Backcountry bliss |

Backcountry bliss

Standing strapped to my board and sucking wind, speechless for the moment after slicing down 1,000 feet of vertical bliss, a guttural hoot pierced the backcountry silence. Our group of eight skiers and riders, each sprinkled with freshly fallen snowflakes, collectively craned ours necks up in the direction of the sound.

It was an unbridled cry of joy – the kind skiers can’t help but emit when ripping down a clean, fluffy pitch – and it came from Dana.

The Tahoe local was carving her way down Diamond Face, one of at least 40 named “runs” amid the nearly 2,000 acres of privately owned logging land leased to Pacific Crest Snowcats.

Nestled in the hills between Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley, looking down on Coldstream Canyon and up at the craggy Pacific Crest, these east-west ridges top out at nearly 8,000 feet and boast terrain for all ability levels and preferences.

Founded in 2001 by Dave Rintala, Pacific Crest Snowcats remains California’s only full-day snowcat operation. Lucky for us – Sierra Sun photographer Emma Garrard and myself – co-owner Frank Wohlfahrt offered a couple seats in the cat on this special, non-client day in late January.

And what a day it was.

With a series of small but cold storms spewing more than a foot of light snow, by Sierra standards, the conditions were prime and the avalanche risk was low.

Nevertheless, Rintala and his Pacific Crest Snowcats guides don’t mess around when it comes to their safety-first approach.

This was evident at the top of the first run, when guide Ken Manuel buried a beacon in the snow and had every individual in our group retrieve it, as if searching for an avalanche victim. Rintala further demonstrated Pacific Crest Snowcats’ attention to safety when he skied down ahead of the pack to dig a pit and assess the stability of the slope.

Encouraged by his findings, he radioed to Manuel to send the photographers. The three shooters disappeared into the trees as the rest of us waited in anticipation.

Several minutes later, crackly words came through on Manuel’s radio: “The photographers are in place; send them down.”

He didn’t have to say it twice.

Winding through old-growth forest in single file, our “motley crew,” as Manuel described the group, reached the open pitch we were to ride. Guide Jason Walker, who followed behind Rintala, gave us the lowdown on the slope.

Paraphrased, it went something like this: There’s a rocky spine to the left – it may be fully covered, it may not. Besides that, it’s clear sailing down past the photographers.

Bryan, one of the guest clients, dropped in, veering left and scraping a rock before speeding out of view. Sure enough, rocks were lurking under the surface.

Heeding Walker’s advice, I pointed my board toward the less dicey line after several others had gone. The pitch dropped off almost immediately, opening up into a wide-open face of whiteness. Before long, the photographers came into view, then several others in our group.

After the final skier arrived at the bottom, the photographers followed, and we snaked through the woods to our awaiting snowcat.

And so it went – for a total of six runs, and a provided lunch break, before darkness began to set in. That’s when Dana made her final hoot.

Plan an adventure

Pacific Crest Snowcats offers full-day or multiple-day backcountry ski and snowboard trips. Full-day adventures, which start at 8 a.m. and end around 5 p.m., include guides, safety instruction, safety gear, lunch and a premium beverage for the last snowcat ride of the day. A full day costs $275 per person when booked a minimum of two weeks in advance. Within two weeks the rate is $300 per person. Access is limited to 12 guests per snowcat, and seats are filled on a “first come, first served” basis. For more information or to book a trip, call 581-1767.

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