Sierra High Route, Part 2

We woke up to clear, calm, oh-so-Sierra blue skies on Wednesday, 12 May (Day 4).  Finally it looked like we were going to have the classic spring weather that the Sierra Nevada was famous for.

In no time we were packed up and following Milestone Creek up towards its namesake Mountain.  Unless the map is watched carefully, the obvious saddle between Milestone and Midway Mountains would appear to the logical route.  But instead we carefully curled underneath Milestone Mountain toward the next pass south, also named after the Mountain.  Steep, icy slopes just short of the pass mandated the use of ski crampons - making everyone happy that I had insisted on bringing them.  Milestone Pass is not so much a pass as it is a narrow notch in an otherwise steep and rocky ridge splitting Milestone Mountain from Peak 4129m.  The ski descent - right out of the notch - featured some great turns, a long traverse, a few more great turns, and another long traverse before we had to stop and slap the skins back on.

Up until now, all our days featured a climb, a pass/saddle/col, and then a descent to camp.  Today was an up-down-up day.  A final 600-700' climb over a steep, short couloir, to Col 12020, kept us from our final camp on the shores of Lake 11870.  The skinning conditions were perfect - just soft enough to give a great platform on the steepening slope, but not so mushy that it slid or made us wallow.  I aimed to kick in a traversing line that gained as much elevation as possible.  Instead of trying to make a kick turn on the steep slope, I stomped out a big platform, helped Michael and Jeff take their skis off, and we kicked up the final 50 feet to the Col.  We didn't even bother to take the skins off for the 150-feet descent to camp.

Day 5, otherwise known as Thursday, 13 May, was the down-up-over-down-up-over-down-up-over-down day.  Michael, as he looked across the second over, said that today was "very Haute Route," a reference to the most classic of all ski tours in the world.  We crossed three passes, but first we made a quick descent from camp before climbing up to Triple Divide Pass (12220 ft).  We then had a great ski descent, with a little techy-side-slip entry before making turns down to Glacier Lake.  A few more turns lower to get around a rock buttress, it was time for a long climb up to Copper Mine Pass (11980 ft).  But only a few minutes into the skin, I noticed a huge cornice blocking the normal crossing, and a low, flat, slogging traverse in the incredible microwave that was Cloud Canyon was not appealing.  So we made a strong 30 minute climb, stripped the skins, and managed to slide all the way to the far right side (north-most) of the pass.  A great skin with four kick turns gained the ridge.

Clouds were starting to gather around our next objective, so we wasted no time getting set to ski.  We were heading for one of the most picturesque passes on the tour, Fin Pass (or Horn Col).  Looking across the expansive bowl at the top of Deadman Canyon prompted Michael's Haute Route comparison.  And for certain, we were able to make a h-u-g-e, descending traverse across the bowl down to 11400 feet elevation, watching the clouds pour over the ridges from the west.  We had a late lunch then headed out before the weather got bad.


Too late.

Thunder echoed between the ridges as I said "Sh*%!", turned around, and ski-skinned back to the lunch break site.  The risk of getting popped by lightning kept us from climbing the last 600 feet over the final pass of the day.  But the heavy snow falling meant we couldn't just sit out and wait for the storm to pass.  And the buzzing and little static shocks my head was getting meant that we couldn't just stand around and do nothing.  So we started digging into the mountain for safety.  In the ski guide exams, we had what, 30, 45 minutes to do this?  It didn't feel like we had 30 minutes to hang out.  After 15 minutes I said enough and we crammed the four of us and our backpacks into a shelter that could fit two comfortably.  A little humor and the knowledge that we were only going to wait 30 minutes after the last thunder-clap made it bearable.  Even when a final, distant, "crack" was heard 15 minutes into the wait.

I gophered out the hole after crouching down 45 minutes earlier, watching for the lightning strike to snag me in its talons.  When nothing went "buzz", I stood up.  Then I raised my hand.  Finally I grabbed a ski pole and poked it up into the clouds oh-so-please-don't-slap-me slowly.  Still nothing.  OK, we're out of here.

Michael and Jeff commented later that the next 600 feet of climbing demonstrated what I meant by "getting serious."  I don't remember saying that, but OK.  It was true.  My biggest fear was that another thunder cloud was going to come when we were near or on the pass, so I picked a stiff pace and we went.  We reached the pass, stuffed the skins in or jackets, and skied down in flat light and limited visibility to the granite benches alongside Lonely Lake.  It started to snow again, but at least it wasn't buzzing anymore.  While Aaron and I cooked dinner, Michael and Jeff skied a couple of short laps on the hillside above camp in the snow, finishing just in time for dinner.

And as we ate, the weather suddenly stopped, the clouds lifted, and the sun came out.  Just as quickly as it had arrived, the storm was gone.  Michael and Jeff were right - just as the earlier lightning and thunder were too dangerous to keep skiing, now it was too good not to go skiing.  So we headed up the hillside for a quick descent down to Lonely Lake, returned to camp, then raced the sunset for a quick climb of Peak 11600.  We scrambled onto the rocky summit just minutes before the sun set, and go to ski fresh powder down the SW slopes to camp.

The early sun reached us quickly in the morning (Day 6, Friday, 14 May), and we packed up and set off for "Big Bird Mountain" (Peak 11620).  The broad east ridge lead to a sharp notch and the final summit.  It was Michael's birthday, and his present was a fantastic view, all the way to Milestone Peak to the east, Whitney to the south-east, and the Kaweah's to the south.  After a long visit on the summit, we finally headed out, skiing the West Face and traversing into the Tablelands.  A quick 300' climb gave us the elevation we needed to traverse across the flats to the headwaters of the Kaweah River, and we were able to ski down the valley in a long traverse to Pear Lake Ranger Station.

Our normal itinerary is to camp at or near the log and stone cabin, but it was only 12:30pm!  We ate lunch while we discussed what to do.  The texture of the snow told us that we had passed the freezing line just a few hundred feet above the cabin, meaning any weather we received was likely to be rain.  And dark clouds were building again, threatening to do something (it tried to rain, but never really happened).  We decided as a group that rather than be wet and having to ski in the morning, we'd rather be wet and drinking coffee at the trailhead.  So away we went!  Another hour of moderate climbing gained our last pass of the trip, Heather Gap, and our final descent featured skiing through glades and open trees, and some weaving at the bottom, until we arrived at Wolverton.  Unfortunately SP wouldn't be here until the morning, so we found some bare ground under the trees to bivy and cooked dinner.

Statistics:  The Sierra High Route, Part 2.  3 more days, from 12-14 May (15 May to include pickup), up and over Milestone Pass, Col Triple Divide Pass, Copper Mine Pass, Fin Pass (or Horn Col), Tablelands Gap, and Heather Gap.

More photos, with captions and credits, are on my Picasa account at http://picasaweb.google.com/mtnfreak/20100509SkiSMCSierraHighRoute#.  Or press play on the slide show below!