Apocalyptic

Skiing in Nevada’s Heart of Darkness

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in the September 2010 issue (Volume 29, Issue 1).

The name alone should say enough: it means “snowy.” The state is the most mountainous in America. Between Las Vegas and Idaho sit more than three hundred named ranges, with peaks up to 13,140 feet. And yet skiers, thousands of them every year, drive right by on Hwy 50 or 6 or 95 as if it were all invisible. They look past the shimmering Roberts Mountains, the great white sails of the Diamonds, the sprawling labyrinth of the Desatoyas…without even considering the possibilities. Because this is nowhere. And no one skis nowhere.

March 28, The Middle Of Nowhere

We leave BG Tackett’s desert hideout like refugees, dust bowl children rumbling toward California in his beater Ford. The bed is layered with the trip’s shrapnel—shredded backpacks, battered skis, muddy boots, empty beer cans, and spent ammo…the entire junk show scudding across the empty sagebrush ocean at 60, a mile-long dust plume billowing behind us. As we hit the pavement of Hwy 50, BG’s ranch, hot springs, and private mountain range disappear in the rearview mirror. The thought of the real world is painful—but we’ve got to get the photographer on a plane in Mammoth.

A line of white mountains hovers just beyond the rim of the horizon, landlocked islands drifting on a dry sea. BG loads Mozart’s Symphony #25 into the tape deck as the truck clatters southward, now on Hwy 376, dropping into the Big Smoky Valley under the cresting white wave of the Toiyabe Range. The road vectors straight across the valley floor to the horizon. Towering dust devils careen mindlessly across the barren expanse of the dry lakebed.

This is the weirdest end to a POWDER assignment ever. The inscrutable photographer, Jordan Manley, hunkers in his buffalo robe nest in the back of the king cab, silently watching the peaks go by. As we approach the southernmost mountain in the chain, one final craggy cirque reveals itself through the windshield. Every other aspect of the massif is brown—dry sage and cactus. And yet this stegosaurian pile of bare rock cradles a 2,000-foot north-facing couloir that’s stacked with snow to the valley floor. It’s mid-April. It’s been an average winter. There’s a road to the base. I’ll bet you anything it’s never been skied.

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March 15, Chamonix: Aiguille du Midi

The world’s most famous Nevada skier meets Jordan Manley on the tram; they get to talking. Manley mentions that he’s heading to to the States to shoot a feature in Nevada with some writer named Ludwig. Glen Plake grabs him by the shoulders, frantically shaking the young photographer, “Nevada? Nevada? Ludwig? POWDER? We already did that trip in ’97! That’s my story!” Manley is unnerved. The tram operator rolls his eyes. He’s used to it.

March 21, California: Highway 395

I leave Mammoth, headed for Vegas with Manley—a quiet 25-year-old Canadian stranger who inches in the passenger seat every time the truck fishtails onto the soft shoulder. I smile weakly and overcorrect. Whitesnake rocks from the tape deck (“Here I go again on my own, goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known… Like a drifter I was born to walk alone…”). Inside I’m screaming, burning, reliving the breakup I just went through—literally a minute before leaving town. I knew something terrible was about to happen as soon as I saw her.

Somewhere in this empty desert is a secret mountain range with the best snow in the world. And we’re going to send it. I don’t care how. It’s all or nothing.

And now we’re here, on Hwy 6: the shell-shocked smithereens of a writer and an increasingly sketched photographer… On Assignment! For POWDER Magazine! Should be a great feature, boys! Let’s slay some sick lines! But it’s hard enough just to drive. My heart wants to leap out of my chest and turn into a thousand iridescent blue butterflies that will pour from the window to scatter into the desert sunlight and disappear forever… (“’Cause I know what it means… To walk along the lonely street of dreams…”). I start to make high-pitched keening sounds. Manley cringes. Whitesnake just keeps rocking.

