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TR: 2011 Trans-Sierra ski - and prayer for snow

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TR: 2011 Trans-Sierra ski - and prayer for snow

Postby paul » Sat Jan 04, 2014 5:56 pm

This is from a trip in the spring of 2011. I posted a link to my pictures back then, but no real TR. So now that the main backpacking season is over, I am posting this in the hope that writing about a trip from a seriously fat snow year will be a good luck charm for this winter.
Having wanted for a long time to ski across the Sierra, I finally got around to doing it. The route I created goes through some country that is very rarely visited when covered in snow , and some areas that are relatively popular. I say relatively because very few folks get out to anywhere deep in the Sierra on skis or snowshoes. I rarely see anyone on my backcountry ski trips, and this was no exception. We saw no one until the last of 9 days, when we reached North Lake on the East side and met fishermen. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so here we go:
Day 1 – It had snowed on us the night before as we camped near the trailhead. Mid-May at 7000 feet you don’t usually expect snow. But this was not a usual year, it was one of the heaviest snowpacks on record. When I was planning the trip, I had to aim for a later date than I would have liked due to other commitments, and originally I was worried that there would be enough snow left. Not a problem. Here’s the snow-covered road that we started on, near Huntington Lake, 7200 feet elevation on May 18:

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Our first day was a slog through the woods, on a foot of new snow over several feet of old. The fresh snow made for slow going. Route-finding was challenging after the first couple miles on the road, since you can’t see many landmarks in that forest so we had to rely on subtle terrain changes and really pay attention. The weather was mostly cloudy, the sun poking through at times. We were fortunate to find en exposed stream when it came time to camp, so we didn’t have to melt snow for our water.
Day 2 – Dawned fresh and clear. The fresh snow from the day before was firmed up nicely and away we went. Here’s the first meadow we came to:

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You can see there’s still a bit of snow left on the trees but it’s going fast. Of course it wasn’t all nice cruising across a wide open snowy expanse. If this photo had a soundtrack it would be unprintable – thrashing through those woods can be a bear:

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But the farther in we got the better it got. Here’s Rock Meadow, Black Peak and a glimpse of Dogtooth Peak on the right skyline:

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Home sweet home for another night, in Rodeo Meadow:

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Day 3 – Another perfect morning. Another big meadow, some more woods (but not so tight now, as the trees begin to spread out), a gentle descent (the first noticeable downhill in 2 ½ days) and then our first big view, of the Mono Divide from Summit Lake:

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And now, we are cookin’ with gas. More of the same from near Thompson Pass:

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By the end of the day, we have dropped into Red Rock Basin and the way ahead looks like a touring paradise – rolling terrain and an untouched smooth white blanket of snow:

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Again we find water – this time a tiny waterfall coming off a rock, and settle in for the night.
Day 4 – This day was such a mellow touring marvel that it’s almost hard to remember how good it was. Beauty all around us, easy rolling terrain with just enough tress for scenic value but not enough to block the views or cause any navigational issues. We kept thinking what a tremendous privilege it was to be there, to see this , to have this special place all to ourselves, to know that very few people have ever seen it like this. A glimpse of the simple beauty:

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And then we discovered we were not the only ones out there. Well, we were the only people. But a bear had also passed by very recently – probably the day before or early that morning. We followed his tracks for a while – the locals always know the best spots:

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Soon we neared the edge of the Red Rock Basin, and the silver Divide came into view. It can’t get better, can it? Another ridge further, and the view back to the west really spread out. Dogtooth Peak just left of center in the distance:

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And the view in the other direction into the Red Mountain Basin and the peaks around Hell For Sure Pass:

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We dropped down, skied across Lower Indian Lake:

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and climbed up to Dale Lake, where really, the campsite was not too shabby:

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What’s more, we found open water in the outlet of the lake, so once again we didn’t have to melt. Looking back it really seems like this can’t have been all one day, but it was. Such beauty, such mellow skiing, such views. Unforgettable.
Day 5 – Good morning Mt Hutton:

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And off into the spectacle once again. My traveling companion – the redoubtable Whiteout – had contrived a mask to ward off the sun, so I rarely saw his face during the day, but since we were grinning like fools perpetually, I knew what he was thinking anyway as we rambled through the loveliness:

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We stopped for lunch at Hell for Sure Lake. Really not a bad spot at all:

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Here is where it hit me, as it always does at some point on a backcountry ski trip – what I call the sense of being “out there”. We could see so much country, all snow-covered, and all probably empty of people. We’d come a long ways, we had a long way to go, there was nobody out here but us. Again, for me it is always a feeling of privilege. I feel so lucky to be out in a place like this at a time when no one else is around, to know that I’m seeing something few people see. And they could be here, they could be doing this just like I am, I’m just a regular guy who likes to wander around the mountains and see what there is to see. A really lucky guy to see things like this.
And now our first question mark on the route – an unnamed pass crossing the LeConte Divide above Arctic Lake, a short way south of Hell For Sure Pass. Much map study, Google Earth viewing, and one report of a summer crossing at this point had led me to conclude this was the way to go – easier than Hell For Sure. But we had no way of knowing whether there would be a cornice blocking our way, and we could see some honkin’ cornices in the area. Only one way to find out, though, so up we went. The way up the west side we could see pretty much to the top and it looked like no problem – and s it proved. I took off my skis and booted the steep upper section, thinking I’d have to take them off for the last bit anyway since that looked like mostly rock. But when I got there I found a tongue of snow that reached right to the saddle, which Whiteout, having opted to skin, took advantage of as he followed me up:

