Skiing in the Range of Light
I always tell people that the Sierra is my second favorite mountain range, behind, of course, the Cascades. Back during July 2018, Kylie and I spent a whole month up and down the Eastern Sierra, climbing, hiking, and backpacking. At the end of our two week Sierra High Route, I felt transformed. The magic of that experience, so challenging and rewarding, shaped who I am today. I still get teary eyed today when I tell stories from that trip. A part of my heart will always be in the Sierra, the magical “Range of Light”.
I have been wanting to return to the Sierra, but not in the same way. I was intrigued by skiing as a new way to experience the range. So I jumped at the opportunity to go ski with my friend, the stoke-master himself, John “Big Booty” Berude. John is a rare Washington transplant in the Bay Area and had grown familiar with the High Sierra (and especially Lassen). I always jump on the opportunities to travel to a place with a local. It simplifies the logistics and ensures you will get the most knowledgable experience.
We originally planned for mid April, watching the snowpack throughout the winter. It dumped huge in December, then went silent for months. As April approached, the snowpack was thin, like 35% of normal. Most people thought I was crazy for going to the Sierra to ski with such a bad snowpack. But I “believed in the Booty” when John told me that there was still plenty of rad stuff to ski.
After my incredible Alaska trip, I immediately got COVID and actually got pretty sick. Combined with some finally stormy weather in the Sierra, we pushed back our trip to the last week of April. It was a good thing we pushed it back, as I would later discover how hard it is to come back so quickly from COVID.
We began our trip by trying to take advantage of north facing powder, as it had just dumped 1-2 feet of snow all the way to the valley. So we spent three days on the Sawtooth Traverse, skiing the Kettle, Hulk Left and Right, Matterhorn West and East, and Ski Dreams. It felt great to just jump into the mountains with an overnight trip and such beautiful lines. Although I had not been in this specific part of the Sierra before, beneath the towering granite faces and whitebark pines, I felt like I was back.
Going into the trip, it felt like I was 95% recovered from COVID. But once at altitude, I realized I was more like 50% recovered. I have never struggled for so many days at such relatively moderate altitudes (10k) as I did on this trip. In the past, I have gone from sea level to 11k with no problems. And never before have I got the dizziness, lethargy, and just utter exhaustion that I felt on this trip. Even after seven days, it was still plaguing me. I often had violent coughing induced by exercise. I had many other people reach out to me with similar experiences post COVID. Hopefully it gets better in the coming months.
For most of the rest of the trip, we were somewhat perplexed what to do with all the fresh snow. It seemed that every other day brought high winds and clouds, redistributing the snow and preventing any true corn cycle. We skied terrible snow on Esha Peak the next day and then acceptable snow in the Baldwin Cirque. All the while, I just cursed my choice of short 85 underfoot spring sticks. Unless it is true corn or firm conditions, having some extra width makes the skiing of mank and breakable crust much more enjoyable.
John is the stoke master. Nobody is more stoked than him about skiing. He has an engine that can churn long days back to back. He is the kind of guy who tours consecutive 10k ft days in powder. Once, he and Sofia even “Everested” in the backcountry (yes, 30k ft of gain without sleeping). He also has probably the lowest standards for skiing of anyone I have ever met. Incredible stoke, fitness, and dirt level standards make for one mad skiing machine, one that is hard to keep up with. In contrast, I was coming off COVID and a season where I barely toured because of other life obligations. I had to be clear about my limits from the start, pick and choose my times to push, and pace myself. I was nervous about letting him down. Ultimately, I think I held my own.
Good skiing is a state of mind.John 420:69
Part of resting and recovering was embracing that Eastside lifestyle. The Eastern Sierra is not just a place; it is a frame of mind. It means hot springs, open camps, and watching the light dance upon the hills. We definitely had some good time in the desert.
Admittedly, the snowpack was a bit thin. South of Mammoth Lakes, it grew real desperate. Most south facing lines were out. The classic quick hitter 5,000 ft corn runs above the highway were nowhere near in. On a fat year, I could see how the skiing would be just about infinite. It definitely limited our options and made us work a little harder for it.
All along, John’s big goal was to ski Ritter and Banner. He had done Ritter in one long day from Mammoth last spring, but wanted both this time. Originally, we planned a multi day trip in the area, but stormy weather and fatigue from the Sawtooth Traverse made us scrap that plan in favor of a giant single push.
After a rest day, we went all in and started shortly after 2 am from the June Lake area. 18 hours later we returned, having skied Ritter and Banner in a single push. This was a day that swung from its lows to highs. We both took our game to a different level to pull it off. 13k ft of gain, mostly above 10k, coupled with a ton of flat skinning, is no slouch. It hurt, I’m not going to lie. But these huge days are always worth it in the end. They change you. They move your own perception of your boundaries. They tap into a deep well of love for adventure in the mountains.
John and I woke up the next day feeling surprisingly okay, okay enough to muster a day at the newly opened Tioga Pass. If Tioga had not opened, I am not sure what we would have done. We ended up skiing the Dana Couloir and one line in Ellery Bowl, for more beautiful scenery and generally poor skiing.
We were grateful to Sofia for showing up the final weekend. She brought energy, the camp stove, great food, and a nice alternative to each other. She is also a pretty damn good skier herself.
On our final day, we screwed around on False White near Tioga Pass and BN’d back to the car. After some more intense adventures, it was the perfect way to wrap up our week with the reminder that skiing always should be fun. And even if you have a blog, do not take yourself too seriously.
In the end, we skied 8 out of 9 days, nearly 100 miles and over 50k ft of gain. Unlike my Alaska trip, it was not splitter weather and blower pow the entire time. We had to scrape and scheme and make the most of funky snow and a shallow snowpack. There were many challenges, but I think we did pretty damn well in the end. I certainly felt satisfied, exhausted and ready for some rest. John was already scheming his “Cinco de Ski Something”.
This year, I have enjoyed the privilege to travel to and ski in some very diverse locations. Skiing in the Sierra is the opposite of Alaska in many ways: the coverage, the terrain, the snow, the scenery. It felt vastly different than roaming the granite lakes and meadows of summer – but that is the magic of the seasons. Thank you to John and Sofia for hosting me and taking me on a great week of adventure!
The only way is up.
- We used the Eastern Sierra guidebook throughout. This is a great guidebook, with maps and photos documenting hundreds of lines.
- Given the clear skies at night and cold temperatures, we always got good freezes. But it took much longer than expected for the snowpack to corn up. Even a week after fresh snow, most slopes were still mushy. We attribute this to a series of wind events that kept depositing fresh snow on steeper slopes.
- I got a few tick bites, despite thorough checks at the end of each day. Perhaps they were at nymph stage so just not visible. Definitely keep an eye out for the buggers.
- Coverage is not as predictable as the Cascades or a more costal range. A few big wind events can vastly rearrange the snow. Even though it was a “bad snow year”, certain features were “fat” because the wind had been kind to that particular aspect during the key storm events.
- You will hit rocks skiing in the Sierra. I hit dozens. Get over it.
- With the mushy snow, we encountered a lot of skinning where skintracks would blow out. I have never used ski crampons before in such mushy snow, but it actually was helpful.
- Water refills were hard to come by, as the campground spigots were still turned off at this time of year. We found that the Safeway floral department in Mammoth would let us use their sink. Even Starbucks refilled our jugs. Thanks!