Thoughts on “Picnic Tours,” the Bear Valley Tele Fest and skinning Mt. Reba

Story and photos by Craig Dostie

Paul Oelerich slays the Mt. Reba slackcountry during last year’s Bear Valley Tele Fest.

A lot of folks are taking issue with the label “slackcountry” recently for its derogatory attitude. Get over it.

Keep in mind I say that with a full measure of self-deprecation. There’s no point in lying, it’s my favorite kind of tour. Usually. I still love revving the meter full tilt when the tilt is at the edge of reason, but not all the time, and admittedly, not at the same RPM as 20 years ago.

You too? Thought so.

Taken to the extreme, my friend Gary Bard calls ‘em picnic tours. Bottle of wine, a dash of romance and the woman you tango with skiing out to the backside of beyond. ‘Nough said.

More often it’s a tour with bros or new friends. It doesn’t quite matter since most everyone is blood when you get far enough away from the lifts. And that’s the beauty of slackcountry. You don’t have to go far to achieve a taste of it. It may not be the sort of bonding you get on the sharp end of a rope, but it’s a start.

Which is why Paul Oelerich and I are skinning up to Mt. Reba together. We’ve talked about trying to merge business talents before, but the timing isn’t there quite yet. We share the perspective that there’s a monetary step you have to start from to make it as an average businessman. Dear old dad confirmed my suspicions in a recent conversation, and for the moment, I’m content not to be caught in a web of that much economic chaos. Some would say the $500k barrier is all in our mind and that it’s all about attitude, so that’s what we’re making the climb together for.

Which is why I like slackcountry tours. All I’m hunting for, all I need is a lil’ attitude adjustment that always reveals itself in the beauty of creation. The interplay of design and the seeming randomness from the force of decay marvels my senses. Especially in the medium we are playing in—snow. Every day brings a change, from the shiny petals of surface hoar flowers to the rivulets suggesting hidden rivers of moisture through a consolidating snowpack. Each form showing the infinite variety of shapes possible through the most common substance on earth—water.

Now if you’re going to make a weekend of slackcountry touring, with plenty of other options, I must in all sincerity recommend a weekend at a telemark festival. There are tons of ‘em across this land, from Dicky Hall’s Mad River Vermont romp, to the largest telefest in the West, the Bear Valley Telemark Festival.

Short of taking a picnic tour, all the telemark festivals I’ve attended have one thing in common. A slackcountry attitude. Time to hang loose and just focus on fun. Skiing with friends, breaking bread together, and what the heck, take it to the limit with a full-fledged party complete with kegs of microbrew and a live band. Which is exactly what the Bear Valley Telemark Festival, Feb. 6-8 this year, is all about.

Some folks wonder about it being a telemark specific festival. Does that mean skiers with training heels, I mean locked heels, aren’t welcome? Absolutely not! Back in the day “tele” meant backcountry and that spirit remains. Heck, there’s a good percentage of free heelers who switched to Dynafit bindings before tele joined the free-pivot revolution because they know the value of light is right. Can’t say I blame you. But such folks also recognize why we celebrate tele so specifically in these festivals. Because when you can do it, it’s just the damn sexiest turn there is on snow. And hanging with a bunch of like-minded folks is a gas.

Heck, if you’re a backcountry type and have never tried telemark, this is the place to do it and learn firsthand why telemarkers get self-righteous about the tele turn. The only reason we get away with it is because deep down everyone knows that when falling is an intrinsic part of the experience, which it is with tele, humility can’t be far away.

Telemark classes for every level are offered as part of the package price for the festival, which also includes dinner Friday and Saturday, potential prizes and the band.

For the past dozen years the folks at Mountain Adventure Seminars have hosted this popular telefest. Nearly 300 people is the norm. Beyond the skiing clinics and events, the Saturday evening festivities are always a highlight, complete with pasta, beer, and live music. I haven’t attended them all, but can say from experience the band has always kicked butt. Early festival goers remember the frenetic Latin-rhythm band out of Sonora, Last Caravan, once described as “the Gypsy Kings on acid.” Last year was Blue Turtle Seduction. Excellent beat, melodic, and high energy. Like the band the years before, they delivered original songs with a funky dance beat.

Myself, I’m not much of a party animal, but as my emphasis reveals, I love listening to live music and backcountry skiing. Which is why Paul and I are climbing up to the top of Mt. Reba. The conditions are corn so fresh tracks are long extinct in-bounds, although, truth be told, I had actually made tracks in cold smoke the day before from the lifts. From experience I learned not to hold a high traverse line on the ridge between the resort and Reba, but to drop right down the Horse Creek drainage and then climb out from the bottom. (Or if you’re feeling, uh, slackadaisical, and have a pass, you can zag left and wind around the ridge, cross back into the resort boundary and ride the Grizzly Chair out.) This is a more direct line, and instead of wasting time trying to hold elevation on a traverse littered with deep drainages we enjoyed a few more turns in snow kept cold in the shadows.

At the bottom the sun blazed, so we shed layers, and began the steady skin up. Halfway up the lifts of Bear Valley came into view behind us, the ants moving on their slopes invisible except for contrails backlit by the winter sun. Meanwhile, sweat bathed our brows and we separated into different paces and paths up the mellow south flank of Mt. Reba.

An hour later we stood, not at the top, but at the entrance of what looked to be the longest continuous line of snow on Reba’s west face. A perfectly pitched 35-slope, and the snow had softened to buttery perfection. Time to point ‘em down and enjoy what we earned before heading home.

Truckee resident Craig Dostie published the hardcore backcountry ski magazine Couloir for nearly 20 years before deciding he preferred the slackcountry and not working so hard. For more on Dostie, see the cover story of our Nov./Dec. 2008 issue, “Breaking Trail: Q&A with Craig Dostie, Backcountry Evangelist,” available on our website,