From the desert with the deepest valley in the world to the highest point in the contiguous United States to the largest alpine lake in North America, the Sierra Nevada is and always will be like no other mountain range on the planet.
“I’ve guided all over the world and this is the place I like to spend my time in the mountains, professionally and personally,” says Sierra Mountain Guides owner Howie Schwartz.
“It’s the age of information with the Internet, but all the cool spots that guides know about you won’t find online. Especially when you have limited time, it’s just so much easier.”
With its outstanding rock quality and limitless back country, California’s premiere mountain range attracts visitors from around the globe in search of superlative back-country memories from a diverse environment where seasons and scenery can change in the blink of an eye.
“There can be a blizzard in Mammoth and 30 or 40 miles away people are rock climbing in their T-shirts at the Buttermilks or the Happys [Happy Boulders],” says Schwartz. “There are endless opportunities to explore.”
It’s no doubt the variety and quality of the terrain in Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra is truly world class. From the old-growth, gladed trees to beautifully exposed alpine ridges, both summer and winter offer fantastic outdoor adventure seasons with complementary benefits.
“We’re not making lemons out of lemonade,” says Alpenglow Expeditions director of operations and chief guide Logan Talbott. “If we didn’t have really good terrain, it would be hard to have a growing dynamic commercial community.”
Several years ago, Alpenglow was granted permission to guide out of bounds at Squaw Valley and will be offering tours on a via ferrata climbing route on the Tram Face.
Although the greater Sierra Nevada is arguably up there with the Chugach Mountains in southern Alaska and the Alps in terms of alpine ski topography, what really sets this mountain range apart is accessibility.
“You pull off the side of the road and hike up and ski down,” says North Shore Adventures owner Jim Moore. “It’s really that simple.”
It’s exactly this ease of access that can sometimes create tough economic conditions for guides in the region compared to places such as the Alps, Canadian Rockies and Alaska where hiring a guide is commonplace.
“When the weather is good and the navigation is easy, it’s not that hard for people to get around on their own,” says Schwarz. “As long as they get the technical skills they need, they can handle a wide range of activities without a guide.”
Yet, around the world, the Sierra Nevada is known for its vast array of beginner areas, as well as geography fit for an Olympian.
“It’s a great starter area and training ground for athletes in general,” says Moore. “It’s also the perfect place to get started in the back country.”
Interest in outdoor education and avalanche awareness in particular have risen steadily in recent years.
“There is an insatiable demand for avalanche education, specifically level one,” says Talbott. “Almost all of the companies’ courses in the area are sold out this year.”
And while your friends can show you the ropes, the chances that it will simultaneously scare the bejeebers out of them is also relatively high.
“Friends push you into the deep end right away,” says veteran Ruby Mountains Helicopter Skiing guide Tom Carter. “That’s both a good and bad thing.”
As a friend and partner of Sierra pioneers such as Dave Beck, Dave Nettles, John Hoffman and Glen Poulsen, he should know.
“Guides are docents of the back country,” says Carter. “They care. They don’t want to see a gum wrapper. If the mountains are humbling to you, the appreciation comes through.”
Wherever you go in the world, it’s the locals who are the true guides. This is no more exemplified than in the Alps where a centuries-old tradition of mountain guiding still runs strong. California may be at a chronological disadvantage in this regard. And while Americans are quick to employ third-generation locals for a weekend of adventuring outside of Chamonix, they can be much more reticent to make the investment here at home.
“It’d be like hiring a mechanic to fix your car,” says Talbott. “People in the U.S. are sometimes embarrassed as if they couldn’t do it on their own. There’s definitely a do-it-yourself mentality. We like to educate people on some of the benefits of hiring a guide. Sometimes people will take a course with us, go out on their own and then come back for a specific objective, terrains or set of conditions.”
The biggest benefit to hiring a guide is all in the logistics.
“People can go beyond what their expertise is, have efficiency in their trip without wasting time having adventures that are unsuccessful because they lack the skills or resources,” says Schwartz. “It’s the age of information with the Internet, but all the cool spots that guides know about you won’t find online. Especially when you have limited time, it’s just so much easier.”
So, if you want to make the most of your mountain adventures in and around the Tahoe Sierra, consider hiring one of the local guides to maximize your experience.
“Guides will take you to the best zone and conditions you can imagine and provide you with a more high-quality day,” says Talbot. “It’s a magic carpet ride to a better experience.”