Kirkwood’s Magical Back Country

Andrew DeGuzman drops into untouched powder in Sunshine Bowl. | Sean McAlindin

Have you ever thought about exploring the mountains beyond the resort boundary? But maybe you weren’t sure how safe it would be or even how to go about it?

As back-country skiing continues to grow in popularity, so does the need for proper instruction in this exhilarating, yet, potentially dangerous sport. As one of the few ski resorts in North America to offer guided back-country touring and avalanche training, Kirkwood Mountain Resort in the Carson Range 30 miles beyond South Lake Tahoe is an exceptional place in which to take your first skin beyond the gates.

If you’ve never done a human-powered tour of the back country, Kirkwood is one of the best places at which you could start. The terrain is moderate and easy to access either from the adjacent ski lifts or the base of the mountain.

I get my morning coffee in Truckee at 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in January and leave for Kirkwood, a two-hour trip. The sun rises over the lake and the only traffic on State Route 89 is the local school bus picking up students in the morning twilight.

The drive is so serenely beautiful, before I know it I’m at the base of the mountain where Expedition Kirkwood stations its guided back-country ski and splitboard tours. The areas we’ll be traversing are just beyond the resort boundary and not maintained by Kirkwood ski patrol. Avalanches and variable terrain are always a possibility, so we need to be prepared. Back-country travel requires some additional gear including climbing skins, a shovel, probe and rescue beacon. All of these items, as well as back-country skis and splitboards, are available for rent at Expedition Kirkwood.

I’ll be touring today with my personal guide Andrew DeGuzman, who carries with him a first-aid kit and two-way radio — just in case. Fortunately, I’m an experienced back-country telemark skier and over the years I’ve taken many friends out for their first trip. I can honestly say, if you’ve never done a human-powered tour of the back country, Kirkwood is one of the best places at which you could start. The terrain is moderate and easy to access either from the adjacent ski lifts or the base of the mountain. Although it seems isolated enough, it’s never actually that far from civilization.

Sean McAlindin traverses the ridge below Martin Point. | Andrew DeGuzman

Snow Beyond the Gates
We begin our day with a smooth ride up Chair 11, The Reut, and into Wagon Wheel Bowl. The corduroy looks so seamless on this quiet midweek day that we decide to warm up on the lift-line groomer before venturing to the backside. By the time we get to Chair 4, Sunrise, the ski patrol is just opening the area for the first time since Mother Nature gifted us with a few fresh inches the day before. A couple of tranquil, yet, energizing laps down untouched, wind-buffed powder has my mind awake and my legs ready to climb.

A short jaunt up Chair 3, Iron Horse, takes us to the ridge overlooking 7,776-foot Kirkwood Meadow. We strap on our skins, cross the resort boundary and begin a moderate half-hour hike to the summit of Red Cliffs. For first timers beyond the ropes, this is really the perfect introductory climb. It’s easy and mellow with opportunities to head back in-bounds at any point.

Rounding the corner of the volcanic bluffs, we take our skins off and drop into the west-facing slope that leads back to the village. Although it’s been windy and cold lately, we find a few inches of untouched fresh snow in the lee banks of the gully. It’s like riding an asymmetrical half pipe sculpted by Aeolus, Greek god of the winds

Sean McAlindin drops into the open gullies beyond Red Cliffs. | Andrew DeGuzman

After lunch at the quaint General Store, which offers fresh deli sandwiches and the like, Andrew and I are fueled up and ready to roll. We ride Chair 6, Cornice, to the summit ridge above Sentinel Bowl and traverse to Glove Rock where a boot-pack climb leads to the out-of-bounds Thunder Bowl. Conditions up high today are marginal, so we rip down Rabbit Runs and Squirrel Ridge to the west end of the resort to begin our second back-country lap.

Skinning alongside the edge of Timber Creek beginner area and into the forest, the sound of the chairlift slowly recedes in the distance as we make our way through the lofty, silent glades of Reuter Bowl. Our destination is the exposed ridge below Martin Point. The northeastern aspect here is sheltered and the snow is soft, lightly faceted and at least a foot deep on top.

Crossing an ancient avalanche gully and looking into the towering conifers above, I am awestruck once again by the enchanted beauty of the Tahoe Sierra. Although cliff drops, narrow chutes and tear-jerking downhill runs get the heart pumping, it’s this magical silence and sacred commune with the Earth and all the wild and secretive beings within it that keeps me coming back season after season.

A steep, final push beneath the bulbous fairy-tale crags of Twin Sentinels leads to a breathtaking ridge where we inhale views from the Coast Range to the Pacific Crest to the Great Basin. Once again, we take off our skins, drink water and access our options for descent. Andrew and I make a plan to skirt the right side of the gully we’d crossed on our way up before veering into the numinous glades. There are no tracks in the vast terrain below us except for our own. We’ve earned our turns and they belong to no one else but us. I close my eyes, take a deep breath and drop in. |