Pull it together, back to the story… Skiing In Nevada. We’re near the border, circling east around 13,147-foot Boundary Peak, the highest point in Nevada, northernmost sentinel of the massive White Mountains. The north-facing aspects are loaded, thousands of feet of granite and tumbling couloirs rearing up out of the desert and just sort of looming there over the sagebrush. I pull over so a suddenly interested Manley can Get The Shot.

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“Still think you’re on a wild goose chase with a drunken lunatic, Manley?” I rasp, wincing at the broken sound of my own voice, gesturing grandiosely at the huge powder fields floating in the razor-sharp afternoon light. He squints up at the mountain thoughtfully, then looks at me and says, “Well…I don’t think we’re on a wild goose chase anymore.”

Bastard. I’m starting to like him. I better. In the next week, we’ll ski everything from gnarl couloirs to sand dunes by Area 51—then end up broken down at an off-the-grid ranch. We’ll après on The Strip and skin up canyons full of mountain lion tracks to ski the best powder in the world. At this point all we know, though, is that there are hundreds of ranges out there and we have a date with The Athletes in Las Vegas tomorrow.

We hit the state line as the sun drops. The big silver “Welcome To “Nevada” sign is riddled with bullet holes, warning incoming Californians with laconic Nevadan eloquence that things are different out here…

As Manley shoots the first of several depressing whorehouses on Hwy 95, the world snaps into focus. Things are gonna be different. This ain’t gonna be no media event. No helis. No film crews. I’m hijacking this assignment, going rogue, using the industry’s toughest skiers—Jamey Parks, Rachael Burks, and Cody Townsend—to Capture The High Ground under our own power, to find a shred of redemption, a spark of life, hope and adventure in the biggest blank spot on the map. Even if it turns me into Colonel Kurtz, driven mad out there in the Heart of Darkness.

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Somewhere in this empty desert is a secret mountain range with the best snow in the world. And we’re going to send it. I don’t care how. It’s all or nothing.

March 22, Verbier: Freeride World Tour event

Plake is freaking out, barking, cursing, alarming passersby on the street. He just ran into Cody Townsend, who’s bailing out on the comp’s delayed second run to fly back for some POWDER story in Nevada with Jordan Manley. Glen has to cover the event—he’s stuck in Verbier until the comp goes off. He bellows with rage. Swiss people furtively scuttle across the street to avoid him.

March 23, Las Vegas: Spring Mountains, Dogleg Couloir

I’m mid-crux, wildly exposed, hypothermic, and warily eyeing a catastrophically hungover Rachael Burks as she teeters above my head.

That morning we’d driven up from Vegas—from the casino floor to the snowline in 40 minutes—and skinned straight into what may as well be the Dolomites…

It’s at this point that I hear the disembodied bark of Plake in my head: “What inthefrickinhell are you frickin’ doing?”

Hallucination or not, it’s enough to make this clear: I’m climbing a 45-degree, 190cm-wide dogleg couloir with very hard limestone walls on both sides, sans ice axe or helmet, with Burks dangling over my head.

Coolly, I assess her condition:

• 16 hours straight raging the day before at the Snowbird freeskiing comp, at various airports (in a cocktail dress and ski boots), and then with me on the casino foor.
• 2 hours sleep/blackout in the Tropicana.
• 8 hours strenuous ski touring and shredding at altitude.
• Visibly shaky.
• Non-responsive.

Somewhat less coolly, I assess my own condition. It is essentially the same as Burks, except my funny vintage skiwear from the thrift store is now soaked through and freezing in the cold wind. Ha ha, isn’t Hansy a hoot. And then there’s the whole mental health issue…

“Why would I want a frickin’ ice axe, why would I want crampons… It’s only Nevada,” Plake cackles.

I begin down-climbing, three points of contact at all times, deliberate movements to counteract the shakes. Sketching below the crux, I gingerly post up on a rock and ask myself some rather pointed questions.

That morning we’d driven up from Vegas—from the casino floor to the snowline in 40 minutes—and skinned straight into what may as well be the Dolomites: Thousands of feet of powder hidden deep between overhanging walls. Already, the Spring Mountains had picked up 200 inches this season, but still: here?

