The wind picks up and blows the falling snow sideways into Mattly Trent’s face as he tries to locate a buried avalanche beacon in the snowpack somewhere beneath his feet. Trent, a veteran mountaineer and assistant director of Bear Valley Mountain’s Ski Patrol remains calm and focused as he follows the beeping signals on his chest mounted transceiver. He is emphasizing the methodical practice required to become efficient at locating buried avalanche victims, and that every second counts. Today though, he’s fairly relaxed, for we’re standing in the middle of Bear Valley’s Avalanche Beacon Training Park, just to the side of the resort’s bunny slopes. When his beacon signals that he has neared his target, Mattly drops his backpack and removes the avalanche probe, a nine foot folding aluminum pole, much like a tent pole, that he’ll use to gingerly slide down into the snow, hoping to locate a solid object. In a moment, we hear a dull thud as the probe strikes the piece of wood that is strapped to the electronic transceiver and we have located our “victim.” This training park is a jointly sponsored project between Bear Valley Mountain and avalanche equipment supplier BCA, and is provided to encourage safe skiing and riding in the backcountry and in Bear Valley’s ever-expanding sidecountry terrain.
Sidecountry is a term that’s been heard a lot around ski resorts in recent years, and refers to ski terrain that is outside the boundaries of a resort, yet accessible from the resort via chairlift, snowcat, or a combination of the two. Backcountry, on the other hand, is probably a more familiar term, as it conjures up images of being removed from the human world of infrastructure and chairlifts, on one’s own among the elements. In other words, you’re responsible for getting yourself into the mountains, up to the top and down again without any help. And that’s always been an easily accessible experience in the Bear Valley region, as it’s surrounded by two large Wilderness Areas and National Forest with many ski descents awaiting just a few hours hike from the car.
What all this means for those looking for great skiing and riding is that just about any mountainside within site of Bear Valley is open for recreation. Many consider it one of the best “secret” stashes in the Sierra, here south of Lake Tahoe at the end of a road. The increase of winter travel in the back and sidecountry in recent years throughout the US has greatly increased the probability of avalanches. This has prompted companies like BCA and ski resorts committed to opening access to their sidecountry such as Bear Valley to step up and provide opportunities to learn the skills necessary to be a prepared out-of-bounds rider. The resort has also partnered with local guide service Mountain Adventure Seminars to offer courses in mountaineering, avalanche training and guided off-piste tours. It’s common here to see people sporting the standard avalanche backpack—equipped with a small shovel, electronic transceiver and snow probe. But knowing how to properly and quickly use these tools, as Trent reminds me, takes practice. The training park will be open and available for use this season, with periodic clinics, or through private arrangements made through the ski patrol.
Sidecountry is the perfect progression for skiers and riders ready to expand their Sierra adventure, and Bear Valley is a place made for sidecountry access, with wide-open slopes of intermediate and expert terrain on National Forest land surrounding the resort on all sides. This year Bear Valley is opening the access gates to yet another long held favorite stash of bowl and tree skiing, a sweeping western ridge known as King’s Realm. Two winters ago over 400 acres were added to the resort’s patrolled area with the Dardanelle Vista Bowl, and this year with the addition of the 300+ acres in King’s Realm, there is literally an adventure in every direction. “Bear Valley continues its commitment to provide our guests with the best terrain, (Bear Valley) has pulled out all the stops to offer a new product that will provide advanced and expert skiers and riders a new and exciting adventure,” said Aaron Johnson, Bear Valley Mountain Snowsports Director.
Johnson, owner and founder of Mountain Adventure Seminars, brings an unprecedented level of mountaineering and snow safety education experience to his new role as Snowsports Director. In addition to his company’s continued partnership with the resort to provide guided ski tours and technical clinics, Johnson will be offering avalanche lectures this winter at regional REI stores. Bear Valley’s partnership with MAS has also resulted in the formation of a new kind of youth ski team, one focused on learning technical backcountry and avalanche safety skills as well as all-mountain riding.
The new terrain will be accessible via an entrance gate and snowcat road at Corral Ridge on the resort’s intermediate backside, which is serviced by the high speed quad chair Polar Express. A short hike or snowcat ride will bring you to the ridge top and the beginning of King’s Realm, and riders will exit the area via the Polar Express quad. The area is predominately east facing and features steep chutes, open bowls and gladed tree-skiing.
Back again this year are the popular BearTracker Snowcat Tours, which transport small groups led by professional guides out to slopes of untouched powder within easy reach of the resort. These popular three-hour tours have become a great way to spend part of the day sampling the resort and the other enjoying your personal stash of fresh Sierra powder. Snowcat tours are routinely announced on Bear Valley’s website and via email subscription during storm weeks, and spots on the cat tend to fill fast. King’s Realm will be among the stops on this year’s cat tours, as well as Horse Canyon and the outer reaches of the East Bowl.
With the 300 more acres of snowcat-in and ski lift-out King’s Realm, Bear Valley is currently the only California winter sports resort offering skiers and snowboarders access to expanded terrain. While its size is similar to other mid-sized resorts like Kirkwood and Sugar Bowl, Bear Valley’s Village is a relaxed throwback to a quiet mountain town, where you can stay in the classic Bear Valley Lodge, a log and timber ski hotel with a great cathedral living room and a cozy fireplace. The Bear Valley ski community’s enduring passion for their world-class mountain continues to blur the line between in-bounds and out. It all comes down to some really fine riding on the snow, and all it takes sometimes to find that perfect powder is a little extra effort.
For more info go to www.bearvalley.com, www.mtadventure.com, www.bearvalleylodge.com, www.bearvalleyvacationrentals.com, and for discounted Bear Valley lift tickets and free avalanche lectures at Bay Area REI stores www.rei.com.