Ski Mountaineering

Elderberry Canyon/Onion Valley
April 8-9, 2000

Tom Marsh

Most of us know Elderberry Canyon as this impressively steep high walled Canyon in the midst of Mt. Tom to the southwest of 395 on the Sherwin Grade. >From that vantagepoint, Mt Tom is a giant among other very large rugged peaks. Elderberry Canyon looks exceedingly challenging. A world for crampons and ice axes. The Canyon walls could be classified as peaks. This did not appear to be the domain of intermediate skiing. Perhaps better left to those "M" rated leaders with more courage than myself. It wasn't until I reviewed the guidebook of this route that it became apparent this was no more than an intermediate route. Gerry Hollerman and Reiner Stenzel led a trip through here years ago. Since then this canyon had not been visited by another SMS group. There is good reason for this. The window for skiing Elderberry is quite small. The Northeast facing canyon snow takes longer to transition and the approach is well below the snow line at 5,900 feet. Mark and I decided that this narrow window would be around the first part of April.

It looked like our predictions may have been correct as we awoke to a clear calm day on the desert with snow lines protruding well down the mountain to the desert floor. All the elements for fine spring skiing were apparent. Cold night, predictable warm temperatures, abundant snow and calm winds. There was a feeling of excitement in the air. The feeling you get when the stock you bought just had a favorable news release. On Saturday Morning, 14 of us meet on the edge of the town of Rovana. We were Mark Goebel, James Eric Lane, John Anderson, AnneMarie Schober, Wally Drake, Randy Lamm, Jan St. Amand, Angel Ocana, Scott Koepke, Craig Connally, Jim DeRose, Reed Moore, Fred Reed and myself. Randy arrived first and managed to attract the attention of the resident dog. At that point we all took the short drive to the base of Elderberry Canyon.

After a short drive to the base of the canyon at 5,900 feet, we all packed skis and trekked through the chaparral on a surprising good trail. The only hard part was negotiating though the willows in the creek. After passing through a narrow slot in the canyon, we reached the snow line at 7,100 feet. At this point, it felt good to take the skis off the back and begin the ascent on boards. This may have been premature as the snow was quite firm and some of us with narrow skins experienced some slippage. In any case the approach was quite gradual and long. The altitude was certainly felt as we ascended past 10,000 feet. Some of us reached the upper bowl at 10,500 feet at about 12:00 noon. The snow on the north facing slopes was quite hard and wind packed. The snow on the south facing slopes was softening up to a fine corn texture. A number of us proceeded to the ridge with a pre-arranged turnaround time of 1:00 PM.

The ski down from the ridge was deemed fabulous corn. As we proceeded down the canyon and collected the others on the way we experienced various conditions from soft pre-transitioned to hard pack. Surprising, the better skiing up high was on the north facing hard pack where you did not sink in the heavy muck. By the time we reached 9,000 feet, we were in wonderful "hero" corn. It was a sheer delight to effortlessly ski past the giant walls of the canyon. We were all able to ski down to the 7,100 foot level, giving us a 3,500 feet of descent. We all reached the cars safely at about 3:00 PM with high spirits and the satisfaction of a fine backcountry ski day.

Our destination for the night was Upper Gray's campground on the road to Onion Valley. Mark and I planned this destination after careful consideration of snow conditions in early April. Some of us arrived at the campground at around 5:00 PM and proceeded to build a fire with hot beverages and good food. Some of the group took this opportunity to soak in the concessionaire hot springs just south of Bishop. All and all, we had a pleasant evening of conversation, food, fire and good weather.

On Sunday morning, we all broke camp and proceeded up the road to Onion Valley. Mark had talked to the campground host that morning to learn that the road was impassable a good ways before the top earlier in the week. As we drove, we noticed that the road had been plowed. To our delight we were able to drive all the way to Onion Valley. This was quite a contrast from the day earlier. At this point, we were able to ski right from the cars at 9,200 feet.

Mark led the way up towards Kearsarge Pass. The group kept a good pace as we ascended the 2,500 feet to Kearsarge Pass by 11:30 AM. The views from Kearsarge Pass were enjoyed by all. Mt. Brewer sat ominously to the southwest. Kearsarge Lakes were still quite frozen over. After a short lunch we all removed the climbing skins with anticipation of a great descent.

Some of the group, led by Mark, skied to Pothole Lake, while the rest of us enjoyed the fine south facing skiing to the east of the pass. We experienced outstanding conditions as we weaved our way on the south part of the canyon. The last mile to the cars was on silky corn. We were back by 12:30PM.

As we readied for departure, smiles were apparent from this second day of fine backcountry skiing. All and all a wonderful weekend in the Sierra with the best that this region has to offer. Special thanks to Mark for leading this trip with me.

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