Want to Avoid the Hike Out?

Last year I was sitting in Ashford, WA about to climb the Disappointment Cleaver route via the Ingraham Glacier on Mt. Rainier. I was sitting across a long wooden table at basecamp, attempting not to burn my mouth on the steaming hot coffee I desperately needed to ingest when my friend Aaron, a first-time climber asked me:

“What is it going to be like

I paused, the coffee now at my lips, probably sparing the roof of my mouth from further burns.

Well it’s going to be brutal going up, then you’ll get to the top and have a large dopamine hit for about two or three minutes and then the anticipation and dread of down-climbing will hit and it will be back to a brutal experience until exiting. You’ll get back in the car at the trailhead, after swearing you will never do this again on the down-climb and then find yourself looking at the next mountain objective by the time you get back to the hotel. I can’t make sense of any of it but that is my experience”.

He seemed satisfied with that answer, and I resumed burning my mouth with the still, nuclear-hot coffee.

Embrace Shoulder Season

If you relate to that above paragraph in the slightest, don’t worry, I have found the elixir or antidote to all your down-climbing or exit-hiking woes: 

Just ski it.

In my early twenties, I discovered backcountry skiing in the Northeast. As someone who was struggling with my adult identity, after a very structured childhood and college experience, it offered me something I sought avidly at the time; Freedom of Choice. I could choose to ski any line on the mountain, the mountain did not care, and, the decision, planning, and execution were left solely to me. If I did not prepare well enough, or swung above my weight class, the mountain would respond and I would learn. Failure and success were equal parts mine.

When I moved to Northern California in 2021 I wanted to reacquaint myself with backcountry skiing. I had spent the COVID-19 years in south Georgia enviously watching videos and TikTok reels of people skiing lines in the Truckee and Lake Tahoe, CA area in the backcountry. My first purchase upon moving to California? A guidebook to the backcountry for the greater Tahoe area.

Over the next few years, I spent most of my weekends during the winter, off-piste in the Sierras. It was a difficult transition and reintroduction to skiing out of bounds. The Truckee and Tahoe area is famous for world-class touring but the local scene, like plows on the I-80 nearby, will drive the most direct skin track (trail) uphill to expedite the ascent. As an east-coast boot-packer, I struggled to skin up the track carved by people who I can only assume deadlift north of 800 lbs. After a few tours and the utilization of improved technique (thanks Tom), I soon found myself charging up those skin tracks en route to the summit. 

As shoulder season approached, normally the beginning of hiking season, I found myself looking for hikes that had a ski-able downhill portion. My first attempt, Castle Peak off the I-80 in Truckee, solidified my adoration for this ski touring. Not only was I able to hike and reach peaks during a normally inaccessible time due to snow levels but, I was also able to skip the down-climb all together and enjoy a breathtaking, solitary ski down to the trailhead.

Expanding Horizons

After a few years of “earning my turns” on the skin tracks of Northern California, I finally felt ready to fuse my two hobbies of mountaineering and backcountry skiing together by attempting to ski and summit Mt. Baker. At the time of this post, I have two weeks until my attempt, and, provided the weather-gods are in my favor, I fully intend to share that experience. For the last few weeks however, it has been gear testing and shakedown climbs with my good friend and fellow skin-track enthusiast, Tom. 

Rubicon Peak

If you conduct an internet search for iconic Lake Tahoe hikes, you are bound to come across Rubicon Peak. The brief description online states, “A semi-secret trail leading to a rocky peak with stunning views (of Lake Tahoe)“. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada range, Rubicon Peak stands 9,187ft and spans the ridge between Desolation Wilderness and Lake Tahoe. The views from the top are immense and immersive. You feel as though you are existing on a metaphorical fence with the universe prompting you to decide which side of the ridge you intend to be swallowed into.

Tom and I started around 8:30am after a refreeze the night prior. The conditions were going to be “crusty” to say the least but, undeterred, we arrived at the parking lot and began setting our gear. Our first encounter on the trail was not wildlife, but a Tahoe local, who was kind enough to give us an estimation of the conditions ahead and also informed us, very proudly, that he had completed the trek twice that morning. If you are reading this, I want you to know that both Tom and I spent an exorbitant amount of time pondering how this was humanly possible; you are an animal. 

The skin track-up was developed in pure local fashion, straight up 30-35 degree slopes, with little to no switchbacks carved into the sweeping mountainside. While icy in portions, the warming conditions of the sun-spotted areas allowed the crust of the snow to start a slow melt; perfect for our descending ski. 

Start of the Tour

About 300ft from the summit I had my first (and only) issue of the day. The skin track weaved around a cluster of trees positioned along a 35-degree slope un-kissed by the morning sun. I took a momentary uphill glance while edging along the track which, was just enough displacement for my downhill ski to skid out underneath me and hurl me toward the trees below. Thankfully, I was able to control the entry into what must have been a large tree-well a few weeks ago and brace myself against the tree. I stopped. I yelled. I also asked myself why I did not just ski the resort today. I yelled again. I continued upward.

would like to pretend, or at least publish on my social media, that backcountry skiing is a zen journey of exploration however these moments happen and thankfully, I have had enough of them that I embrace them. 

