Bewitched by the back country | Skiing with Jeremy Benson

Local author and athlete Jeremy Benson climbs the northern ridge of Mount Judah. | Sean McAlindin

“I loathe lift lines,” says “Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes: California” guidebook author Jeremy Benson. “I can’t stand the powder frenzy. I like to hike and ski smooth snow on my own time.”

In the age of Internet information availability, there is still something to be said for holding a solid guidebook in your hands. The amount of time, dedication to detail and penchant for exploration it took to compile this well-written compendium is impressive. And I’m more apt to explore new areas once I’ve opened it. Benson estimates he spent thousands of hours preparing the book.

“I’ve skied all the routes and taken the time to get the information correct and include relevant photos.”
– Jeremy Benson

“It got me to explore some places that are off the beaten path,” he says.

As we skirt the Sugar Bowl ski-area boundary to the north and make our way up to the radio reflection towers of Mount Judah, the previous night’s snowstorm is still gently blowing through after delivering several inches of thick powder on the ski track Benson set three days earlier.

Benson skis heavy powder in the northeast glades on Mount Judah. | Sean McAlindin

Due to the low tide of this year’s Tahoe winter, Judah Express is now open but Summit Chair is not. The ski area boundary is marked, but the conditions are not regularly monitored or maintained by Sugar Bowl.

On reaching the summit, Benson skis to the edge of a formidable cornice and looks out over the misty forest below. There have been several natural snow slides already this morning. Benson stomps at the cornice edge to see how the snow reacts. It doesn’t take much to send the heavy blocks of Sierra cement tumbling down the avalanche path.

“I love breaking cornices,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite things to do.”

We ski a little farther up the crest until Benson spots a suitable spot to drop into the east side of the mountain. A handful of heavy turns lead us through a steep gully and onto the debris field of the slide.

Although the snow is rather thin, the slide has piled up at least 10 feet of heavy glop beneath us. A full-grown pine tree has snapped in half vertically from the pressure. It’s a fine demonstration of how even a small avalanche can have powerful effects.

We skin through the tranquil forest and up the northern shoulder of Judah. Back on top, we drop through some rocks and down a gently sloping glade with decent shin-deep snow. It’s certainly the first real powder turns I’ve had in the reluctant winter of 2017-18.

Benson looks from the cornice into the void. | Sean McAlindin

Benson grew up in southern Connecticut before attending Saint Michael’s College in Vermont where he skied Stowe and other East Coast stalwarts four to five times a week.

“If you grow up appreciating skiing on the East Coast hard pack and ice, pretty much anything out here is going to be amazing,” he says.

Since moving to Tahoe in 2001, Benson has averaged 120 to 150 days a year while waiting tables, gear testing and freelance writing by night. When he’s not skinning and skiing, Benson heads for drier country to feed an avid mountain-bike racing habit.

“I’m all about year-round fitness by biking in the summer and skiing in the winter, but lately I’ve been mixing them around a bit with the unpredictable weather we’ve experienced,” he says.

Benson skis heavy powder in the northeast glades on Mount Judah. | Sean McAlindin

He released his first guidebook with publisher Mountaineers Books, “Mountain Bike Tahoe: 50 Select Singletrack Routes,” last spring. “Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes: California” came out in October and has already sold more than 2,000 copies. The guidebook covers everything from the southern Cascades of Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen through the Lost Sierra, Lake Tahoe, the East Side and all the way down to the southern end of the Sierra Nevada.

While Paul Richens Jr.’s 1999 publication of “50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes in California: Mount Shasta to Mount Whitney,” features many well-known overnight treks throughout the region, Benson’s book includes nearly 100 mostly day trips.

“I’m out trekking every week, but it’s only once or twice a year that I overnight, so I thought this guide would be helpful to most back-country enthusiasts,” he says. “I’ve skied all the routes and taken the time to get the information correct and include relevant photos.”

After another quick lap to the top, we ski off the summit and down to the parking lot, visions of a pure, cold, vaporous land still lingering in our minds. There’s so much to explore in the California winter if only we had more time.
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