Temperature inversions during clear sunny stretches in Sierra Valley can produce a skiable crust on meadows.

Temperature inversions during clear sunny stretches in Sierra Valley can produce a skiable crust on meadows.

Backcountry skate skiing captivates, doles out lessons to Tahoe writer

Story and photos by Laura Read

In the early spring, when warm days melt snow crystals into a fine paste and frigid nights freeze them to a crust, Mother Nature extends an invite to skate skiers to stray from the confines of machine-packed trails onto an open canvas of boundless gliding and backcountry exploration — no groomed tracks, no trail passes, no limitations.

Indeed, when the freeze-thaw cycle persists and the snowpack settles into a dense and supportive surface resembling frozen cheesecake, skate skiing provides the swiftest means of traversing a snowy landscape under one’s own power, allowing for speedy forays deep into Sierra canyons and across open meadows and frozen high-country lakes.

Though best suited to flat and rolling terrain, the gliding efficiency of a capable skier on lightweight skate gear can make a backcountry skier shuffling along on skins look like a gear-laden tortoise next to Apolo Ohno. Most backcountry skate skiers don’t seek out high-angle terrain, but when conditions are just right — a firm base with a sun-warmed top of buttery corn — moderately steep slopes are not beyond limits of fearless skinny-ski descenders.

Some adventurous skate skiers have been known to knock out multi-day backcountry tours of 30, 40, even 50 miles in a day; trans-Sierra tours like Mammoth to Yosemite and crest traverses such as Donner Summit to Echo Summit.

Neophytes, of course, are urged to start with something a little less ambitious and closer to civilization — for as I found out, there are lessons to learn.

The first time I tried skate skiing on a glossy crust of frozen snow, my husband, Doug, and I were in the Martis Valley next to Truckee. Before dawn he’d nudged me awake saying, “Let’s go skate on a meadow. Conditions are perfect.”

Perfect? The outdoor thermometer read 25 degrees F.; sunrise was an hour away. Nevertheless, into the car we went, wrapped in thick hats, gloves and extra sweaters.

At Martis Meadows, located between the Truckee airport and Northstar-at-Tahoe, the snow was a pre-dawn shade of cool blue, and beneath the plastic grooves of my cross-country boots it crunched slightly.
Quite different from classic cross-country skiing, which employs a scissors-like kick-and-glide movement, skate skiing has a side-to-side momentum that mimics ice skating or in-line skating. The ultra-light skating skis are treated with glide wax from tip to tail, which makes them ultra fast. My first push off onto the smooth snow sent me into a whizzing glide that felt incredibly light and free.

However, my enjoyment was diminished by the icy chill of the air, because even though I had lots of warm clothes with me, I didn’t have exactly the right clothes.

Lesson #1: A wind jacket isn’t enough for these early morning jaunts. Wind pants are key so your legs don’t go numb.

Despite the frigid dawns, I became a meadow skiing junkie. One spring when we heard Lake Almanor was having warm days and freezing nights, Doug booked a motel room in Chester. Chester! I exclaimed. Couldn’t we go somewhere more dramatic — down the Sierra’s Eastside, for instance? But Doug had an inkling that Chester would be good, and so we went.

As we got started the next morning a cloak of fog snuffed out all the scenic features — the fluffy green trees, the big lake, the mountains — so we stayed close to the lakeshore. Slowly, the fog shriveled into curly threads that hugged the streams. We cruised up one creek into a nearby meadow. Sunshine lit up the sky, revealing a landscape awash in snow crystals. But the best reward was the long vista once everything cleared: In the distance, snow-domed Mt. Lassen boomed up from the forest like a kingdom from the Lord of the Rings.

Lesson #2: Don’t let the fog deter you.

One night a friend called to say she’d heard Anton Meadows above Tahoe City had a frozen crust. To reach Anton the next morning, we used the groomed trails of Tahoe Cross Country ski area, where we had season passes. Most cross-country centers contain a couple of flat open places that freeze and thaw in the springtime: Tahoe Donner has the Euer Valley, Kirkwood has Kirkwood Meadow, and the Tamarack Cross-Country Ski Center in Mammoth has snow-covered lakes.

On this particular morning, the slender shards of hoar frost sparkled across the surface as if someone had sprinkled a million diamonds there. Once we left the trails, we could ski wherever we wanted to go. I swooped between willows, scampered up hillsides, circled creek holes, and inspected rabbit tracks.

Lesson #3: Check out the meadows next to groomed ski center trails.

Doug and I bought a small camper, and now we travel often on Highway 395 to where the glacier-scooped valleys of the Eastern Sierra provide endless meadows for long days of skate skiing. On one early excursion into a canyon below Mt. Emma near Sonora Pass, Doug asked if I wanted to take a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my fanny pack. I said no. I had plenty of Gu’s, those 100-calorie packets of gooey carbs laced with caffeine.
It was a spectacular tour. We skated up the canyon, following an open creek, dodging willow bushes and peering at transparent ice lips growing out of the snow banks above the rushing creek. We climbed a glacial moraine and scooted through an aspen grove. A couple of hours passed and I swallowed one Gu after another. We crested a knoll to see another irresistible glistening valley ahead of us. We flew into it, hooting with excitement and feeling free as eagles. Then, bonk. My energy drained away as if someone had pulled a plug. I had eaten all my Gu’s. I found Doug ahead sitting on a stump, nibbling his sandwich. He kindly shared it. Refueled, I zoomed back to the camper, where I took a nap.

Lesson #4: Always take the PB&J.
Backcountry skate skiing can test all of your limits. Sun comes from all sides, so wear a good sunscreen, big hat and a long-sleeve lightweight wind-shirt. Carry extra water and don’t wear dark-colored, heat-absorbing clothes.

And then there are the survival issues: Travel with a friend, know your terrain, and leave a note on your car describing your route and when you’ll be back.

Lesson #5: Be prepared for anything.

The sweetest aspect of spring skate skiing is that it can be done anywhere. The snowpack simply needs to be gathering lots of sunshiny warmth during the day, and freezing hard at night. My favorite finds include a couple of meadows on Highway 89 between Truckee and Sierra Valley, any snow-covered alkali flat in Nevada, anyplace at all in magical Hope Valley off Carson Pass, and meadows around Tioga Pass and Crowley Lake, near Mammoth.

Lesson #6: Skate skiing is a great way to get deep into the backcountry quickly and with ease.