“One must choose, in life, between boredom and suffering” – Madame de Stael

My previous troubles melted away from my short-term memory as I stepped out of my bindings at the summit and took in the landscape in front of me. The mid-morning sun had flown high in the sky and mirrored on Lake Tahoe; a sight that will always remain impressive despite the countless times I have been fortunate enough to view it.

After inhaling a protein bar it was time to flip my bindings and ski down; my favorite part. The snow crust had melted off just enough to remain firm but ski-able. We initiated our descent just as a fellow climber, and his four-pawed teammate reached the summit. The dog ran up next to me and stopped, stared, barked, and then ran back to his owner, I assume to let him know the summit was now theirs for the taking. 

The ski down is always a blur. The elation mixed with the intense burning of my legs makes the descents almost an out-of-body experience. About three-quarters of the way from the bottom, Tom and I separated briefly. I stopped, looked around, and then heard: 

“You are f-ing with me right?”

Tom had managed to stumble upon a group of guys in their mid-thirties, carrying an entire keg of beer on a sled into the backcountry. I missed the majority of their interaction since I was downhill a bit however, I did witness one of the men tap the keg, pour Tom a beer, and then wish him luck on the rest of his tour. What happened to these men, I have not the faintest clue, rumor has it they may still be at the summit.

Tom and I both ended our tour back in the parking lot, unclipped, and spent the rest of the drive back planning the next weekend tour, our “bucket list” tour; the Lake Run.

The Lake Run

The following weekend Tom and I, along with another close friend Roger, drove up the winding roads of the old Route 40 located just outside of the infamous Donner Peak. Now, if you have not heard why Donner Peak is famous, it was home to the most infamous party of the 19th century. It was such a ripper party (pun intended) in fact, that to this day we still talk about it; name another Coachella we still talk about.

The goal for this tour was one Tom and I had been attempting since I first started touring in California. A ski summit of Donner Pass via Mt. Judah with a follow-on descent all the way to Donner Lake for an alpine lake plunge.

We clipped into our bindings and began the tour around 9am that morning. Since the area was experiencing an unseasonable warm front, with the temperatures reaching into the 60s, we knew we had to skin the 1,000ft of vertical as soon as possible to avoid being stuck in the afternoon slushy-snow.

The tour up was breathtaking; both literally and figuratively. The sun beat down on us as we continued to climb in a simulated race against the ever-increasing temperatures. We skinned from tree enclave to enclave, avoiding the direct sun as much as possible.

Once at the top, we encountered two friendly local split boarders who were kind enough to give us a detailed description of landmarks to look out for on the way down to avoid having to re-skin back up any ridgelines. The culture of hikers and backcountry skiers is almost symbiotic and, learning to speak “trail directions” which, are often “turn at the fourth tree that has a large weep hole“, is vital. 

During the initial descent, I did not think this experience could possibly be any better. The snow was crisp, the temperature was just right and the views were astounding. When we stopped abruptly mid-way down, I found out the best was yet to come.

I enjoy history; especially that part of history on the expansion of the western United States. The super-human feat of expansion over mountainous and often hostile terrain is both fascinating and impressive. When I clipped out of my skis mid-way down the Lake Run, I was standing before a piece of U.S. history long forgotten, a railway tunnel for the Central Pacific Railroad. This tunnel was completed in 1868, connecting California to the east via the Sierra Nevada mountains after years of hard labor and blasting through tough granite. The sheer feat of this is daunting; the tunnel is located along an almost 40-degree grade carved directly into the mountain and visible from the nearby I-80. The tunnel itself has stood the test of time, surviving an endless deluge of rockfall, ice, and snow storms; a truly impressive feat even by modern standards.

After slinging our skis over our backs, Tom, Roger, and I ventured into the deep tunnel. Not realizing we would be encountering this feature and, being the “it will work out” skiers we are, our cellphone flashlights became our illumination as the light from the surrounding world disappeared.

Now, I consider myself somewhat of an optimist, however, after about a half-mile of darkness even I thought we were being tricked; similar to Happy Gilmore meeting the PGA professionals at midnight on the 18th tee. Just as I was about to protest this concern to the group, a glimmer of light danced in the distance; the exit.

After resurfacing back to the light. We clipped back into our skis and enjoyed the remaining few hundred feet of the tour. After reaching the bottom and throwing around some high-fives our “spousal Uber” Ashley (five stars) picked us up and we departed for an alpine dip into the sprawling Donner Lake.


Now if you are considering entering the backcountry during shoulder season a minor word of caution. Avalanches affect people every year. The mountains do not care if you are the best skier at your local resort or venturing out for the first time. I will not plug any service in particular however, continuing education is almost as important as selecting a team to tour with. I recommend completing an AIARE course before heading into the backcountry and having your teammates do the same. If you venture out and have completed an AIARE course but none of your teammates are carrying a beacon or, understands how to search and dig someone out in an avalanche, you are taking some big risks.


This post is also dedicated to the people that I have been fortunate to have explored this amazing area with. Thank you especially to my girlfriend Madalyn, and my friends Kevin, Bill, Tom, Ashley, Mike, Tyler, and Alex, you have made my winters in Lake Tahoe and Truckee truly amazing.




Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

What Do You Think?