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Seven-thousand feet below the couloir, the electrons of Vegas glow against the twilight—a huge fake city that sucks rivers dry and pollutes the sky to power its useless lights, and produces…the Illusion of Freedom, the Mirage of Good Times, degrading jobs for pretty girls with Daddy Issues…a sparkling hell machine built to hypnotize you with money and tits while it bleeds your soul dry and burns your heart to a cinder. The economy is falling apart. The planet is falling apart.

How the hell can we afford to pour so much money into this stupid hole in the desert and just burn it?

Then I click in and push off down the slope. Left, right, slide, skid, and then I’m arcing ’em onto the smooth apron and into the sunset, followed shortly by Parks, Manley, and a stunningly upright Rachael Burks.

The ancient bristlecone pines are unimpressed. The mountains say nothing. There are no bells, ashing lights, or Jägermeister girls. But there’re still miles of fun skiing back to the truck.

March 24, Las Vegas: Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort

Even closer to the mirage…not even 40 miles away from The Strip now…a tiny band of insurgents ski cold smoke at 11,000 feet, shredding alpine terrain high on this island in the sky where the happy mountain people live and play.

There are steep north-facing powder shots at the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort—skin-able from the open gates at the top of Chair 2. There is big backcountry gnar over yonder on Mount Charleston, and a sunny deck, and a bar where you can meet the heart and soul of skiing in these parts: mountain people like Craig, Brian, John, Kent, Jack, Ernie, Martha, Greg, Theresa, Oskar, and Chris.

I am riding the lift with a secret 10th-degree grandmaster skier. Yesterday I thought I was going to die in a couloir. We’re making progress.

They’ve asked me not to tell you about their Secret Spot. I tell them that I will write that only experienced backcountry skiers can take advantage of the terrain without dying in an avalanche (this is true), and that I will direct you to be respectful when you visit.

Be respectful when you visit.

The king of the happy mountain people, El Commandante of the Desert Ski Resistance, is 79-year-old Marcel Barel, a Swiss immigrant and founder, circa ’65 or so, of the ski school at the resort. Marcel skis better than the rest of us ever have or ever will, and he sparkles and crackles with life on and off the slope. We ski a couple of groomers with Marcel and Theresa, his beautiful German ski school protégé. They slash with effortless precision. Burks throws a spread eagle in the park, Manley tosses an exuberant daffy, and life begins to make some kind of sense again.

On the old double chair I ask Marcel (who has the first descent on pretty much everything in the Spring Mountains) if he still skis in the backcountry. He smiles and says that he has done multi-day tours in the Sierra in recent years and is hoping to get a ski descent of Aconcagua soon. Aconcagua. I am riding the lift with a secret 10th-degree grandmaster skier. Yesterday I thought I was going to die in a couloir. We’re making progress.

Later, lonely and wandering a casino floor at two in the morning, I watch a man who looks Marcel’s age, but a dying one sucking on an oxygen tank, mechanically plugging money into a slot machine. What will he do with the jackpot if he wins? I’m dying too. We all are. What would I do with the jackpot?

March 26, Central Nevada: Hot Springs Ranch

Most of the time our host BG is the only person skiing within a hundred- mile radius of his ranch, except when Tom and Dennis, his vintage snowcat buddies from Reno, come out to do a little touring. He has a guiding permit from the Forest Service and hosts select skiers at the guesthouse he built while living out here in a teepee and sleeping in a bu alo robe…for four years. The nearest town is Eureka, about 30 miles away. The easiest way to get a hold of him is probably to head over there, ask around in the Owl Club, or maybe over at the auto parts store.

BG is a 49-year-old former Marine, Grand Canyon river guide, carpenter, and voracious reader. He found this place when he got stuck out here in a snowstorm. When the sun came out he noticed how much snow was up in the nearby Monitor Range. Soon after, he and some friends bought some land. He’s on a mission, too. He wants to grow a backcountry ski scene in the middle of nowhere.

