Ski Mountaineering

Cirque Crest Trans-Sierra Ski Tour

Apr 27 - May 4, 2002

Reiner Stenzel

This report describes a joint SMS/SPS ski mountaineering trip of an East-West traverse of the Sierra Nevada on skis. In 6 days we traveled from Taboose Pass to Cedar Grove along the Cirque Crest and climbed two SPS peaks on the way. The group consisted of five participants, Duncan Livingston, Susan Livingston (unrelated), Jonathan Meagher, and co-leaders R. J. Secor and myself. Such a trip involves many challenges: Finding a group of compatible and experienced people, organizing the car transportation, having proper equipment, navigating in inclemental weather, skiing with full packs in any backcountry terrain and snow, climbing peaks and passes with ice axe and crampons, avoiding avalanche terrain, managing a diverse group in situations of stress, etc. For example our car arrangement worked as follows:

On Sat, 4/27, R.J. and his father picked Jonathan and me up at the Van Nuys airport and we drove together to Taboose Pass. Duncan drove from Oregon to Bakersfield where he was picked up by Leslie Hofherr who originally planned to join. They drove over Walker Pass to Taboose. Finally, Susan and Bill drove from their new home in Independence to Taboose. We all converged by midday. A minor problem was a disabled mobile home on the Taboose dirt road which we had to push out of the road to pass. By 1:30pm we had assorted all our shared gear, all cars were gone and we started our one-way trip. Seven days later we were to be picked up by Susan's husband Bill at Road End of Hwy 180 near Cedar Grove. Such one-way trips create a certain uneasiness since there is no option to return.

In the afternoon we hauled our heavy packs with skis up the Taboose Pass trail. It was windy and cool, just right for the workout. The snowline was near the first stream crossing (2500m). By 6 pm we were at the second stream crossing and decided to snow-camp near running water. We had three tents and stoves. Soon the temperature dropped below freezing and we retired by 8pm.

On Sun, 4/28, we were up by 6am, enjoyed some morning sun, ate, packed and started to hike at 8:30am. It was faster to hike the rocky trail than to ski up the hard frozen snow. Between 12noon-1pm everyone had made Taboose Pass (11,500'). Cold wind and spindrifts were greeting us. We planned to stay high to ski into the Upper Basin. But the snow disappeared on the slopes southwest of Cardinal and we had to ski down to the Kings River and climb up again. Vennacher Needle came in sight. Our plan was to ski around its north side rather than to climb over the cl 3 pass just south of the summit. Duncan found a fine campsite with running water (UTM 11 370254E, 4096065N, NAD27, 11,034'). By 6pm we settled down, enjoyed warm drinks and food, and went to bed by 8pm when it got even colder than the night before.

Mon, 4/29, started with a red sunrise, not a good omen. Up by 6am, ready to leave by 8am became our (not universally appreciated) morning routine. The goal was to go over Frozen-Lake Pass (11 368152E, 4096334N, 12,200') into Lake Basin and down to Marion Lake. Head-on, F-L Pass looks intimidating but when we approached it was just another good workout with ice axe and crampons. By 12 noon we all had crossed the pass, signed a "pass" register, and skied down into Lake Basin. Looking back at the pass we saw an eagle standing still in the upwind air over the pass. Lake Basin is a wonderful touring terrain. We detoured a bit too far toward Cartridge Pass but soon returned down Cartridge Creek toward Lake 10,632' and finally to Marion Lke (10,296'). Our campsite (11 364926E, 4093091N) was at the lake outlet with running water and tree shelter. We needed it since the weather had deteriorated. It was cold, windy and snowing. We cooked out of the tents. Only the unavoidable nature call got one into the stormy night. It snowed probably 6-8 overnight.

