The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 121: Reprise of Sierra Backcountry Ski Trails

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada. These definitive guides to backcountry skiing are getting some major updates. This week on The WildeBeat; a reprise of Sierra Backcountry Ski Trails.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one twenty one, a reprise of number twenty one.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada is a four-volume set of guide books. These books are almost essential if your going to explore the Sierra Nevada backcountry on skis. The books have held that position of importance for over twenty years. In October of two thousand five, I interviewed the author of them.

STEVE: I'm talking with Marcus Libkind. He's the author of five trail guidebooks for backcountry ski touring in California — the Sierra's, and in Lassen National Park. Marcus, welcome.

MARCUS LIBKIND: Hi! Nice to be here with you.

STEVE: How did you get started with the idea of documenting the ski trails, and eventually making a book about them?

MARCUS LIBKIND: It was all quite by chance. I started backcountry skiing in nineteen seventy five, and a friend showed up at work and told me about these two great ski tours he had done with his girlfriend over the weekend. And I asked, "How did you find out about them?" And his reply was, "Oh! I have this book." But when I went to try to buy myself a copy of the book, I found out it was out of print. I was sort of disappointed, and I thought, "you know, I could put together a book just of my ski tours, and give it away to my friends." From there I spent about a year putting it together. It was before home computers, and I rented a typewriter, and hired a secretary to type the book up. The maps were Xeroxed from topo maps. And a friend of mine says, "Why don't you print some more? You could share my booth at the backpacking show, and you can peddle them there." That was Gary Schaezlein of Western Mountaineering. And over the course of, oh, three or four years, I sold three thousand books. That's "In Search of the Snow Bunny", I doubt if many of your listeners have a copy or have ever seen a copy. And that was the beginning.

STEVE: So after that you began working the Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada series?

MARCUS LIBKIND: I realized that I really wanted to expand it. So, every year when I was out skiing I was always looking for new ski tours. I wasn't going back to the same places. And then a real publisher came to me and said, "I'd like to publish your books." And I decided, "Well, if he think's there's a market, why don't I do it?" And so in one year I published volumes one, two, and three, covering Tahoe down to Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon. And then a year later I quit my job and moved to Lee Vining where I researched volume four. Which was for the Eastern Sierra. And that book came out, I believe it was in the fall of nineteen eighty six.

STEVE: I want to go into a little more detail about actually researching and developing a trail description as it might be listed in the book.

MARCUS LIBKIND: It all starts with topo maps. I love looking at topo maps. I usually from that can tell whether it's going to work out; whether it's really a good route. Always the big unknown is how dense the trees are. From that, just plan a trip, and go out and ski it. I might ski it once before I write it up; I might ski it a couple of times. Often one trip in an area leads to a second tour or a third tour, because often there's a lot of variation. Originally, had a little introduction that just gave some important information. And then there was the description, and it was in paragraph form. When I did the Lassen book, I changed the format. I had a mileage log. And that, I think, really makes it easier for people to follow a route. Then, the other part of the whole process is creating maps that are usable.

STEVE: So what else do you see for the future of these guides...

MARCUS LIBKIND: Volume one was already updated. I didn't want to reprint volumes two and three again myself. I felt they really needed to be updated. My thought is that eventually to sell the paperback rights to Wilderness Press, and publish a digital version myself. That's where I really want to take it. I know that a digital version isn't too handy in the backcountry. Sort of got to print out what you want in advance, before you go up to the mountains. But it's easier to keep a digital version updated. And the books will expand. A few tours will probably disappear, or at least I won't be giving them a very high recommendation, just because the effects of snowmobiles. There'll be a clear description of the use of the area by snowmobiles. So people who don't want to be anywhere near a snowmobile can avoid them. At least they'll have some idea of what to expect.

STEVE: So what's your advice to someone who thinks that backcountry skiing looks like an exciting thing to do, but doesn't really know anything about it themselves? How should they get started?

MARCUS LIBKIND: Oh, probably the same way I did. My recommendation is: You need a lesson. You've got to get out on a groomed track and get a feel for the technique. And then, after you feel comfortable on the groomed trails, you can head to places in the backcountry where the terrain is easy. Snow-covered roads is a great place. You know, there's a huge difference in the type of cross-country skiing there is. There's everything from racing, where you're skiing on these very narrow skis on groomed track. Now it's not diagonal stride, it's skating when it comes to racing. All the way to backcountry skiing, and now a sport into of it's own is telemark skiing — people using the traditional telemark turn at downhill ski areas. So there's a lot to choose from out there.

STEVE: What's special about being out there at that time of the year?

MARCUS LIBKIND: For me, it's exploring. And actually, you can go more places in the winter easier than in the summer. Because the rocks and the downed trees are all covered with snow. And, it's just enjoyable. But I should say, the bottom line is, you should always know how to get out with your own skills reading a map and a compass... A lot of backcountry skiers, and backcountry snowshoers, started as hikers and backpackers. And what backcountry skiing and snowshoeing is, is basically an extension of the hiking and the backpacking to the other part of the season, when the mountains are covered with snow.

STEVE: Thank you very much, Marcus.


STEVE: As Marcus said in the interview, he wanted to move the guide into a digital form. And this past fall, that's exactly what he did. Marcus created the web site, backcountry ski tours dot com. Marcus told me in e-mail that he'll be adding tours to this site as soon as they are field checked for updates. And the whole site is about your participation. He invites you to explore his routes and then submit updated information about the ski tours from his books. Also, you can suggest new tour routes for this online guide. Again, that site is backcountry ski tours dot COM.

STEVE: This program was originally published on December first, two thousand five. We'd like to hear your opinion about Marcus's ski guides, or your experiences on backcountry ski tours. And we're always eager for any comments you might have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373, or send e-mail to comments at WildeBeat dot net. You can find links to Marcus's books, and his new web-based guide, on our web site.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Insitute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one twenty one. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- calling for help.

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