Archive for the '03 Backcountry Skiing' Category

Come ski with me at Alpine Meadows!


This winter marks a new step for me, and a tremendous opportunity for all of you. I’ve been hired by Alpine Meadows Ski Area in North Lake Tahoe, California, to be an “Alpine Ski Guide.” In the footsteps of Jackson Hole and Kirkwood, Alpine Meadows is starting a front- and side-country ski guide service for its guests.

Alpine Meadows was just listed as one of the 100 best backcountry resorts in the November issue of Backcountry magazine. Fat skis and randonee bindings are as common as not on the lift lines. And the backcountry skiing is impressive on all four sides of the area, especially the terrain to the south and west at Alpine and to the west and north at its sister resort, Homewood.

For my clients, this means they have a great opportunity to be introduced into backcountry skiing the most gentle way possible – by riding a chair up most of the elevation gain! We’ll also be able to ski in-bounds when the avalanche conditions close down the OB, or when someone needs to warm up before heading out. But this is California, one of the sunniest (and stable-est) places to ski!

Like the Ski Guide Services at Jackson Hole and Kirkwood, Alpine’s is starting from within the Ski School, and so days that I’m not requested to guide I’ll be teaching adult skiing classes and working on my Professional Ski Instructors of America Certifications. I’ll also be teaching AIARE Level I Avalanche classes with several local providers.

For rates, take a look at the Ski School page on Alpine Meadow’s website. If you’re surfing the Alpine Meadows website, the rates are listed on the same page as the private lessons. I want to point out that the rate is flat – up to 5 people can hire a guide and split the full-day rate 5 ways!

Come Ski with me at Alpine Meadows!!

I found out in September. I’m the newest and first “Alpine Ski Guide” at Alpine Meadows Ski Area in North Lake Tahoe, California. In the footsteps of Jackson Hole and Kirkwood, Alpine Meadows is starting a front- and side-country ski guide service for its guests.
A lot of my Lake Tahoe acquaintances have called Alpine Meadows, “Squaw Valley’s backcountry.” Fat skis and randonee bindings are as common as not on the lift lines. And the backcountry skiing is impressive on all four sides of the area, especially the terrain between Alpine and its sister resort, Homewood. In fact I just spent two hours today planning a 13-mile Alpine-Homewood ski tour, which will include ascents and descents of Twin Peaks (8880′) and Ellis Peak (8740′).
For my clients, this means they have a great opportunity to be introduced into backcountry skiing the most gentle way possible – by riding a chair up most of the elevation gain! We’ll also be able to ski in-bounds when the avalanche conditions close down the OB. But this is California, one of the sunniest (and stable-est) places to ski!
Like the Ski Guide Services at Jackson Hole and Kirkwood, Alpine’s is starting from within the Ski School, and so days that I’m not requested to guide I’ll be teaching adult skiing classes and working on my PSIA Level I and Level II Certifications. Backcountry Ski Camps and AIARE Level I Avalanche Awareness classes are also in the works. Keep an eye on this blog and Alpine Meadows’ website for more information as the fall crawls on. Alpine Meadows expects to be open by 26 November.

Yosemite High Tour, 11-15 April 2008

Bob, Charlie, Curt, Jon, and Phil joined SP and I for one of the classic tours of the Eastern Sierra, the Yosemite High Tour from Mammoth Mountain to Tioga Pass. After a breakfast meeting in Mammoth Lakes, we drove up to the ski area to get started on Friday, 11 April.

After a long descent to Agnew Meadows, we said goodbye to the snow-covered Minaret Summit Road and continued down to our first camp near Olaine Lake. We discovered fresh bear tracks moving ahead of us, and hung our food that night.

The next morning we had to pioneer a new variation along the west side of the valley. Strong wind events and warm temperatures had stripped the eastern slopes completely bare of snow. There was simply no way to follow the typical route across that side of the valley. With a couple of turns we found a bench system that traveled above the deep ravine and below the granite cliff band, which lead to the beautiful open bowls below Garnet Lake. After skiing past the Badger Lakes, we eventually made camp at the end of Thousand Island Lake, and watched the sunset behind Ritter, Banner, and Davis.

On Sunday we climbed up over Island Pass and had our first real ski descent down to Waugh Lake. After that experience we climbed again steadily, stopping for lunch, until we reached the highest of the Lost Lakes, were we camped again. In anticipation of the next day’s work, I skinned up to Lost Lakes Pass to kick in a track.

