year-old lodge with semiprivate rooms. You will need a sleeping bag and might get roped into doing some chores, but the lodge offers a big communal room with a giant hearth and a kitchen staffed by professional chefs. Yes, you may have seconds.

DINING: A railway dining car moved from West Chester, Pennsylvania to Truckee, California in 1995, Andy's Truckee Diner (+1 530 582 5235) looks right at home next to the town's rail depot. A local favorite, Andy's serves up classic American fare. Nearby, Truckee's Squeeze In is also a popular breakfast spot. Each of the restaurant's 60 omelets comes with a hefty helping of home fries and toast, and the friendly, low-key atmosphere will start your day off right (+1 530 587 9814). Carbo-loading? Try Pianeta Cucina Italiana (+1 530 587 4694), which serves an excellent pasta Bolognese. For aprés-ski refreshment, resort employees and area ski pros swear by the Red Dog Bar and Grill (+1 530 581 7261) in Squaw Valley, especially on a Friday night.

PRE-SKI READS: Tahoe by Ken Castle (Moon Handbooks, $20) is an excellent primer for rookies. Couloir magazine ($8; www.couloirmag.com), edited in Truckee, is the glossy stock authority on "all backcountry snow disciplines." —Sean Leslie

Photograph by Steve Casimiro

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, February 2005

Tahoe Unbound: The best backcountry in the lower 48

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February 2005

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