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BG’s operation, Hot Springs Ranch (hotspringsranch.net), may have the largest permit area of any ski guide service in North America—over 2.3 million acres of public land. His concession includes four massive ranges and three wilderness areas—Alta Toquima, Arc Dome, and Table Mountain—totaling about 250,000 acres. Because most of the land isn’t designated wilderness, and there are mine roads everywhere, BG can access the goods with his vintage cat, snowmobile, truck, or the heli that you and I and your rich friends should charter immediately.

The snow out here is the driest powder on the continent. It ages like fine wine on the north faces—no wind, no sun, just sublimating and vaporizing in the arid desert air into ever drier and more crystalline facets. And BG has unlocked the cryptic approaches to find the secret powder zones—he’s our pioneer, our solo point man working deep recon out there in Area 52; if he blows his knee or falls in a tree well, we’ll never even know where to look for his body. He definitely seems happy to have ski partners for a change.

March 28, Central Nevada: Area 52

I’m writing this with a pencil, by the light of an oil lamp and the slow-ticking warmth of the old wood stove in BG’s lodge. Every day since my clutch blew up and stranded us out here, the Desert Ski Assault Team has been skiing endless tits-deep couloirs, intricate faces on hidden peaks, and perfect alleys that drop forever through the world’s oldest grandfather trees.

Up-valley from BG’s lodge is the Roberts Range, a solitary massif out on the far horizon. Something really weird has been going on out there; even the south faces are white down to the valley when they should be burnt this late in the season. Yesterday BG and I drove around to the north side to recon the approaches…and it’s obvious that there’s no easy access; every road runs into the snowline miles out into the flats. Is this the secret elephant graveyard? My heart says yes. The north aspects are stacked.

Today, we ski the first descent (they’re all first descents out here) of a peak deep in the range above the ranch. We could be in Uzbekistan, or perhaps Patagonia. We can see six ranges from the wind-scoured summit, but there isn’t a human trace besides BG’s dirt road, empty for 120 miles. The snow is covered with bobcat tracks.

Every turn out here, every move, must be done as if it were on no-fall terrain. There will be no help, and it gets very cold at night. We carry extra everything—big first aid kit, headlamps, bailing wire…

But the snow is never a problem—if the slope is north facing, we ski perfect powder. The snowpack is anchored in thick sage, deep enough for deep turns and a little air but shallow enough to avoid (for the most part) avalanche risk. It’s the same everywhere we go.

Today, we ski the first descent (they’re all first descents out here) of a peak deep in the range above the ranch.

Range after range, some stark and bare, others unaccountably white to the valley floor…there is no rhyme or reason for the snow distribution. The storms come in nice and orderly on the jet stream, then the Great Basin ranges channel the lows into a maze of mountains and valleys, spinning off vast eddies and back flows; weird low pressure fronts colliding out there in the desert; atmospheric witchcraft stacking improbable ranges with perfect powder.

We ski to the canyon floor, looping huge turns across a bowl that may never be skied again, flying through junipers with the sibilant whisper of dry crystals under our skis. The peak has no name, just another perfect ank dropping deep into a hidden red-rock canyon…somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

Afterward we soak in BG’s hot springs, chop wood, carry water, shoot guns from the outhouse, talk by the light of the oil lamps, watch the mountains, sleep like babies.

The days blur… Manley climbs a tree to shoot Townsend slashing through sparkling crystals in the bristlecones, climbs the wall of a couloir to shoot Burks in neck-deep powder, gets on his belly to photograph Parks splashing a spray of snow against surreal limestone walls. He’s always on the summit at sunset to Get The Shot, and the Desert Assault Team never lets up, bushwhacking, skinning, getting the truck stuck, whatever it takes to get up to the snow. BG and I blow off the photo sessions, high-five the talent, and hit deep, long powder lines until we find ourselves skiing out some silent desert canyon by starlight.

