Heading South: Six Days in the High Sierra

Just before leaving for Shuksan I got a phone call from a mentor, friend, and old employer - SP at Sierra Mountain Center.  Would I be interested in flying down and join him and clients for a six-day tour in the Sierra Nevada?  With a forecast of high freezing levels and low rain in the Cascades, heading down to sunny California had a very, very real appeal.  One week later I was lugging a ski bag stuffed with 47 lbs of gear onto a Seattle city bus, then a train, and finally checked in for my flights to Mammoth Lakes.

The tour started in Onion Valley, and within a few hours we were on top of Kearsarge Pass.  A long traversing descent reached our first night's camp at Bullfrog Lake.

Getting set at the Kearsarge Pass trailhead in Onion Valley, near Independence, California.

Chrix took a very aggressive approach to sun protection.  Underneath that mask is three layers of sunscreeen.  Seriously.

Photo | Chris Simmons

Looking west over Kearsarge Pass.

Camp at Bullfrog Lake.

John points out where we're heading tomorrow.

john joins me for soup, our first course for dinner in our open-air kitchen.

Dan enjoys a hot tea and sunset before bed.

In the morning we contoured north above Charlotte Lake to Glen Pass, then headed west over three additional saddles to reach Gardiner Basin.

Getting packed in the morning on Day 2.

Leaving camp to climb northwards.

The view from Glen Pass down into 60 Lakes Basin.

A little bit of ridge hiking was needed to reach the best skiing.

Skiing the north slopes of Glen Pass.  From here we crossed three 500-700 foot saddles to reach Gardiner Basin.  Photo | Chris Simmons

Two saddles down, one more to go.  Pascal and John are ready to reach camp .

After 8:30 hours on the move, we found dinner and camp on a lateral moraine in Gardiner Basin.

The weather started to deteriorate after dinner, so we set up the cook tent.  Photo | Chris Simmons.

Our plan was to base camp in the basin and summit Mt Gardiner and Mt Cotter, and ski the numerous slopes in the basin.  But weather moved in that first night, the clouds wrapped around our 11,000' camp and pinned us for the next two days.  The occasional "sucker holes" gave us tantalizing peeks of the slopes and summits nearby that we were being denied by poor light and wet snow.

We woke up in the morning to snow.  It would drop 10" in 48 hours.

We were able to carry less fuel by camping near lakes and chopping holes in the ice.

We all barely fit in the cook tent.  After each meal, we took some time to improve the tent by digging out the floor into benches and a center table.  By the end of our stay we could sit in here comfortably for hours.

On the second day of the store (Day Four of the trip), a brief period of "sucker holes" gave us a beautiful glimpse of the basin.  The weather socked back in for the rest of the day.

The weather started to clear just as we went to bed.  Later that night the stars and moon came out in full strength.

Finally the we woke up to clear skies, but it was time to start heading back to the cars.  So we took some time to ski the northeast slopes of Mt Gardiner, leaving the summit for another trip.  Then three of us headed for our next camp in the Rae Lakes while the remaining four climbed up to the false summit of Mt Cotter and skied the Southeast Face, rejoined the first group's tracks, and joined them for dinner.

Clear weather dawned on Day 5.

Mt Clarence King, North Cotter Peak, and Mt Cotter stood to the north of camp.  Photo | Chris Simmons

Sometimes a skin track can be a beautiful thing, watching it arc up towards a target.  Photo | Chris Simmons

Pascal and Rob at our high point on the NE slope of Mt Gardiner.

Photo | Chris Simmons

Dan clearly did not like the ski.  Photo | Chris Simmons

Later on, we enjoyed the view of our ski tracks from the Gardiner-Cotter Saddle.  Photo | Chris Simmons

Pascal, Chrix, Dan and I continued to climb to the top of Mt Cotter's SE slope for a second descent.

Pascal topping out on the SE slope, our high point on Mt Cotter.  Photo | Chris Simmons

Shadow summit moment.  Photo | Chris Simmons

(L-R) Me, Dan, Pascal, Chrix.  Mt Cotter.  Photo | Chris Simmons

One last look at our ski tracks on Mt Gardiner.  Photo | Chris Simmons

Our ski tracks are a scribble running from the top of the snowfield and down and lookers left.

Our climb out through 60 Lakes Basin led us past the Finn.

We followed SP, John, and Rob's tracks past Finn saddle and down to the Rae Lakes, and underneath the Painted Lady Mountain.

Rae Lakes Camp on Day 5.

In the morning it was time to go home.  But instead of re-tracing our route, we aimed further north to the next pass that crosses the crest, the North Dragon Pass.  Gaining the initial saddle was straight forward, but a ridge traverse mandated a roped, belayed lower.  After getting all seven of us through that, we were stumped again when the couloir on the other side of the pass required a sramble down and a second roped, belayed lower.  Hours later we finally regrouped in the Golden Lake Basin and an hour later we were back at the cars.  Beers were waiting!

North Dragon Pass reaches the low point, then the sky-line right to immediately before the citadel shape of the Dragon Tooth to the right of the photo.

Our first roped step on the pass ridge.  Since we could only negotiate these steps one at a time, it took us two hours to get past this obstacle.

The second roped step to reach the exit couloir.

The exit couloir from North Dragon Pass.  We were able to follow a descending broad ledge to a short roped step that accessed the snow.  I'm in this photo just underneath the left-hand buttress.

Statistics:  Sierra Mountain Center, Clarence King and Gardiner Basin Tour, 6-11 May 2011.  21 miles, 11,000 feet climbed, 10,100 feet descended.

Photo credits:  All photos, except where noted, are from the Dan Silverberg Collection and used with permission.  Thanks Dan!