Finding a Crowd Free Tahoe: Slack Country Access |

Finding a Crowd Free Tahoe: Slack Country Access

Nick Miley


This one word outlines the reach of possibility for the backcountry skier. Too often I have conversed with winter adventurers heading to and from the Alps and all they can say is: “Ahh! The access is so good.”

It’s true, the Alps are dialed-in to the needs of the ski touring population. With tortuous roads, trams, funiculars and aerial foot bridges, the Old World provides relatively easy access to much of it’s alpine terrain.

Although I harbor a longing for the European experience, I can say with certainty that I do not want to see the Sierra harnessed in the same manner. However, that is not to say that I don’t take advantage of a mechanized shortcut when I’m given the opportunity. For most of us Yanks, the common chair lift is the best alternative to hiking up on our own two feet.

There is no corollary to Europe’s level of mountain infrastructure in the States. Yet, many of us have sat on the lifts and looked out beyond the ski tracks to terrain that is as good or better than what the resort has to offer. This terrain is often called the side, or sometimes, the slack country for obvious reasons.

Simply put: it’s the area easily approached from the lift, yet is outside of the resort boundary.

Although many resorts make this terrain available via gates in the boundary line, Kirkwood stands apart from other Tahoe resorts with the vast amount of chutes, bowls and glades that surround the resort.

“Kirkwood has phenomenal access,” marketing manager Micheal Dalzell said. This is more than just PR hype, considering that the Wood boasts three separate gates at key locations. Built along the eastern side of Thimble Peak, the resort gives access to the reaches of the northwestern and southeastern ridges. In addition, a lesser traveled gate exits north from the top of the Caples Crest heading towards the plateaued summit of Red Cliffs.

With all this unmonitored side country, one might ask what Kirkwood’s attitude is regarding backcountry travel.

“Respect the signs and remember that open gates have nothing to to do with conditions being safe,” senior patrolman Dave Paradysz said. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking they are indicators of stability.”

Sage advice worth heeding considering the consequences when the resort safety-net is removed. Not to mention that cutting closed sign-lines will result in a pulled pass.

Jon Copeland, VP of Skier Services and head of Expedition Kirkwood echoed Paradysz’s remarks.

“Too many people think that because it’s close to the resort it’s safe – not true,” he said.

Recognizing the demand for backcountry access via boundary gates, the resort established Expedition Kirkwood. EK instructs students in essential skills such as understanding avalanche forecasts, assessing avalanche terrain and the proper use of a beacon, shovel and probe which help to mitigate human error. Moreover, they guide much of the side country terrain which familiarizes guests with the lay of the land. Additionally, EK provides free info on the current conditions to make your time in the back country safe and fun.

“It ‘s the one stop shop,” Dalzell said.

“Kirkwood is a very friendly resort to people who want to get out there,” Copeland said to me on the phone last Thursday.

I can’t argue. I can only hope that people take advantage of the resources that the Wood offers. Just remember, we’re on our own out there and good decision making is the first line of defense against injury and/ or death.

Now I’ll admit that Kirkwood isn’t offering European style access, but I’m not complaining. A chair lift to the ridge line means 1,500 vertical feet for free! In the world of muscle powered sports, that’s a real boon that will keep me coming back.

That being said, the conditions in the Carson Pass area have been better than anywhere else in the Tahoe region. And although many thumbed their noses at the mere busting of snow we got on Tuesday night, it had a positive effect at higher elevations. Sometimes that angry inch is all it takes to add a buttery texture to the slopes. It might not be great by last years standards, but it’s certainly worth the effort. ‘Til next time, I’ll see ya out there arching those turns on the border line.

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