At the top of the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort on Donner Pass, Alpine Skills International guide Jacob Swartz checked the avalanche beacons of his five clients.
The group then slipped through an exit gate and into an unpatrolled no man’s land to begin a 13-mile, two-day back-country ski trip along the Pacific Crest Trail that included overnight camping and stunning views.
As part of this early-March traverse to Squaw Valley, we climbed up and skied down slopes, gaining about 3,000 vertical feet while carrying unwieldy 30-pound packs.
For a rugged guide such as Swartz, who lives in Lake Tahoe, it was no big deal. For someone like me, who lives near sea level in Wisconsin and is lucky to ski in the West a couple of times a year, the outing gave me a new appreciation for chairlifts.
I had begun my Tahoe adventure two days earlier when I arrived at Sugar Bowl and bunked down at the resort’s iconic lodge, built more than 75 years ago.
The next morning a friend and I spent the day skiing numerous slopes off the Disney and Lincoln chairlifts to help me acclimate to the altitude.
That night, I drove to Squaw Valley and spent the next day on the slopes of what is one of Tahoe’s biggest and best resorts. I figured after two days of skiing runs at elevations of 6,000 and 9,000 feet, my body would be ready.
After we divvied up the gear, we drove up Old Highway 40 to Sugar Bowl, where we bought single lift tickets, signed waivers acknowledging that we were headed out of bounds and rode up the Disney chair for a check-out run skiing with packs. I was anything but graceful.
We hopped on the Lincoln chair to the top of 8,383-foot Mt. Lincoln, where we slipped out of the back-country gate, dropping slightly down Anderson Ridge.
The avalanche conditions were low, but we weren’t taking chances. Our transceivers were set on transmit. If some unfortunate soul was buried in a slide, we would switch the beacons to receive to locate him or her as quickly as possible.
I got the knack of skiing with a pack when we dropped down several bowls and then climbed back up using “skins” that grip the snow but also allow skis to slide forward.
After a couple of hours, we stopped for lunch in a valley and rested.
We made a long traverse around the west side of Anderson Peak over a beautiful white slope of snow. When we reached its southern face, we came upon what would be, for me, the most difficult part of the journey — a side hill of loose rock that was less than 30 yards wide.
We hoisted our packs and began crossing. Because the rock slabs were loose, many of them tipped with each step. With my skis strapped to my pack, I was even more top-heavy and almost lost my balance numerous times. I didn’t fall, but it wasn’t pretty.
We set up our tents in a small glade of trees at the top of the slope while Swartz dug out a kitchen area in the snow. We dined on pasta with veggies and chicken sausage that he prepared over a small stove. One of my fellow travelers shared his red wine.
I crawled into my sleeping bag an hour after the sun set brilliantly, beyond the American River Canyon and the Sierra foothills. A big, snow-covered bowl that is part of Cold Water Canyon loomed to the east.
I slept well despite being packed into a small tent between two fellow skiers.
After oatmeal, dried fruit and hot chocolate the next morning, we packed our gear and continued our trek toward the Granite Chief Wilderness and Squaw Valley.
The temperature had warmed overnight and rain clouds were building, so we abandoned a plan to skin up Tinker Knob and pushed on. After a brief stop for lunch, we skied into a forest a mile or so from the boundary of Squaw Valley.
As we descended the snow petered out, so we strapped our skis to our packs for the last time. A light drizzle began to fall when we stepped out of the forest into a Squaw Valley parking lot.
The next day, though, a foot of powder fell in the Sierra. By then I was in San Francisco, but I wanted to turn around and do it all again just so I could ascend Tinker Knob and ski back down.