The legendary Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue fundraiser saves lives
Words by Laura Read • Photos by Troy Corliss
After more than 40 years, in 2022 The Great Ski Race changed the course of its annual North Tahoe 30k cross-country ski tour. It was a big decision, because since 1977, the event that calls itself one of the largest races west of the Mississippi had followed a historic point-to-point route along an old postal route and logging trails from Tahoe City to Truckee.
Now the course starts and ends at Tahoe XC in Tahoe City. It still follows part of the old postal route and uses old logging trails that are familiar to mountain bikers and hikers in summertime and snowmobilers and skiers in winter, but it is now a loop race and slightly shorter than it was in the past; however, at a whopping 26k, not by much.
“It was a difficult decision after so many years of going to Truckee,” Race Director Dirk Schoonmaker said. “Once we made the change, the logistics got easier for organizers and racers and every comment I have heard has been positive, especially regarding the downhill.”
Will The Great Ski Race originators be doing flip flops over this change?
No way. One early Great Ski Race supporter was Tahoe Nordic Center founder Skip Reedy. Retired now, he lives with his wife, Katja, in Bend, Oregon. “I was not surprised when the course was changed,” Reedy said. “It was always a hit or miss being able to get the finish to go all the way to Hilltop/Cottonwood [Restaurant in Truckee] with heavy brush, low snow, and reluctant neighbors allowing the course to cross their land.”
Reedy sponsored three races annually during the 22 years he owned and operated North Tahoe cross-country ski areas. “Two races were always loop races, but the point-to-point Tahoe-to-Truckee race became the most popular,” he said. “The team’s choice of the new loop around Mt. Watson has some wonderful terrain. I have skied that area in the past and think it’s a good choice for taking advantage of higher snow levels. Sorry, Truckee.”
Warm snow has indeed had a major impact. Low snow conditions forced the race cancellation in four out of the past ten winters. Before that, the race had been abandoned only once in 33 years. It was called off because of low snow that time, too.
In 2020, The Great Ski Race was cancelled once again, this time because of the pandemic. As its coordinators regrouped, they decided it was time to adjust the course in case the minimal snow years continued. The new loop course was born.
The course still features the strenuous Starratt Pass climb from the forests above Tahoe XC, as well as famed Soup Station One, but from that high point, instead of veering downhill on the legendary and steep S-turns toward Truckee, the route goes straight along old logging roads toward Northstar California. It then swings around Mt. Watson and back through the forest above Carnelian Bay onto Tahoe XC’s Blue Trail to finish on a sizzling downhill at the Tahoe XC lodge.
Skiers don’t depart just because they’re done with the race: There’s plenty of partying to be had at the Tahoe XC lodge. The ski area’s parking lot is cordoned off for dancing, chowing, and jabbering, and of that there’s plenty. Hot food is on order, as usual. The food truck Men Wielding Fire has been serving up soup and other goodies — and they will again with owner Jack Lyons at the helm.
More than 150 search team members and residents volunteer multiple hours to put the race on — not all of them skiers, but all ready to have a good time and present a great event, according to Schoonmaker. Volunteers deal with parking, food service, starting-gate and finish-line setup, timing, registration — you see it, there’s a job for it. There’s always at least one volunteer MC squawking over the loudspeaker as racers finish. Last year it was Michael Hogan joined by team member Kyle Railton. The Great Ski Race has been known for antics and costumes, and Railton didn’t let anyone down. His Captain America outfit was a red-toned hit atop the announcer’s podium.
The outfit echoed one of many race traditions. Organized by team members in the late 1980s, The Great Ski Race Cheerleaders have raised a ruckus on the course every single year since, cheering skiers at the top of Starratt Pass, hooting them on to Truckee at Soup Station Two, and calling them home at Cottonwoods.
In 2022, the same cheerleaders honored local athletes who have competed at the Olympic Winter Games. It just so happens that at the 2022 Olympics, JC Schoonmaker was a standout cross-country ski racer on the US team. His dad is Dirk Schoonmaker, The Great Ski Race director for more than 20 years, and his mom is Marty Schoonmaker, who helped organize races at the Far West Nordic training program. Schoonmaker was joined at the 2022 Olympics by cross-country skier and North Tahoe resident Hannah Halvorson, who now teaches skiing workshops at Tahoe XC.
For years The Great Ski Race has been the main fundraising event for TNSAR. The team could count on raising at least $30,000 per year from the proceeds, according to records, and that paid for all the equipment and training needed for the year. But those days of simplicity are gone. The team has grown from a one-truck operation and a bunch of construction workers bent on being well-organized, teaching kids to survive, and knowing the backcountry to a well-oiled force that has plucked more than 400 shivering lost folks from the winter-bound backcountry. Their efforts require not only securing equipment and training, but also leaving their families and homes usually late in the evening, pushing through snow and wind and sleet, and sometimes, late in the night when they can’t get home quickly, warming up a chilled lost person around a campfire hand-built in the snow.
The team has also expanded in transportation methods — from a group of skiers only, training on slim wooden skis and leather boots, to a combination of skiers, snowmobilers, communication van drivers, and snowcat drivers operating sophisticated equipment propelled by advances in technology, resources, and human ingenuity.
As technology has advanced — with cell phone batteries lasting longer, GPS units aiding communication and tracking, and a special app mapping out search patterns — everyone’s equipment has improved. Now team members locate lost people more quickly and get them out of danger much more rapidly than they did in the past.
The 2022-2023 winter snowstorms have delivered endless days of skiing, and the pandemic’s restrictions have spawned a new load of skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, and snowmobilers in the backcountry, potentially getting into trouble. Fortunately, at the team’s first meeting of the season, more than 20 newcomers asked to be involved. New members do not join search teams right away. In on-snow and off-snow training, they first learn about terrain, equipment, snow behavior, lost-person behavior, search techniques, and team protocols.
The Great Ski Race has become much more than a fundraising event. It is now part of North Tahoe and Truckee culture. Every year, skiers, some fresh off the couch, train for, talk about, and dream of it. Afterward, they compare notes and official race times. And the stories go on.
“Last year there was so much positive and exuberant energy at the start and finish that it made all the hard work by the volunteers and all the tough decisions by the race committee seem minor compared to the outcome and the return,” Schoonmaker said. “As much as anything it pretty much guarantees that we can hold the race every year regardless of snowfall, since we stay at a higher elevation.”
The Great Ski Race takes place March 5 this year “at 9am sharp!” Online registration costs $80 until Thursday, March 2. The fee includes a celebration party with delicious hot food, live music and dancing, and many prizes. Pickup for bibs and the pre-race packet is at Tahoe XC Friday, March 3, 12-5pm, Saturday, March 4, 9am-5pm and Sunday, March 5 (race day) until 8:30am. For details and to register, visit thegreatskirace.com.
Online registration costs $80 until Thursday, March 2. The fee includes a celebration party with delicious hot food, live music and dancing, and many prizes. Pickup for bibs and the pre-race packet is at Tahoe XC Friday, March 3, 12-5pm, Saturday, March 4, 9am-5pm and Sunday, March 5 (race day) until 8:30am. For details and to register, visit thegreatskirace.com.
Laura Read has been a member of the TNSAR Team since the mid-1990s, helping to handle PR, functioning on the once-essential-now-defunct dispatch team, and helping to teach fourth graders how to survive when lost in the woods. She is the Opinion Editor with the monthly news publication, Moonshine Ink.
Main image: The Great Ski Race brings out skiers of all stripes, from beginners to pros, and from the extremely young to the “well-seasoned.” Uphills can cause grins — or tears. Photo: Troy Corliss
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