Sierra High Route Solo, 1-3 May

I’ve always wanted to do the big tours and traverses solo and as quick as I liked. I’m not into setting any speed records; I simply want to experience the feeling of going fast, all day, every day, for days on end. So when my boss asked me if I was interested in skiing the Sierra High Route before guiding it, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to do something new.

As the start date came nearer, plans changed and the trip grew. I eventually planned to ski the Kearsarge Extension, and budgeted three days.

I left my house early on the morning of the first of May, and after a sunrise drive arrived at the defunct Wolverton Ski Area. Change clothes, a final mug of espresso, and I was on my way at noon.

I was able to put on my skis only 15 minutes after leaving the car, and steadily climbed up Panther Creek and on towards Right Pass. My friends had said to follow the ski markers, but which ones? They were everywhere! I saw yellow diamonds, yellow squares, and yellow or blue triangles. Eventually I gave up and just continued to follow the terrain, first skiing down to Heather Lake and traversing to the Pear Lake Ranger Station, then climbing up to the Table Meadows. I was in complete awe of the rock and snow lines in the basins around Pear and Emerald Lakes, and made a promise to come back next winter to stay at the Ranger Station. Simply amazing terrain. I finally reached the Tablelands at 7:30pm and decided to turn in for the night. As I cooked dinner I looked over the maps and my route plan with trepidation. I had a long way to go and only two more days to get there. My GPS said that sunrise was at 6:00am, so I set my alarm for 5:30am and quickly fell asleep.

The pre-dawn light woke me at 5:15am, and I cursed when I realized I could be skiing already. I was on the go by 6:30am, and made quick work crossing Pterodactyl Pass and dropping toward The Finn. Another short climb gained Horn Col, and on the far side I skied down 1000 feet into the bowl before slapping on skins and climbing back out to Copper Mine Pass. On the far side of Copper Mine Pass I was able to make good time skiing a descending traverse across the bowl to Glacier Lake, and another climb gained Triple Divide Pass. Another descending ski traverse, more aggressive this time, and a short climb led to Lost Lake and Lost Pass, only 30m higher, and a longer descent into the bottom of Milestone Bowl. In my mind it was crucial to get up and over Milestone Pass today if I wanted to ski the whole extended route and not bail early out through Shepherd Pass. I climbed quickly up Milestone Pass and made my first route finding mistake – I was on the far east side of the pass, the lowest point, looking down an 80-foot cliff to the basin below. I lost 30, 45 minutes climbing down, across, and back up to the proper point to cross through Milestone Pass. All day, I watched clouds grow to the north, and now as I looked out towards the White Mountains for the first time, they were covered by a dark, mean, angry wall of clouds that seemed to be reaching out to me. I wanted down. Now. As I put my skis back on, I also strapped my headlamp to my head and turned on my GPS before putting it in my jacket. 30 minutes later I needed both, and spent another 30 minutes skiing in the dark, following my GPS directions, until I finally reached a point that I was satisfied was low enough into the tree line to protect me from the trees, and far enough for the day. The starts were being blanketed by the clouds that worried me, so I rigged my bivy sack and decided, If the weather is crapped-out in the morning, I bail to Shepherds Pass. Otherwise, I continue on.

I woke up at 4:30am to clear skies and was climbing up towards Ericson Pass at 5:45am. The country at the top of the Kern River is called graben and horst, almost flat terrain that a glacier had carved into short benches. Water came after the glacier to form strings of lakes along the benches, and carve mazes of ravines down from one bench to the next. If you tried to stay on the horst, or hill-tops, your route was threatened to be stopped by sudden cliff-drops; if you followed the graben you risked bottlenecks where the streams kept the snow melted back and stopped any traffic. So it was a real pleasure to string my way though this landscape, guided by the notes that a friend had given me, until I reached the upper bowl beneath Ericson Pass.

Ericson Pass is actually two passes, with Ericson Pass on the west side of a broad saddle and Harrison Pass on the east. In my direction Harrison would have been the better ski descent, but I needed to see Ericson Pass for the trip I was guiding in two days, so I swallowed the pill and took the less appealing line. A short down-climb led to a steep ski to the small lake separating Ericson Pass from Deerhorn Saddle, but the technical cruxes were over. I only needed to climb to the top of Deerhorn Saddle to have a long ski, and mellow climb, and another long ski.

What a fool I am.

Deerhorn Saddle was completely melted out, so I was forced to hike down 300 feet to snow on the other side. Since Verdette Creek runs north-south, and is framed by the tall peaks of Stanford, Ericson, East Verdette and West Verdette, it gets very little sun and the snow remained very hard. So I skied in bone-jaring turns, feeling the mountains kick me in the kidneys, and descended as fast as I dared. When I reached the Verdette Lakes, I quickly skated across the ice. On the forth lake, really a pond, I looked around and thought, This ice looks a little too wet and blue to my liking. Then the ice gave way and I was in.

Shit. The shore was only 10 feet to my right, but I knew that these little glacier-carved lakes could quickly drop off in that distance. I sank in past my boot tops and kept sinking. Shit. The water was really slush, half-ice, and it took a few moments before my boots started to fill. Shit. The water was passing my knees, and I started struggling to reach the edge of the hole that had formed around me. Shit. I sank to mid-thigh just as I leaned over and got my arms and poles on the firmer ice.

Then I stopped sinking. Oh wow. Cold. A careful shuffling half-step to the right let me leaver my body out onto stronger ice. But I was still in the shade, cold, wet, and I still needed to get out. So I kept skiing.

In hindsight, I know I had grown too comfortable with the ice. I have a lot of sea-ice travel experience, and I’m comfortable moving about it. But this easily could have been much, much worse. I still skied across lakes – there were two more below this one and Bullfrog Lake a little further on. But I learned a valuable lesson about judging each lake separately.

A little further and I came across my first recent ski tracks. Someone was climbing up Verdette Creek, and had followed the east side of the valley while I was skiing down the west. I must have just missed them.

I continued to ski down to Bubs Creek, looking across at the bare brown wall that I knew lead up to Bullfrog Lake. I took a moment to wring the water out of my socks and liners before strapping my skis to my pack and following the bare trail up the 800 feet before skating across Bullfrog Lake towards Kearsarge Pass.

Kearsarge Pass was melted out too, and I was just able to ski the first bowl before it grew too dark. From there I decided to carry my skies and walk down the remaining distance – which ended up to be half snow half bare. The snow was pretty hard anyways, so I didn’t really care about skiing. I followed boot tracks, snowshoe tracks, and ski tracks, and the trail when I found it. At 9:30pm I tried calling my friend Eric, but my call kept getting dropped while it was still ringing. Maybe Eric would notice that he missed a call from me. I finally reached the trail head at 10:00pm, and resigned myself to sleeping at the trailhead for the night. I had a used tea hot-drink for dinner.

In the morning I was able to walk 500 feet down the road and get a reliable cell phone call for my ride. Connie showed up a few hours later with coffee and a cinnamon roll to take me home.

Statistics: Sierra High Route (Kearsarge Variation), West to East. Day One; 8 miles, 4480 feet elevation gained, 950 feet elevation descended. Day Two; 16 miles, 6010 feet elevation gained, 6050 feet elevation descended. Day Three; 17 miles, 5190 feet elevation gained, 6800 feet elevation descended. Total; 41 miles, 15,744 feet elevation gained, 13,870 feet elevation descended.

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