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But regardless of the method of ascent, our jaws dropped equally at the panorama that met our eyes when we looked over the top. Goddard Canyon in all its glory, distant peaks poking their heads above the ridge on the far side of the canyon – magnificent:

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And no cornice to block our way. A steep slope, but doable.
After a long spell of admiring the view in both directions we dropped down the east side, enjoying some nice turns on our way down into a little hanging valley on the side of the canyon. I say little, but it was only little in comparison to the massive scale of the canyon. As the hanging valley came to an end we spied a rise off to the left that looked like it might be a nice spot to camp. I zipped ahead to check it out, and it turned out to be spectacular. A nice bench with a dropoff in front, views up and down the canyon, even a trickle of melt water running over the rock. What more could you ask? We dined al fresco while admiring the view, then settled in for the night. Truly we felt we were in the heart of the Sierra now.
Day 6 – Morning in the midst of the spectacle:

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With a steep drop to begin the day, and a hard crust, it was easier to start off walking. The views were great both down canyon:

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And up:

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We followed a bench down to the floor of the main canyon and marveled our way up to where the canyon spread out into a wide valley:

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I had been partway up Goddard canyon and over Hell For sure pass nearly 40 years before, and had always wanted to go the rest of the way up to Martha Lake. So this was very satisfying, especially to be here in the snow. We didn’t go quite to Martha, though – we veered left a short way below it and made our way up to Lake 11184 for lunch:

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And then towards the jumbled plateau to the north of Martha, heading for a saddle to take us over to Davis Lake. Mt Goddard now loomed above us:

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The plateau was full of minor terrain wrinkles, but soon we were approaching the crest of the saddle, just northwest of point 12964, that we hoped would be the gateway to Davis Lake. On the map and Google Earth it looked like the easiest way to get there, but the question as always was cornice or no cornice. The answer? The smiles tell the story:

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Knowing that this pass would “go” meant there were no more questionmarks on the route, and we began to feel we were literally and figuratively over the hump.After enjoying the views, we booted the top steep part of the chute, then enjoyed the rest of ride down towards Davis:

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The camping at Davis was a little breezy, but the views were nice:

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Day 7 - In the morning, up and over the ridge to Wanda. A look back to Davis and Mt. McGee:

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And then we dropped our packs at the Wanda outlet after a snack and headed off toe Muir Pass unladen – the first time on the trip we’d skied without packs. We hooped and hollered and laughed out loud to be gallivanting around like this in the heart of the snowy Sierra. Obligatory hut shot:

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We zoomed back down to Wanda, snacked again and headed off down the valley. And for the first time in a week, signs of other humans. Ski tracks – a few days old at least. It was very pleasant cruising past Sapphire and down to Evolution Lake. At the Evolution outlet we stopped where the creek drops off towards the valley below:

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My favorite pic from the trip – Evolution outlet, The Hermit, Emerald Peak:

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We were able to tiptoe across the outlet without getting wet. Plastic boots have their advantages. We dropped down to about where the JMT switchbacks head down and made camp.

Day 8 – The morning was clear and breezy. The crust was hard and our way led steeply up through the trees, so it was easier to walk than ski. But somebody had skied here not long ago – the day before, we thought – and they hadn’t been messing around.

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This slope is steeper than it looks, and somebody was herringboning up it on skate skis – which means they were probably out here just for the day. That’s motoring. We, on the other hand, took it nice and easy and enjoyed the views on our way up:

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Darwin Bench was mighty nice – I’ve got to get there in the summer sometime:

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Only issue was the wind. By now it wasn’t just breezy – it was howling. The crust showed no signs of softening and we kept walking. Skins would be way slow on that almost flat terrain, and scales would slip around too much on the icy crust. As we worked our way up past the lakes in Darwin Canyon, we were thinking,”if it’s like this here what is it going to be like up there on the climb to Lamarck Col?”. The blue skies we awoke to were turning grey. Weather was obviously moving in, the only question was what kind of storm – just wind or what. We debated whether we should camp here and wait it out, or push on. Would it be too hairy on that slope in this wind? We decided to push on. If something big moved in I didn’t want to be on this side of the col.
The ascent turned out to be tough but possible. The wind was fierce – we couldn’t move during the gusts, we had to be either braced against a rock or have both poles dug in and be leaning on them. Fortunately there was a pattern; a lull that would allow us to move for a few minutes, then we could hear the next gust coming so we had time to brace for it and turn our backs into it. It was quite regular and extremely loud. The wind carried sand and ice particles with it so it was not something you wanted to face into. It blew mostly straight across the slope as we angled up. I was almost blown off the slope once, and found myself powered by adrenaline and anger as I moved faster than I ever have at 12,000 feet to reach the next boulder and a secure spot. Whiteout was blown down once, fortunately amongst the rocks where a fall was abrasive but a long slide was not going to happen. Near the top we once again saw the herringbone tracks of the athlete. Conditions had obviously been better that day.
Near the top a rib of rock gave us enough shelter from the sand-blasting to snap a photo looking back down:

