Bear Scratch Chute offers backcountry boarding bliss on East Shore


Photo credit: Kyra Kliman

Sasha Kliman gets a powder turn snowboarding on Bear Scratch Chute below Herlan Peak on Tahoe’s East Shore.

7:30 A.M.: A persistent nagging noise comes out of my right ear. My finger hits the snooze button and my phone nosedives into the carpet, intensifying the sound. I look down to see who’s calling. It’s my brother Keegan. He’s either calling to lecture me about avalanche conditions, or he wants to go shredding. Half-awake, I answer the phone.

Me: Hello?

Keegan: Kyra do you have class today?

Me: No

Keegan: The snow’s finally filled in – it’s go time. Bear Scratch on East Shore. You in?

Me: Hell yeah.

Keegan: I’ll be there in 30.

I hang up the phone and jump out of bed, start to gather all my touring gear, and throw everything in my pack. I run through the checklist in my head: beacon, probe, shovel, skins, poles, split-board, gloves, helmet, and layers.

A silver Tacoma pulls up outside my house, and Tara the German Shepherd is poking her head out the window wagging her tail. I throw my gear in the bed and hop in. Sasha Kliman is driving, and Keegan Kliman is in the front seat. Tara sits next to me as we drive east toward Bear Scratch, the only line in the Tahoe basin where riders can come right down to the lake.

The Destination

Herlan Peak, the altitude destination for our hike, has many offerings for skiers and riders, including steep chutes and glades.

“Bear Scratch chute drops 2,000-plus vertical feet, some of the best consistent vertical around the Lake,” says Jeremey Benson, author of “Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes: California.” Total elevation gain is 2,515 feet over three miles, and the high point is 8,775 feet. Bear Scratch is a west-facing aspect, and due to the sun exposure and lack of snow/precipitation it receives, it is not always skiable. When the chute gets filled in, locals love skiing it because of the view. And it’s a world-class run. At the top of Herlan Peak, there are giant boulders, and a 9-foot-wide opening in the middle where the chute starts. On top of the chute looking directly down, there is a surreal view of the lake, and there is this small swirl-like land formation.

The Approach

We pulled off on the side of the road between Sand Harbor Beach and Hidden Beach, where we discussed the two possible skin-track options. Route one: ascend the west-facing trees near the descent. Route two: skin up the east ridge into the northwest gulley. The group decision was route two; everyone was familiar with the skin-track and the pitch.

As we transition into touring mode, Keegan sets the group pace for the rest of the day. Sasha is in the middle and Tara’s full of energy running back and forth in the group. The first part of the tour is gentle, but switch-backs and tight, dense trees make it hard to maneuver. Every time I took a step, my board wanted to slide backward. After a 10-minutes struggle, I noticed the metal latch, which keeps the skin in place, had fallen off. Flustered, I knew my day was over. Usually, when the snow gets under the skin on the cohesive, it loses stickiness.

Suppressing emotions, I watched Keegan. Every step taken was flawless, with ease, naturally flowing. I decided to try something different. I used an orange ski strap, wrapped it around the top off my ski, and continued my upward trek. It worked.

In the middle section of the hike, the pitch increases, and the switchbacks widen. The trees are significantly more comprehensive, adding a rich dark brown color flecked with greenish moss. Small flakes lightly fall, and the sun rays gleam through the trees, motivating the group for the last incline of 300 feet. At the top, we’re rewarded with a 360-degree view of the lake and the white mountain tops.

I throw my backpack down and belly flop, worn out. Keegan walks to the right of the chute and stands on a boulder to get a solid viewpoint of what we’re about to shred.

The Descent: The Whole Enchilada

After we transition, at the top of the chute we’re faced with a small issue: There’s an open boulder field approximately 10 feet. We have two options: Down-climb 10 feet while holding a snowboard, without any safety gear to keep us from falling, or bind up at the top and send it down and try to rock hop, where there’s a high percentage of scratching or ruining the bases of our snowboards. We pick door number 2.

Keegan drops first, easily scrambles down the boulder field with finesse. I strap in at the top, and rock hop down, working with a small amount of snow. Sasha takes her time while she scrambles down, and we’re at the bottom ready to catch her if she missteps.

The first part of the line is open and riders can take long dreamy turns

The next section we named, “The Little Kid in The Candy Shop,” specifically because of the different terrain routes it offers to riders. Sasha drops left where Tara follows right behind, ripping through widely spaced trees, leading her to a spine, where she places her left hand perfectly, whipping her board into full surfy front carves. Keegan drops the same line, but in the spine section he rips the spine and drops the cliff, landing with ease.

The “middle route” is a classic tree run, with good snow and multiple numbs and rocks where riders can get creative. I drop last. Hitting the middle tree section first, where the powder is light. I dig my edges in and feel that natural turn, take a hard left to the spine, where I get three dreamy front carves. The next section is a natural halfpipe, and all rode through. Keegan hits the left shoulder – hand grab – and Sasha’s right behind him taking wide turns. A couple of yells echo while we ride to the bottom, waiting for Tara as she runs down.

When we arrive near the street we’re rewarded by an electric sunset, a surreal way to end an epic day.