Ski Mountaineering

Alta Peak - Ski Mountaineering

February 11-13, 2000

Reiner Stenzel

This trip was a classical ski mountaineering adventure: A winter peak ascent on skis. We were five SMS'rs, three of whom were also members of the California Mountaineering Club (CMC). Since the SMS does not permit peak climbs with ice axes (the only safe way) it became an official CMC trip. Ironically, few of the climbers ski (the only way to travel in deep snow) and no other CMC people joined, making it essentially an SMS trip. Besides these quirks of clubs we had a great time, as the report shows.

I had won the Pear Lake Hut lottery with 5 spaces over a long weekend. On Friday morning, we (R.J. Secor, Bahram Manahedgi, Mark Vogt, Alan Franz, and me) met at the Lodgepole Visitor Center to pick up the hut key and wilderness permit. A snowstorm had dumped a foot of new snow on Thursday, and we had to wait till 8am for the snowplough to clear the road to the trailhead at Wolverton. By 9:30am we started our 2,000', 6mi ascent to Pear Lake. In summer time it's an easy day hike, but in a foot of new snow it's a workout for those who break trail.

At lunch time we were at the Hump (9,500') when the clouds of the next storm rolled in. We skied past Heather, Aster and Emerald Lks, and took the low level trail to the hut due to potential avalanche hazard. Everyone carried beacons and shovels and we had a pair of radios between the first and last in the group which invariably got spread out due to different skiing/climbing rates. By 3:30pm, in a growing winter storm, we reached the cozy Pear Lake Hut (9,200') where the backcountry ranger Jeff had already fired up the stove. It snowed all night long, dumping another 2 feet of fresh snow.

Saturday was our planned peak ascent. Got up by 5:30am, saw heavy snow fall, went back to bed. By 8am someone discovered a speck of blue sky. An hour later, I was ready to leave the hut with Alan and Mark to break trail to Alta Peak. The sun broke through and we seemed to have a window of opportunity for a peak ascent. Breaking trail in 2-3 feet of Sierra "powder" is a 1000 kcal/hour job. It's impossible to do this trip without skis since one would sink to the stomach with each step. While we lost calories, Bahram and R.J. gained some from a late pancake breakfast, as described by radio, but an hour later they also followed our tracks. We ascended the slopes east of Pear Lke, followed the inlet creek drainage, and skied up to the ridge at about 200m east of Alta Pk (11,276'). The snow coverage was so good that we could continue to ski on the south side of the corniced crest to the base of the summit block.

There we left our skis, ascended with ice axe, and climbed a short section of cl3/4 icy rocks to the summit (11,204'). All along our ski ascent we watched the growing clouds and gambled who would win on the summit. Well, it was a draw: Wind, whiteout and snow flurries greeted us on the summit so that we were disappointed and started our descent asap. The skiing down was a bit tricky due to the flat light and unconsolidated deep snow. Equal weighting and ski tips up was mandatory for turning in the steeps. Due to the whiteout conditions we more or less followed our ascent route except for an exciting chute down to Pear Lake. By 3 pm most of us were back at the hut, and we kept in radio contact with R.J. who was slowly descending with kick turns.

We were so lucky with our winter peak ascent which fitted just in between two winter storms. After some hot tea in the hut, the telemarkers (Alan, Mark, Jeff and I) carved the virgin snow south of the hut before we all settled down for dinner in the hut. Another group of skiers, scheduled to arrive by Sat pm, never made it up in the deep snow. Dinner was a delight, Bahram shared some Persian specialties with us, and we toasted the climb with my vodka from Moscow. Around the fireplace, Bahram shared his world philosophy with us, R.J. gave us a sample of sarcasm, the rest played cards or loafed around. It was another night of continuous snowfall.

Sunday morning we cleaned the hut and skied out by 9am. Normally, it's a pleasure to ski down, but in 3' of heavy new snow it's a real workout. Ranger Jeff showed us a shortcut to the Hump, and everyone shared in the arduous trailbreaking. After a short lunch break at the Hump in drifting snow, the skins came off for the ski descent though the forest. It takes good balance to ski with full packs through deep wet snow. The group got widely spread out but there were plenty of tracks and sweeping R.J. had the radio. Snow changed to freezing rain. By about 1:30pm the first reached the cars, which were snow-covered bumps at the side of the road. After half an hour of shoveling we got them freed to start. Then came a radio call from R.J.: "I am getting hypothermic", end. This was to be taken seriously since hypothermia and avalanches are killers in wintertime. So I quickly prepared hot tea in a thermos, Alan packed dry clothes, we got back into our wet ski gear and ascended the trail. He was spotted after half an hour coming slowly down the trail in wet clothes. Hot drinks and a power bar gave him a boost, he walked out the rest of the trail, exhausted but ok. So our adventurous winter trip ended with everyone accounted for and leaving gladly by 3pm. On the way home it rained more or less continuously from the Sierra to the Pacific. La Nina seemed to be over.

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