Finding a crowd-free | Tahoe Pacific Crest Snowcat skiing
Special to the Tribune
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – It’s five in the morning and I’ve been awake for over an hour. I’m excited and I’ve had trouble sleeping all night. I’m going cat skiing and I can’t stop thinking about untracked powder and whether I forgot anything when I packed my bag the evening before. In my half-conscious stupor, I repeatedly run through my mental checklist of essential gear.
I get up, brew some joe and check the weather forecast: mid 40s, 10 to 15 mile an hour winds with mostly sunny skies. Nice. I grab a bite and hop in the car. Before long I’m pulling off Brockway into the parking lot of the Cedar House Sports Lodge on the outskirts of Truckee. It’s a plush, but rustic looking hotel that is the staging location for Pacific Crest Snowcats. I’m early, so when I walk into the conference room I am met by a group of coffee sipping, reticent guides.
Short introductions are made as the rest of the clients began to trickle in. The mood is calm and there isn’t much talking going on as we stack our gear near the company van. Cat skiers are not the only folks lining up this morning; Pacific Crest also runs a new helicopter operation that’s been booked by some eager Europeans.
By the time the two parties split into the separate vans, our group begins to liven up. We tell stories, try to commit each others’ names to memory and even crack some jokes.
A short ride has us heading west off Highway 89 out of the Truckee river canyon between Squaw Valley and the town of Truckee. We eventually pull over at the trailhead, marked by a sign reading: pavement ends.
“Well that’s a good sign,” I think to myself.
The gear is loaded and the twelve passenger cabin of the cat is filled. Our driver, Rodger, fires up the diesel engine, and with a rumble he lurches it forward. Off we go. All that remains is possibility and reality.
As we crawl up the well defined cat track we get the opportunity to talk with the younger of our two guides, Andrew. Unlike the tight-lipped resort patroler that we’ve all dealt with at one time or another, our guide is social, helpful and well spoken. He uses our time in the cat to accurately and concisely explain avalanche avoidance protocols, basic search and rescue techniques and the proper use of avalanche beacons. The lecture does not fall on deaf ears. Rather than alarming the guests, the talk of snow slides and the tactics practiced to avoid them seems to have put everyone at ease. Now all that’s left is to start making some turns.
Pacific Crest’s company slogan is “Why ski used snow?” and so we’re looking for slopes that have been unmarred by previous clients. They are not hard to find. After making a few runs that end at a cat track, which leads us effortlessly back to the cat itself, I get the distinct feeling that I’m skiing at a resort. However, the snow isn’t thrashed and there are no other people skiing except the members of our group.
The lack of people in the area effectively removes the sense of urgency and scarcity from the fresh snow experience. Yet at the same time, the cat maintains the leisure and comfort that resort accommodations provide. It’s the best of both worlds.
Pacific Crest leases land in the Cold Stream drainage that is just south of Donner Pass. The valley is buried in snow for half of the year and the variety of terrain makes it the perfect place for a ski resort: lots of tree skiing, chutes, small bowls and open glades. So it comes as no surprise when a little research reveals that in the 1980s a French company saw the area’s potential and attempted to buy Southern Pacific’s holdings in order to build a new ski area. Fortunately for us the plan fell through.
After about five runs or so, our guide Andrew splits off from the group and starts to prepare a ridge top meal. Meanwhile, our senior guide Ward takes us over a ridge for one more descent before chow time. Before we drop in I ask Ward what kind of snow safety they perform in preparation for their clients. Being a veteran patroller from Squaw and Homewood, Ward tells me that, “we basically throw our bodies at it.”
Ward then demonstrates what is a standard practice for both in-bounds and heli-skiing operations: aggressive ski cutting of suspicious features or slopes. This means that the guide uses his skis to cut into the snow above any potential weakness attempting to release any slabs or slough before anyone gets below them. Once at the bottom, Ward calls up via radio and tells us that it is safe to ski down.
By the time we get back up to the ridge we are all ready to eat. Hearty sandwiches, chips and dip and hot drinks hits the spot. After stuffing our faces and warming our bellies with coffee we’re ready for more.
As it turns out, the best runs came at the end of the day. We all pulled up to the snow cat with smiles on our faces. And just when we thought it couldn’t get much better, our cat operator Rodger starts tossing down cold beers from the ice chest tied to the roof of the cat. Does it get any better than that? It would be my advice that the reader take a ride with Pacific Crest Snowcats to answer that question for his or herself.
‘Til next time, this is Nick Miley signing off.
– Nicholas Miley is a freelance writer living in South Lake Tahoe. He spends his free time exploring the Sierra Nevada and writing about his experiences.
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