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Tahoe snowcat company provides excellent backcountry experience

By: Jeffrey Weidel, Special to Gold Country News Service
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Fran Lord was getting rather disgusted with the abbreviated ski season last year. Storms had come early and very little snow arrived after January, leaving the Philadelphia transplant frustrated with Lake Tahoe’s winter wonderland. With the snow conditions at Tahoe’s resorts thinning and the groomed runs about the only decent place to ski by early March, Lord and a few friends decided to venture out of the norm, lining up a day of snowcat skiing. “I had heard the snowcat conditions were good, but I admit, I was skeptical,” recalls Lord, a 34-year-old English teacher at Lake Tahoe Community College. Those doubts left quickly – one run was all it took for Lord to become enamored with Pacific Crest Snowcats, which claims to be the only true snowcat backcountry skiing and snowboard operation in California. Skiing on more than 2,000 acres of north facing terrain located between Squaw Valley and Sugar Bowl, Lord and her buddies experienced a day to savor. “It was absolutely a great experience,” Lord recalled last week. “The snow quality was really good, you wouldn’t have known it hadn’t snowed in a while. I’m an intermediate skier and the terrain was challenging. But the guides are very knowledgeable, encouraging and would point out good lines to take. I was never nervous concerning the terrain. You don’t have to be an expert to do it.” Helicopter skiing may be the ultimate experience for skiers and boarders who want to test their abilities in pristine snow conditions that are often untracked. Yet snowcat endeavors may come close and they are typically around a third less than the price of going the helicopter route. A day with Pacific Crest Snowcats costs $300 per person or $275 if booked two weeks in advance. An expert skier for over three decades, John Olson and five friends decided to splurge a bit and signed up for an adventurous day in January. Benefiting from a recent snow that had been untouched in Pacific Crest’s backcountry playground, Olson’s group of six and five other people were deep in powder all day, heading down chutes, navigating trees, bowls and wide open terrain. “It was absolutely the best powder day I ever had, better than any I had experienced at a ski resort,” said Olson, 56, a business owner and Tahoe City resident for the past 32 years. “You had the runs all to yourself and we were the first ones on them after the storm. This is as close to heli skiing as you will ever get. It was definitely worth the money.” Dave Rintala, 38, has heard the praise before – plenty of times in fact. He has been the face of Pacific Crest Snowcats the past eight years, a company he owns with a “handful of partners.” Each year from December through February, he and his experienced guides run the Tahoe business. When March arrives, the guides take over for the final month and Rintala heads to Alaska, where he helps run a heli skiing company. Rintala admits there is nothing quite like the Alaska experience. Yet he’s quite proud of what he and his team of guides (average is one per every six guests) offer in Lake Tahoe. The terrain is north facing and the snow rarely gets impacted by the sun, and therefore stays around much longer and reportedly is lighter. Rintala’s snowcat will drop off guests at about 7,900 feet elevation and the runs average around 1,200 to 1,500 vertical feet at the seven designated zones where Pacific Crest calls home. When the group is done each run, they hop in the heated snowcat, which has comfortable seating for around 15 people, and off they go to another snow-laden location. “Powder junkies love us,” said Rintala, who also provides snowshoeing tours and avalanche safety clinics through Pacific Crest. “Our zones are all a little different, so you never have the feeling you are skiing the same run because each has its own character. Typically speaking, people feel they had a very big day of skiing.” That was certainly the case with Olson. He says his group, which included a 70-year-old skier, went to four different zones and got in probably 10-12 runs that added up to about 12,000 to 14,000 vertical. That was enough, according to Olson, who says he had 10 days of resort skiing prior to the snowcat experience. “By the end of the day I was whipped,” he said. “Dave is a terrific guy and so are his guides. They have a ton of experience, they are really safety conscious and tell you exactly where to go. They know this mountain inside and out.” Pacific Crest Snowcats offers tours every day of the week. The group meets off Highway 89 near Squaw Valley at 8 a.m., goes over safety and equipment needs, then drives five miles to the snowcat area. The group is heading down the slopes by 9 a.m. and typically will stay out until daylight concludes. Jeffrey Weidel is a Sacramento free-lance writer with more than 20 years of skiing experience. Pacific Crest Snowcats What: Snowcat skiing and snowboarding What: Open slopes, tree runs, steep chutes, bowls Where: more than 2,000 acres located between Squaw Valley and Sugar Bowl resorts Who: Experienced, professional guides with EMT training Cost: $300 ($275 if booked two weeks in advance) Information: visit www.pacificcrestsnowcats.com, call (888)792-9222