On a rare sun drenched day last weekend Pacific Crest Snowcats showed off the beauty of the backcountry with a snowcat full of psyched skiers and snowboarders. Eleven clients and two guides piled into a van early in the morning, drove away from the crowded ski areas on a holiday weekend and made fresh tracks until the waning light of evening drove us out.
In the morning groups of friends furtively glanced at each other as we loaded equipment onto the van, sizing up the group while wondering how they might measure up, or perhaps if others could keep up. It turned out that the group, comprised of nine men and two women ranging in age from 20 to 60 and possessing high intermediate to advanced skills, was able to stay together quite easily.
Veteran guides Dave Rintala (the founder of Pacific Crest Snowcats) and Ken Manuel have a passion for skiing that led them to abandon their ski patroller careers in favor of hauling eager clients in a Bombardier snowcat, a vehicle with wide tracks that grip the snow on steep slopes and pirouette around sharp curves. They spend the winter months guiding the snowcat operation, then transition to Alaska as heli-skiing guides in the spring with Alaska Backcountry Adventures, while other local guides maintain the Tahoe venture.
The first run of the day, in an area called Morning Glory, lived up to its name. A moderately angled, sun-dappled slope allowed everyone to stretch their legs, sliding down a knoll that opened up to a wide vista overlooking a deep, forested valley. The spectacular view set the stage for the rest of the day as the snowcat ascended higher and higher with each run.
After being battered by one string of storms after another the blue-bird day in Coldstream Canyon was a welcome respite, and we took advantage of the warm temperatures by trundling up a steep road to catch some gorgeous corn snow (a desirable snow condition resulting from a freeze-thaw cycle that produces smooth, soft snow over a firm base) in the late morning, experiencing spring in February. The run was so good that we voted as a group to repeat it not once but twice more, the last time hiking beyond the road to reach the highest point. We were rewarded with a 360 degree view of the surrounding summits of Tinker’s Knob, and Lincoln, Judah, and Castle Peaks, and a smooth, exhilarating run down the velvety corn snow.
Having agreed to delay lunch to take advantage of the ideal corn snow we were one ravenous bunch that descended upon the feast that had been spread out on two folding tables loaded with chips and salsa, lunch meats, and a California-inspired variety of veggies, including avocado, red pepper rings, lettuce and onions. Hummus, peanut butter and jelly, cookies and assorted soft drinks rounded out the selection that was quickly devoured.After lunch, as the corn snow began re-freezing, we tackled a north facing slope, sliding off a small cornice to gain access to an open bowl of beautiful winter snow, narrowing to a steep choke that took a bit of technical maneuvering before winding through the forested lower slopes. For Pacific Crest Snowcats this is the playground of winter conditions where the slopes hang on to powder for days after a storm, rather than the spring-like conditions we were experiencing, and we were all glad to get a taste of the steeper terrain.
Rintala and Manuel have a zeal not only for skiing but safety, starting the day with a short safety briefing followed by an exercise in locating a buried beacon, a transceiver worn by each participant that aids in locating buried objects in the unlikely event of an avalanche. The settled conditions we were skiing in made the avalanche danger quite low, but Rintala and Manuel view a day in the backcountry as an ideal time to begin educating clients about good safety practices, so concepts like not resting in the trough of a potentially avalanche-prone gully become second nature. They know that once people get a taste for the backcountry they will be more likely to venture out on their own, so they take their educator role seriously to establish good habits in their clients. Wide spacing between skiers, skiing from zone of safety to zone of safety, and crossing slopes one at a time become the norm after a day of backcountry skiing with Pacific Crest Snowcats.
At the beginning of each run one guide was stationed at the bottom, radioing intelligence to the guide at the top. They consistently gave us a rundown of the lay of the land, describing the angle of the slope, expected snow conditions and any prominent terrain features they were aware of. They gave specific instructions, such as, “Stay to the right of the trees and do NOT cross the road at the bottom.” Our track record on the first two runs left some room for improvement as first one snowboarder, and then another seemingly did the opposite and turned left instead of right, or crossed the road, causing one of them to miss a run while a guide helped him reconnoiter and both to accept some good-natured ribbing, but didn’t cause any delays for the rest of the group.
At the end of the day, as the group toasted each other with celebratory rounds of beer in the snowcat and reflected animatedly on our 10 runs we agreed that it was spectacularly successful, allowing us access to backcountry terrain with the safety net of experienced and well-equipped guides. We loved getting fresh tracks all day with our small group and enjoyed the camaraderie that grew through the day.
A full day with Pacific Crest Snowcats costs $325/person ($300 if booked 2 weeks in advance), which includes transportation from the base at Highway 89 and Squaw Valley road, all safety equipment, lunch and drinks. Skis and boards are not provided, though rental is available next door at Tahoe Dave’s Ski Shop. It’s a good idea to bring a water bottle and snack, such as an energy bar, in case of hunger or thirst before lunch is provided. Small packs and extra clothes can be left in the snowcat between runs.
To reach the Pacific Crest Snowcat base in North Lake Tahoe from San Francisco by car (approximately 4 hours, depending on traffic and weather):
Pacific Crest Snowcats
Base located at Hwy 89 & Squaw Valley Road
Tahoe City, CA