Crossing the line

On a beautiful, bluebird morning I stood on top of Granite Chief at Squaw Valley. To the east, the slopes of Squaw Valley reach out like great white blankets toward Lake Tahoe sparkling in the distance and the Granite Chief Wilderness unfolds to the west with views of Picayune Valley, National Geographic Bowl, Needle and Lyon Peaks, past what seem to be endless snow-covered peaks as far as the eye can see.

Looking up at National Geographic Bowl and the wind already buffing out our recent turns.

Winter has left the mountains coated in that thick white stuff; the stuff skiers’ dreams are made of. And with the unusually cold Sierra temps, the conditions have been, well, good. Really good. I would have been happy dropping into the ski area, but today was my lucky day. I was about to ski what many skiers have wanted to ski for a long time. I was about to drop off the west face into National Geographic Bowl. That’s right, Nat Geo. And, legally.

As you look past the “Stop, Ski Area Boundary” signs, Nat Geo taunts with big lines and perfectly angled treed slopes. It just screams to be skied. But, with Squaw Valley’s closed-boundary policy there has always been the question of access. The arduous trek to approach this zone without using ski area access can be quite daunting so it sees little, if any skier traffic … until Alpenglow Expeditions came on the scene this season.

I was about to ski what many skiers have wanted to ski for a long time. I was about to drop off the west face into National Geographic Bowl. That’s right, Nat Geo. And, legally.

Adrian Ballinger, owner, and his team of highly qualified guides and staff have been working with Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows, the U.S. Forest Service and other local entities to gain permitting and access to guide skiers in several zones adjacent to both Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. Currently, AE has exclusive permitting to guide in the zones that border the north and west Squaw Valley ski area boundary, including Nat Geo. 

Skinning up to the ridge below Granite Chief

Their goal is to provide lift-served, back-country skiing, or side country, to areas that might not otherwise be accessible. They focus on small groups and teaching the necessary skills to fully enjoy the mountains. Sean Kristl, director of marketing at Alpenglow Expeditions, states that there are many factors at play, however Alpenglow Expeditions hopes that this is a first step towards opening more back-country terrain to the public. Alpenglow Expeditions is setting the stage with a responsible back-country ethic and education-based tours that will only serve to benefit the back-country community at large.

The author and Ben Mitchell getting the morning started right, about to drop into Nat Geo.

So, welcoming March and the long spring season ahead, only two weeks after receiving access to the Nat Geo zone, myself and my guides for the day, Ben Mitchell and Ben Weaver (Ben 1 and Ben 2 as I came to call them) dropped into 1,500 vertical feet of deliciously wind-buffed powder. Mitchell, a fully certified AMGA/IFMGA mountain guide, made the first turns into the steep slope. We got the radio up, it was good to go. I embraced the butterflies in my stomach, traversed across the top of the slope and dropped in. One amazing turn after another. Steep, creamy and fast. It was pure bliss. I could do this forever. I skied up to Mitchell with a huge grin on my face. Together we watched Weaver make his way onto the slope and follow suit.

After a quick snack, we removed a layer of clothing and put on our skins to hike the 750 vertical feet back to the ridge below Granite Chief. As we hiked, I picked their brains for valuable information about their experiences, snow pack and back-country travel. From the ridge we skied back down to the Shirley lift, and were off to explore another zone on Tram Ridge. At Tram Tower Two, we entered a guide-only access zone where Weaver led the boot-pack up to Tower Two. As Mitchell disappeared over the first shoulder we heard hoots and hollers, his testament to the snow and fun turns we were about to make.

The snow was perfect. My smile was pasted. I hooted and hollered. We skied cold, knee-deep powder down the ridge to gain the Shirley Creek drainage where we would ski to the pavement and make the short walk back in the warm afternoon sun to Mitchell’s truck.

Getting into the back country or side country is an amazing experience and can be a great way to safely explore if you want to check out the terrain, avoid some weekend crowds, expand your back-country knowledge or just want your own personal powder day. Alpenglow Expeditions can create a custom experience for you.

Alpenglow Expeditions also offers avalanche courses, back-country clinics, rock climbing schools, snowshoe and trekking tours in the Tahoe region. All lead guides are AMGA certified in the discipline they are guiding. Don’t have gear? Don’t worry. AE has top-of-the-line rental gear available. If you’re looking for an international expedition and want to climb an 8,000-meter peak, AE will tailor your process and get you there, literally. You’ve come to the right place.

My day with AE had playful feel about it, popping in between in-bounds and out-of-bounds to get the goods. The best of both worlds. Ben 1 and Ben 2 were amazing guides (and fun-loving mountain people) to spend the day with. We made amazing turns, explored and enjoyed the solitude and good company of the mountains.

I loaded my gear in my 4runner and pulled away feeling as though I had just spent a day playing hooky and shredding pow with good friends. And, in my opinion, there aren’t many better ways to spend your days.

Yep it’s official, I am one lucky girl.

For more information on Alpenglow Expeditions, visit or stop in and see them at their location in Squaw Valley next to the post office.