We’ve stepped away from the madly rushing world, the inevitable mechanics of the Apocalypse, into this vast place of space and stillness where time means nothing, where we focus on just being alive, watching out for each other, working hard, being in harmony with the desert, and skiing insane powder day after day…

Every morning before we head out to ski, BG sifts through the ashes in the wood stove, salvaging a handful of live coals from the previous night’s fire. He piles tinder on the coals, stuffs the firebox full of pinyon logs, and we head into the mountains. When we get back after skiing all day, the house is warm.

April 4, Easter Sunday

My phone rings. It’s Plake. He’s bummed. He finally made it back from Switzerland, but now he has to do the family thing for Easter. He’s missing the entire trip. I tell him it doesn’t matter because he’s been with us the whole time, barking and snarling in my head, my redneck Obi Wan Kenobi. He says that he didn’t fly home for nothing, and that I better get ready to go ski Boundary. I sigh.

April 6, Nevada: A Beginning

With my beat-up truck now fixed by Matt and PJ down in Eureka (thanks, boys!), I wave goodbye to BG and roll out of the ranch for home…whatever that might mean now.

I pull the truck over on the side of 376 to get a last glimpse of the Toiyabes. There’s almost 5,000 feet of powder cascading down Peak 10,837’s north aspect, right to the mouth of the canyon where Christian Pondella, Nathan Wallace, Plake, and I battled our way in to ski Arc Dome back in ’97. The massive face wouldn’t look out of place in the Tetons. Nobody has skied it. Damn thing doesn’t even have a name.

There are a thousand reasons not to ski that face. We could just pay Big Business to provide us with cool lives. But is that as big as we can dream? Do you just want to have the same adventures that have already been had a million times? Or we could do it ourselves, just like skiers have always done. Everything that’s enduring and good in skiing came from the crazy-ass passion, vision, and hard work of real skiers. Out here in Nevada, the loneliest skier in America is pioneering the future of powder skiing for you, and trying not die while he does it.

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So maybe there is a future. The role models are there: the Brills in Silverton, Dave McCoy, Monty Atwater, Friedl Pfeifer. And there are others—BG, Plake, Jim Humphreys, my rogue Desert Ski Assault Squad—and we’ll be out there this winter, in that empty place with all the mountains, the one the conquistadors named “Snowy.” We will ski powder and we will destroy the dark lair of Las Vegas with positive ski energy. Sin City will shiver and then collapse under the full force of the smiles, the high-fives, and the exuberant powder turns of Marcel Barel and his Desert Ski Resistance.

I think back to Eureka. I want that town to have a rope tow, and a high school ski team that smokes the Tahoe kids at Regionals. I’d love to see skiers and other adventurous visitors stay in bunkhouses with real-live ranchers, to see how folks live out there, the hard work they do, the good values that they have. BG wants to turn old mine buildings into huts for backcountry skiers. Plake wants to put a lift on Bunker Hill in the Toiyabes.

Everything that’s enduring and good in skiing came from the crazy-ass passion, vision, and hard work of real skiers.

The thought of it is enough to get me back in the truck. The sunset lights up the tumbling white couloirs and red rock cliffs of the Toquima Range across the valley. I put ’er in gear and roll down 376 to Tonopah, past the towers of Boundary Peak as they catch the last of the alpenglow, then across into California, up through the Glass Mountains, and at last back to snowy old Mammoth, a girlfriend-shaped hole in my life, an empty apartment, a pile of bills…and maybe the coals to start a new fire.

I’m thinking about buying the 160-acre parcel up-valley from BG’s and building my own off-the-grid ski dojo, calling it something like The Center For Desert Powder Immersion. Who’s in? Glen? Townsend? Marcel? You?

Hans Ludwig’s first POWDER story ran in March 1997 about skiing steep backcountry lines in the Eastern Sierra. At the time, he was young, fresh and full of hope, and used 210cm race-stock skis with Marker MRR’s.