The morning of 14 April was windy and cold, and despite my work the evening before the track was firm and icy, causing several to slip back down the slope until SP chopped a bigger track with his ice axe.

The traverse from Lost Lakes Pass to the Kuna Connection is a muffled blur of wind and sun and cold in my memories. We were all wearing every possible layer to keep warm against the icy hand of the wind. Once we gained the saddle of the Kuna Connection, the only point possible to cross the Kuna Crest, the day’s wind and cold temperatures had kept the steep snow on the far side from softening and prevented us from skiing down. Instead SP and I short roped and set one fixed line to get all of us down to a lower angled slope where we put on our skis for a long, long, low descent into Parker Creek, Dana Meadows, and Tioga Pass. The last day we finished the ski descent until the Ellery Lake dam, where zealous road crews had plowed the road open. So we put skis on our packs and started the final hike down the road to Lee Vining.

It was a great tour that emphasized the travel over the descent. We traveled along the northern spine of the High Sierra, and finished good friends.

Cheers.

Chris

Statistics: Yosemite High Tour. 37 miles traveled, 6500 feet elevation climbed, 8000 feet elevation descended.

Beneath the Palisades, 16-20 April 2008

David, Danny, and Mike joined SP to ski the “Beneath the Palisades” Tour, which follows the Palisade Range along its western slopes from South Lake to Taboose Pass. Eric and I joined too in order to experience a ski tour that we hadn’t had time for yet, and now we’re both looking forward to doing again next year!

The whole group met at Sierra Mountain Center’s international operations office in the heart of downtown Bishop to have breakfast at Jack’s and a gear check. Then our Operation Director Connie and her husband Mo helped us shuttle up to the end of the South Lake open road, which was still being plowed open. We spent our first night at Saddlebag Lake, just below Bishop Pass.

In the morning we crossed Bishop Pass, traversed across the top of Dusy Basin, and then crossed Thunderbolt Col. This is also the route we travel to gain the western routes on the Palisade Range, so I was traveling over familiar terrain. But 45 minutes later we had crossed the Palisade Basin to Potluck Pass and encountered a whole new world. The descent to the un-named lake below Potluck Pass involved a little bit of route finding and careful skiing, but was uneventful and fun.

On Day Three we got up and immediately climbed up to the low point of Chimney Pass, where a very careful descent negotiated hidden rock bands and a “wave” of moats. Another week and parts of this slope probably weren’t skiable. A descent to Palisade Lakes allowed us to skate-ski across in less than 15 minutes, and then led to a long, long, long climb to Mather Pass, where Danny found the tracks of a black bear, perhaps three days old. Another thoughtful descent – requiring a careful traverse to reach skiable slopes – led us to Upper Basin. We continued to descend a little a bench of small lakes right at tree-line.

The next morning Eric, Danny, Mike and I took advantage of a “free” day to take a day tour into the basin under the North Face of the Veneecher Needle. Unfortunately winds and cold temps kept the snow from really softening up, even on the south-facing slopes, so after a couple of runs we returned to camp, catching one last lap with Mark on the headwall above the lake, before calling it a day.

On the last day we descended from Upper Basin to Taboose Pass, and along the way we discovered an old pack, loaded with dated equipment, hanging bear-proof style in the trees. How eerie. We climbed into the wind on Taboose Pass, dropped over the other side quickly, and skied the first 2000 feet before bare earth forced us to strap our skis onto our packs and hoof it down the trail. Connie and Mo were waiting for us at the trailhead with cold beers, fresh fruit, and a ride back to Bishop. Another great trip.

Cheers

Chris

Statistics: Beneath The Palisades Tour. 26 miles, 6400 feet elevation gained, 10,800 feet elevation descended.

Sierra High Route (Kearsarge Extension), 5-11 May 2008

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.

Cheers

Chris

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.

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.

West Palisades High Tour, 16-20 April


SP Parker and I immediately turned around from the Mammoth-Tioga Ski Tour to join Eric Owen and three clients on the West Palisades High Tour, which runs from South Lake to Taboose Pass. Another photo essay.







Statistics: South Lake to Taboose Pass Trailhead via Bishop Pass, Thunderbolt Col, Potluck Pass, Chimney Pass, Mather Pass and Taboose Pass. Detour ski into Veneecher Needle North Bowl. 32 miles, 8470 feet elevation gained, 12480 feet elevation descended. Maximum slope angle 35+ degrees (on Potluck and Chimney Passes).