Finding Backcountry Bliss in the Sierra

Climbing for hours, we take turns breaking trail through fresh snow. Surrounded by Ponderosa pine and towering peaks, the mountain chickadees and our rhythmic climbing stride hypnotizes me, sending me deeper into my surroundings.

COMM Backcountry Bliss BBell 2017 01Finally, at the top, I catch my breath, up here where the angels breathe. Conditions are perfect. The air is cold, the snow pack stable, and a gentle breeze sends whimsical clouds dancing across the mirrored lake below. We’ve been monitoring the Sierra Avalanche Center website since the first snowfall of the season, and practicing rescue scenarios with our avalanche beacons. Our group is strong and alert, with a collective mindfulness vital for moving through the mountains. Mesmerized by the Range of Light, I’m filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and renewal.

Although we’ve been up here several times, it feels new. It always feels new in the backcountry. Whether I’m in the fierce grip of an intense bitter storm, or relishing a perfect spring corn day with white pelicans soaring high above on their way to Pyramid Lake, it’s always new. Besides getting that aesthetic ski line we’ve been studying for years, it’s that uncontrollable desire to get away, to go up into the mountains, our mountain sanctuary. I love winter, more than any season.

I love the slower pace of our ski town forced upon us by big Sierra snowstorms transforming Lake Tahoe into an enchanted winter wonderland. Like perfectly whipped butter cream frosting, snow fills every nook and cranny of the mountains giving them character and dimension, tempting us into the backcountry. For me, nothing compares to the sensation of gliding down a mountain standing on two boards. The freedom and rush of skiing is not only about the pure fun, it’s where it takes me mentally and spiritually that matters too.

It’s more than the physical challenge that calls me, it’s the chance to unplug, to get grounded and escape into nature. Playing in the backcountry requires fitness, proficiency with the right gear, and problem solving skills. The backcountry, especially in big conditions, puts me in the moment. The constant review of the terrain, changing snow and weather conditions, and reference to other skiers on the mountain, makes me sense the place.

Like the earliest California pioneers and naturalists, these rugged mountains shape our lives, which in turn, inspire our livelihoods and creative expression to protect this special place we call home. In the backcountry especially, I feel a profound sense of gratitude and reverence for the Sierra. The overwhelming beauty recharges my commitment to be part of the solution, to help preserve our mountain culture and healthy environment through my daily actions, my work, and my purchases. I understand it up here, surrounded by the mountain sentinel that defines me.

Every person who plays in the Sierra backcountry whether on skis, a split board, snowshoes or a snowmobile, should take an avalanche awareness safety course to learn about the anatomy of an avalanche, terrain analysis, safe travel techniques, trip planning and preparation, decision making, problem solving, beacon and rescue techniques, and group dynamics. The learning never stops. You need to practice rescue drills constantly with your backcountry partners to hone your mountaineering skills and to develop mountain sense.

There’s no app for that.

Sierra Avalanche, Backcountry, and Weather Resources:

The Sierra Nevada has an expansive field of experienced and certified mountain guides and backcountry educators who offer avalanche awareness courses and guided adventures. Two websites – Sierra Avalanche Center and Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center – are crucial resources for daily avalanche advisories and forecasts, snowpack observations and weather conditions, avalanche education providers and courses, and fun community events.

The snow is falling! Grab your gear and your partner. Take an avalanche course. Let’s go to the mountains!

Photo Courtesy of Becky Bell