There is nothing like the peace that can be found while in the backcountry. The sound-deadening qualities of snow makes it easy to forget the rest of the world and exist only in the moment. The only sounds being the crunch of the snow and your own breath as you trudge up a hill or the hushed sounds of making fresh tracks through untouched snow.
For someone who’s never been in the backcountry, getting started can be intimidating. Not only is there avalanche safety to consider but also getting the proper equipment and knowing where to go.
The Tahoe Backcountry Alliance is an organization that aims to make backcountry sports more accessible, while making sure the people who do participate know the etiquette and are responsible stewards of the mountains.
Tahoe Backcountry Alliance gets its start
Tahoe Backcountry Alliance was formed in 2015 and current Executive Director Anthony Cupaiuolo said it was formed “out of necessity.”
“It was in response to starting to lose access to some public recreation areas, predominantly, the main one that was an issue was along Highway 89, just north of Emerald Bay, in an area called Jake’s Peak,” Cupaiuolo said.
The area was a popular spot for backcountry skiers and snowboarders but as road construction was being done in the area, available parking was in danger.
“It wasn’t being done to antagonize backcountry skiers by any stretch, it was more just because when they were redoing the road, they didn’t realize that was a big public access point for recreation in the area,” Cupaiuolo said.
The crux of the issue, Cupaiuolo said, was the backcountry skier audience wasn’t a recreation group that was well-understood by local agencies, unlike mountain bikers and hikers.
“I think what we realized in the backcountry skiing and snowboarding communities … we didn’t have an advocacy group, so the Tahoe Backcountry Alliance was formed basically by a couple of friends who were avid backcountry users,” Cupaiuolo said.
TBA has remained focused on trailhead projects.
Part of the trailhead work also includes education about etiquette. Many of the trail access points are near private property, so TBA does a lot of outreach regarding not parking in front of property access points, not letting dogs run around people’s yards, not playing music and being loud early in the morning, etc.
They’ve also installed signs at several of the areas with QR codes that bring up maps to show users how to get to the trails without going through private property.
Each spring, TBA holds trailhead clean-up events and they’ve sponsored several trailheads such as Donner Lake Run trailhead. They received approval from the Truckee Donner Recreation and Parks Department to utilize their West End Beach parking facility. The agreement to use the West End Beach parking area required TBA to pay for repaving of a portion of the parking area and provide signage and snow removal annually.
They are also working with El Dorado County and the Forest Service to establish a legal year-round trailhead below Rubicon Peak.
While TBA started by working on trailhead access projects, and continues to work on those projects, it has since grown beyond that.
The popularity of backcountry sports has risen in popularity over the last several years, especially during COVID, when resorts were forced to shut down or people didn’t feel comfortable being near other people once they reopened.
One of the great things about being in the backcountry, Cupaiuolo says, is the ability to spread out.
“Bikers and hikers, for the most part, are relegated to single track, to the trails that exist. For skiers and snowboarders, often you start at a trailhead where you may see 10, 15, 20 other vehicles, but once you start going up the mountain, you can spread out and go different ways. There isn’t a trail cut for you,” Cupaiuolo said.
However, there are limited trailheads and parking areas so that is where overuse can happen.
“We’re looking to help kind of reduce traffic and congestion to these trailheads,” said Cupaiuolo.
In 2020, TBA partnered with Tahoe Sierra Transportation LLC to provide free transportation to trailheads in the winter.
Last year, they provided shuttles over 15 weekends to trailheads in the North and West Shore. In the 2022-23 winter season, they will be adding five Saturday shuttles in the South Shore.
The current model for the microtransit is “first come- first served,” in which groups, bigger than two or three people, can book the transit and have access to it all day. The shuttle will pick users up from their homes or vacation spots and take them to trailheads. They can also use the transit to go to multiple locations throughout the day and back to their lodging when they are done.
“One of our goals is to see the local agencies kind of get on board with that and help fund that because although we have our own microtransit program, it is relatively small and in it of itself, it is not gonna be the solution to our congestion and trailhead program,” Cupaiuolo says.
During the 2021-22 season, TBA had a shuttle that was booked 14 out of the 16 days it was available.
While it is recognized that a need for transit options exists, TBA wants to use their pilot program to show that people will use it if it’s available. By showing that need, they are hoping a bigger entity will take up management of it and make it more widely available.
“Access is kind of a big word for us,” Cupaiuolo said. “We’re actually trying to expand what access means. For us, access is always going to mean access to public lands but it’s also about who is getting the opportunity to access.”
One of their areas of focus is expanding access to youth members of the Washoe Tribe.
TBA acknowledges that recreation in Lake Tahoe is taking place on land that was historically Native American lands. However, Cupaiuolo says, many members of the Tribe no longer share the same connection with the land as their ancestors, especially in the winter.
“They actually do an amazing job in terms of getting their kids outside and recreating, not just down in Carson Valley where a lot of the kids and families are based, but up here in the Tahoe Basin as well but the program kind of falls off a little bit in the winter,” Cupaiuolo said.
TBA partnered with the Tahoe Fund to secure funding to buy snowshoes and cross-country ski equipment for about 30 kids in the Tribe. The gear will go straight to the Tribe to use whenever they’d like and TBA will be holding several on-snow days with the kids to show them how to use the gear.
Cupaiuolo said buying the gear can be a barrier to entry so he hopes once they have the gear, these activities will be something they can do again and again.
When talking about accessibility, it’s important to acknowledge that backcountry sports may never be accessible or desirable to everybody. Cupaiuolo acknowledges that some people really enjoy riding a chairlift and adds that there is nothing wrong with that.
However, resort skiing and snowboarding can be financially prohibitive for many people. The cost of day and season passes continues to rise and while the upfront cost of getting backcountry gear can be daunting, once you have it, it’s free to go into the backcountry.
“It really can create a lifetime of outdoor exploration and fun that doesn’t necessarily have to be the most expensive. I mean look, you can make it as expensive as you want. You could buy brand new gear every single year and there’s people that do that, but there’s also plenty of people who are having just as good, if not a better time that you’ll see out there with duct tape on their pants and you know that’s awesome,” says Cupaiuolo.
Each year, the Tahoe Fund hosts Backcountry Safety Awareness Week, which TBA takes part in.
For one week each December, sponsors host several virtual and in-person events that give frequent backcountry users an opportunity to dust-off the cobwebs and new users a chance to learn how to be safe in the backcountry.
Even outside of Backcountry Safety Awareness Week, TBA is focused on safety. While they don’t host avalanche classes, they do partner with Sierra Avalanche Center. They’ve created videos to teach people about how to use gear, what type of clothing they should always have and what items people should always have in their packs
They also provide people with information on how to be safe in the backcountry in other ways, such as pointing them to medical training courses. One such course is a medical class at Lake Tahoe Community College.
“I started touring in the backcountry 25 years ago and there just weren’t the resources that there are now. I think it’s awesome how much more knowledge that people have,” Cupaiuolo says. “Nothing is 100% safe and it never will be, but it does allow people to enter the backcountry, with more knowledge and that usually leads to better outcomes.”
For more information, visit https://tahoebackcountryalliance.org.