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(Should have shot video to get a feel for the wind) and for Whiteout to get a shot of me:

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It was a considerable relief to reach the col. I looked around for the sign I’d seen in so many photos but didn’t see it. I’m guessing our notch was not the one with the sign – there are several notches. The wind came through the notch with tremendous force. I felt as though if I just jumped up in the air a little I’d get blown all the way to bishop. Four points of contact were essential – no way you could stand during the gusts. I arrived first, dropped through the notch slightly to get a little shelter, and waited for Whiteout. Here he is topping out on all fours:

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I had to shoot that lying down on the rocks, as I couldn’t hold the camera still even in a kneeling position. I crawled back up so whiteout could get a shot of me in the notch:

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And then we dropped though to the other side. The wind abated considerably as soon as we got down just a few yards. It was merely very windy here, which seemed like a peaceful stillness to us at this point. And we were well and truly over the top now, it really was all downhill from here. But the snow was still too funky to be worth skiing, so we walked on. A look back up to the col; pretty sure we came through the notch just right of center:

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On and down we went. We were beat from struggling to stand against the wind on the way up to the Col, but we had no interest in camping anywhere above the treeline due to the wind. So we plodded on until we were down to Grass Lake:

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Where we camped on dirt for the only time on this trip. During the night the winds picked up and the trees were making a lot of noise. It woke me several times and I wondered what it must be like at the crest. Grass Lake is down in a pretty deep canyon and about 3,000 feet lower than the Col – it had to be blowing harder up there than at the lake, and probably a lot harder. Probably even harder than what we had been through. I was damn glad to not be up there.

Day 9 – The wind calmed down by the morning. It was all walking now, as the snow was discontinuous from here on. Whiteout was not feeling well, but we were still both very happy to reach the trailhead sign, as this seemed like the point of completion:

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We had skied across the Sierra. We still had to walk a couple miles of road to get to where we would be picked up, but that was just a formality. Soon we met some fishermen at North Lake, and enjoyed the rather confused and incredulous looks that greeted our responses to ”Where did you guys come from?”



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paul
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Re: TR: 2011 Trans-Sierra ski - and prayer for snow

Postby DAVELA » Sat Jan 04, 2014 7:29 pm

jealous....
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Re: TR: 2011 Trans-Sierra ski - and prayer for snow

Postby hikerdmb » Sat Jan 04, 2014 11:07 pm

Awesome! Incredible journey! Thanks for sharing.
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Re: TR: 2011 Trans-Sierra ski - and prayer for snow

Postby afahrland » Sat Jan 04, 2014 11:50 pm

I really enjoyed this, thanks! I'd like to get out for a long snow trip this winter, so this is inspiring. What kind of skis were you guys using? Any problems with avalanche danger while you were out there?
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Re: TR: 2011 Trans-Sierra ski - and prayer for snow

Postby kpeter » Sun Jan 05, 2014 10:37 am

A wonderful adventure story. I got out the maps and followed you along. Thank you for sharing!

And yes, I have grown very concerned about yet another dry winter.
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Re: TR: 2011 Trans-Sierra ski - and prayer for snow

Postby texan » Sun Jan 05, 2014 6:08 pm

Thanks for sharing your TR. I hope we get some snow soon. We need it!!!!

Texan
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Re: TR: 2011 Trans-Sierra ski - and prayer for snow

Postby RichardCullip » Sun Jan 05, 2014 9:33 pm

Wow!
Life is good. Eternal Life is better!

Richard
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TR: 2011 Trans-Sierra ski - and prayer for snow

Postby Bluewater » Sun Jan 05, 2014 11:00 pm

This is awesome! Thanks for putting it all together. I took the route through Darwin Canyon and over Lamarck Col on snowshoes last winter, but without the winds that you experienced. The backcountry really feels "out there" in the snow.


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Re: TR: 2011 Trans-Sierra ski - and prayer for snow

Postby paul » Tue Jan 07, 2014 12:07 pm

afahrland wrote: What kind of skis were you guys using? Any problems with avalanche danger while you were out there?


We were both on waxless metal-edged skis - mine Atomic Rainiers, Whiteout's Fischer Outtabounds - both what you'd call XCD or backcountry touring skis.

At that time of year the snowpack is pretty stable and the main avalanche risk is afternoon wet slides, which we saw some evidence of but never had any issues.
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