On Tue, 4/30, we crawled out of our frozen tents looking for sunshine. It was coming but a ridge and forest were in the way. So I mellowed and opted for a late start, a big mistake. We carried our tents into the sun but the ice droplets took forever to melt. When we were ready to move the clouds were coming in. As we ascended toward Marion Pass (11 364923E, 4091307N, 12,040') we ran into a group of 4 skiers who had skied the Cirque Crest from the West. They were on their way to South Lke. Of course, there was a lot to talk and by the time we left it started to snow. As we approached the base of Marion Pass the clouds rolled in. Strong Duncan tackled the pass head-on with ice axe and crampons. Since the other guys mentioned soft snow I decided to ski into the pass via a snowy ledge. Two different routes created confusion in our rear party. The ski route was too advanced, the climb on foot was too arduous since one sinks in to the hips at each step. While Duncan reached the pass, I struggled along a 40deg ledge and the rest were calling for help at the bottom. Duncan struggled back down the pass. When I arrived at the top the weather had deteriorated into blizzard conditions. There was no way to ski down without visibility. So I got the shovel out, dug a pit into the snow and set up my tent to get out of the wind to avoid getting hypothermia. Now I regretted that we did not bring our radios for communication. My assumption was that we would wait till the storm would settle and then the group would follow. The storm decayed after a few hours but nobody was in sight. Then Duncan called and reported that the group had found a different pass 0.3mi to the east which they could tackle with skis. By 4pm we regrouped and skied/hiked together down to Lke 11,000' where by 5pm we made camp for the night (11 362393E, 4087573N). More snow fell in the night.

On Wed, 5/1, we were up by 6am and on skis by 8:15am in beautiful morning sunshine. Of course, each morning we started with a pass, this one only 800' up. Duncan took the group on a long gentle tour around a cirque while I took my shortcut on ski crampons. These are essential tools in hard snow on steeper slopes. After crossing a plateau at 11,800' we encountered another ridge (11 364300E, 4089500N, 12,040'). From there we had a clear view of State Pass and State Pk, our next goals. Corniced State Pass looked undoable but 0.25mi to the southeast there was a passage (11 363300E, 4088250N, 12,040'). The descent from the ridge led through a narrow gully which required careful sidestepping on skis or boot cramponing. We climbed the State Pass ridge on boot crampons. It was an ideal place for lunch and further planning.

Some of us wanted to climb State Pk (12,620') and the nearby northeast ridge looked doable. I argued for a quick ascent before the clouds would move in. By 1:30pm R.J., Susan and I started our ascent. We left our packs and skis at the 12,000' saddle 0.2mi NE of the peak. From there we cramponed up the corniced NE ridge reaching the summit at 3pm. After digging 10min in the snow near the highest point we found the peak register and signed in.

Great views form the summit in all directions, but a cold wind and spindrifts prevented a prolonged stay. We spotted Duncan and Jonathan setting up their tents at Lke 11,400' between State and Dougherty Pks.

We descended carefully on breakable crust. By 4:30pm we were "home" at basecamp and I set up my tent on the frozen lake next to our waterhole. A strange cloud layer moved in from the east and deposited a few inches of snow overnight.

On Thur, 5/2, we had early sunshine in the east-facing campsite. After the usual morning routine we left at 8:15am. Our route headed up and over the summit of Dougherty Pk (12,241'). I ski cramponed up, the rest boot cramponed but switched to skis when getting stuck in soft snow. It became steep near the top and skiing over rocks with crampons got Susan out of balance. Helpful Duncan gave her and her pack a lift to the summit. We enjoyed the summit views and got ready for a fabulous ski run down Dougherty's south slopes. It was tempting to ski down to Lke 10,700' but that would require a climb up to the next pass. So we contoured high above the lake but ran out of snow and had to climb over rocks and through gnarly whitebark firs. Duncan took a little ride down getting a scratch which required my largest available bandaid. After the short cl 3 rock scramble we ascended on crampons to a small saddle at (11 361900E, 4085880N, 11,450'). Susan liked to hyperventilate on steep sections so that we stopped for a rest. Each pass is rewarded by skiing down into an open bowl. The following had several lakes which feed the North Fork of Kid Creek where we filled up our bottles. The beautiful terrain, sunshine, some puffy clouds in the blue sky and endless snow slopes made this a an experience money cannot buy.

