The High Sierra Route is one of the classic ski tours of North America. Crossing at the widest and highest part of the range, this route runs through some of the wildest country in California. Then to top it off, Sierra Mountain Center charters a plane from Fresno or Visalia back to Independence, flying over the very mountains and passes teams spend seven days laboriously crossing.
To start the trip off right, I volunteered to do something I’ve always wanted – to ski the High Route, solo, at a quick pace. You can read about my two and a half-day tour on my personal blog, Climb. Ski. Run. Sleep. Repeat. With that experience tucked under my hat, and a day off to do laundry and repack, Eric and I were ready for anything.
We met Serge, Julian, Afra, and Chris at the Independence Airport on Monday, 5 May. After a thorough gear check we were ready to go. I mean, really, do you need four shirts for a seven day ski tour? Do you really need a clean shirt for the flight back across when you’ll be surrounded by five other unwashed bodies? Who wants to carry a gallon’s worth of Nalgene bottles on a ski tour anyways?
Our High Route is the “extended” version – we start in Onion Valley instead of Symmes Creek, crossing Kearsarge Pass, traveling up the Vidette Creek, and then crossing the double passes of Deerhorn Saddle and Ericson Pass before rejoining the classic High Route. The weather was unsettled, giving us wind, low clouds, snow, blue sky, and sun. We only had to hike a short distance up towards Kearsarge Pass before we could put on our skis, and made good time up and over where we encountered our trip’s nemesis: fins of snow up to two feet tall, called “penitentes” or locally, “shark fins”. Still, we reached Bullfrog Lake in good time, and had our first campsite on its eastern shore.
After a short ski descent the next day, we had to carry our skis down about 800 feet of elevation to Bubs Creek. The entire descent – which faced south – had completely melted out, making for an easy hike along the trail. At Bubs Creek we were able to put our skis on and start climbing up the Vidette Creek Basin because it faced north, and we set up camp at the last flat spot under Deerhorn Saddle, our task for the next morning. Weather came back in that evening and we were intermittently snowed on until it cleared around midnight.
Wednesday morning was clear and calm, but the narrow basin with East Vidette Peak blocked the sun until late in the morning. The last 300 feet to Deerhorn Saddle was a scramble up talus and sand, and the descent along the back was simply plunge stepping down to a lake 600 feet below.
Almost immediately we were faced with the long, wide double-saddle that separated Mount Stanford from Mount Ericson. On our left was Harrison Pass, which we dismissed due to the long, steep, unprotectable snow chute. But on the right was Ericson Pass. I found a route up the steepening snowfields and a final 3rd class rock step, while Eric provided a belay over the final step for each of the skiers. Crossing Deerhorn Saddle and Ericson Pass took us until early afternoon, allowing the sun to warm the slopes below Ericson for a wonderful ski. We skied down through graben and horst until we reached Milestone Creek, the point where we joined the regular High Route, climbed a few hundred feet, and set up a late camp on a beautiful bench under old trees, sure to catch the early sun the next morning.
Milestone Pass was melted out similarly to Deerhorn Saddle, so after a long climb up the Milestone Basin we strapped skis onto our packs and crossed talus to the right side of Milestone Pass, where a quick scramble led us down to a perfect lunch rock and sun-kissed snow slopes down Milestone Bowl. Another long ski descent led to another short climb up a nameless pass. A small hanging lake waited immediately on the other side, and we set up camp for another night there.
Friday, 9 May, began my favorite day of the High Route, which I nicknamed Three Passes Day. First we skied down and then climbed up the Triple Divide Pass. Next we descended down to Glacier Lake and then climbed up and over Copper Mine Pass. Another long, traversing descent across a huge open bowl lead us to a twenty minute climb up to Horn Col, with a final ski descent to the massive flat rock bench camp. We knew the trip was coming to an end, so we stayed up late huddled in our sleeping bags and drinking the last of the brandy.
The next morning lead to another ski descent and climb to Pterodactyl Pass before crossing into the Tablelands. A long ski descent through the Tablelands, down into, Table Meadows, and along the Kaweah River led to the Pear Lake Ranger Station, and to our last night’s camp near Lake Aster.
On the final morning, Sunday 11 May, we got an early start and began the climb up past Heather Lake to Right Pass. A final ski descent through mature second growth forest led us all the way to Panther Creek before bare conditions encouraged us to take of the skis for the last time and hike down another 30 minutes to the waiting shuttle.
From the trailhead we began to part company. Eric, Afra, Chris, Julian, and Serge road in a shuttle van to Fresno, where a chartered aircraft waited to fly them back to Independence and give them a bird-eye’s view of what we spent the last week skiing. I was getting in my car and driving back to my home in the Bay. After a celebratory beer we said our goodbyes.
Statistics: The High Route (Kearsarge Variation). 37 miles, 12,800 feet elevation gained, 14,700 feet elevation descended.
Photos #1, 2, and 4 are (c) 2008 Serge Dubovitsky. Photo #3 is (c)2008 Julian Pridemore-Brown. All photos used with permission.
Chris Simmons is a Ski, Alpine, and Rock Guide for SMC. More about his guiding and adventures can be found at his personal blog, Climb. Ski. Run. Sleep. Repeat.