From the road, Homewood Mountain Resort is an unimposing stop along Lake Tahoe's west shore. Blink as you drive by and you might miss the funky red lodge and the fixed-grip triple chair that climbs a short but steep pitch from a roadside parking lot. The rest of the resort's 2,010-acres, not visible from the base, dwarf in comparison to some of Tahoe's neighboring mega-resorts. You won't find the amenities of an on-mountain village nor will you recognize any iconic lines from your favorite ski films—but the mountain offers a different experience for skiers seeking slow-paced solitude.
During storms that bring high winds and multiple feet of snow to Tahoe, Homewood is protected by 8,740-foot Ellis Peak, Knee Ridge to the southwest, and Blackwood Ridge to the north. When resorts at higher elevations close down due to winds that create hazardous snowpacks and put lifts on hold, Homewood's chairs are often turning and the skiers are making fresh tracks on low angle slopes in the trees. After the storms clear and the snowpack settles, Homewood's open boundary allows skiers to enjoy fresh tracks on Ellis Peak and the surrounding ridges days later.
This season the Resort launched Homewood Snowcat Adventures opening up 750-acres of this terrain to cat-accessed, guided ski tours. With a storm in the forecast, I jumped on the opportunity to explore the area without skins.
Despite the fact that it rained until about 9:30 p.m. the evening before the tour, I woke up to find over a foot of snow in my driveway the next morning with resorts reporting nearly twice that. I threw my skis in the back of the truck and headed to Homewood, joining the rest of our group in the lodge just in time to hear that the tour was cancelled.
We sipped coffee, ate gummy worms, and frantically scrolled through our social media feeds to see what was happening at the other resorts. Strong winds kept lifts closed along the western crest and natural slides were propagating throughout the area, including one that buried the road to Alpine Meadows. Happy to not be heading into the backcountry, we waited to see if the lifts would turn at Homewood. Shortly after 10 a.m. the Madden Chair began spinning just before the queue hit critical mass at about 50 people. We found some thick but smooth ‘Sierra cement’ on the southern aspects and in the trees to the north the snow was light and deep. We farmed fresh turns until the late afternoon and when we were cold and tired we headed home. At the end of the day, the clouds parted giving us a glimpse of Ellis Peak and a reminder of our original objective.
I was lucky enough to snag a seat in the cat on stand-by two days later. This time I woke up to cold temperatures, clear roads, and bluebird skies. We met our guides Stuart Slay, Ariel Macrae, and David Walker at the little red school house near the lodge. Our group of 10 included a mix of skiers and boarders, backcountry veterans, and those who were heading beyond the boundary for the first time, but all were strong riders. After going over the plan for the day we piled into the cat and headed for the hills.
The cat is a custom build. Steve Smith, the director of mountain operations at Homewood spent a summer creating the perfect vehicle to fit Homewood's needs.
"There are a large percentage of people who do not want to invest in the backcounty gear but wish to have the experience of being out in the backcountry. This started me thinking on building a snowcat for backcountry adventure,” says Smith. “I designed the carrier to fit a particular type of cat. I rebuilt the cat piece by piece then added the carrier. It took me about three months to complete.” The result is a cozy cabin that fits 10 skiers and riders and easily climbs the road to Ellis Peak using existing Forest Service roads.
We stopped just shy of the summit and took in the view of the big blue lake under the big blue sky. Slay, a patroller and avalanche forecaster at Homewood, spends a lot of his days at the office in this zone analyzing the snowpack and of course, skiing the goods so he's got a pretty solid idea of where to find the best lines for the day.
Our first turns were through about six inches of leftover powder from the storm a few days prior. We made our way through the trees whooping and laughing, ending our run at the ski area boundary. We cruised down a groomed run to the Old Homewood Express, the only high speed quad at the resort, and head to the top to meet the cat for another round.
We skied a mixed of gladed tree runs, wind buffed snow in open bowls and steep lines throughout the rock garden. Each lap brought us another 1,800 vertical feet of fresh tracks. When the guides asked what we want to do for lunch the group unanimously agreed to eat in the cat and keep skiing. It was just too good. By mid-afternoon a few members of the group had enough and headed to the lodge. My thighs burn and for half a second I considered joining them before climbing back in the cat for another round. We got six laps in before the 3 p.m. curfew. One last run through the rock garden and it was time to head down the hill for beer-thirty. Back at the lodge, we shared cheers as the sun dropped below the ridge.