At the last lake we started to climb toward the next pass (11 360100E, 4084600N, 11,250'). Cornices were hanging down, the heat of midday created an uneasy feeling about avy conditions. We put on our beacons, made a check and ascended carefully out of the runout zone. Interestingly, we encountered bear tracks which followed the same route avoiding the cornices. After the safe ascent we overlooked the huge bowl of the Glacier Lks with the Goat Crest to the southwest. Goat Crest Pass (11 358600E, 4083400N, 11,500') was slightly higher but there was a 900' drop down to the lakes. Three skiers contoured around the bowl, two hikers dropped down and climbed it out. The snow had become very soft and trailbreaking became a real workout. It was not the ideal time to cross wet slopes when balls began to roll and grow to 3' diam. By 3pm we made it safely into the pass. The views to either side were wonderful: To the east the entire Palisades Range came into view, to the west huge cumulus clouds grew over the Monarch Divide. Susan was overwhelmed by joy and tears, the less emotional crew just captured the moment in pictures. The roller coaster continued with a fabulous ski run down into a small lakes basin 0.4 mi west of Munger Pk. Since there was open water, flat terrain and happy hour approached we called it quits for the day and set up camp (11 358600E, 4082042N, 11,000'). For once the weather remained nice enough to enjoy sitting in a group kitchen. Hot drinks, food and conversation were the reward for a long day. We made plans for the next morning to climb nearby Goat Mtn.

On Fri, 5/3, Susan, R.J. and I took off at 6 am to climb Goat Mtn (12,212'). The snow was perfectly firm for cramponing. Somehow, R.J. managed to sink in to the chest and his response echoed along the Goat Crest. By 7:30am we summited and signed in as the first party in '02. R.J. found two previous entries, I had one from '88, and Susan wrote a thank-you-letter for all of Duncan's help in the register. The views ranged from Olancha Pk to Yosemite. After taking many pictures we descended to camp. Without rush we packed up so as to ski on prime corn by 10-11am. However, a north facing slope on our last pass (11 358200E, 4081000N, 11,050') forced us to boot/ski crampon up. From then on it was sweet cruising on spring snow down to Grouse Lke (10,469') where we ate lunch and waited for R.J. Below Grouse Lke we entered the tree zone. With GPS we headed for the Copper Canyon trail which was of course covered by snow. Following some faint ski tracks we cranked tight turns in steep forest terrain until we ran out of snow above Upper Tent Meadow (8,800'). The trail became visible and since it was only 2 pm we decided to hike down Copper Cyn to the Kings River. After days in the high country it was a joy to smell fresh pine trees, see green vegetation, some flowers, birds and two deer. But switch-backing down a few thousand feet with pack and skis on the back caused some sore leg muscles. At Roads End (5,036') we descended upon the closed ranger station, chatted with a young bear-tracking wildlife expert, Susan accosted visitors for food, I took a full monty in the icy Kings River, and we sent out messages to Bill that we are "home". Since there were fresh bear tracks at the river we stashed all the smelly stuff into the bear boxes then slept in the open only to be eaten by early mosquitoes.

On Sat, 5/4, we betted when Bill would arrive. He arrived from Fresno 2 hours earlier than anyone had guessed, having received our message via the ranger. Bill had rented a large passenger van which would hold all skiers, driver, gear and "Kaweah", their Bernese mountain puppie. It took a particular affection for R.J. and liked to sit on his lap, weighing almost half of R.J.s weight. There was moaning and groaning until Kaweah fell asleep and snored loudly. At Grant Grove we had a sumptuous breakfast which got us to Bakersfield where we loaded up on milk shakes at Dewars. Then Duncan had to bid farewell for his long trip north to Oregon. We cruised down to LA, split at the carpool place in Van Nuys and everyone was home Sat night.

In retrospect, the trip went very well and we were all satisfied. Terrain, navigation and weather were not always easy. The tour definitely requires stamina, skiing and mountaineering skills and appeared harder than the "Sierra High Route". We had minor equipment problems (Susan's new ski crampons were not tested at home hence did not fit, Jonathan's and R.J.'s randonnee bindings released during kick turns on steep slopes. We also should have brought the FRS radios since the group consisted of 2 fast, 3 slow skiers). But we had adequate fuel and food for a seventh day. Navigation with my new GPS (Meridian Platinum) which now stores topo maps was absolutely reliable provided one carries enough batteries. On the other hand the cell phone did not work on any of the peaks or passes we climbed. Its safety aspect is overrated. The group was real fun, of course with ups and downs. Things went smoother after 2-3 days when it became clear that the return is not better than what lies ahead. Susan's happiest time started after Goat Mtn with Cedar Grove in sight. Arriving at Roads End was certainly most gratifying for everyone, especially for the leaders that everything went well.

Thanks to everyone for making this another great Trans-Sierra trip, and special thanks to Mr. Secor, Leslie and Bill for providing our transportation.

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