Ski Mountaineering

The Sierra High Route

(Shepherd Pass to Wolverton)

April 27- May 4, 1991

Nancy Gordon, Reiner Stenzel, Marcia Male and Howard Schultz

This is a trip report of a trans-Sierra ski tour, David Beck's classic Sierra High Route, by four SMS members and leaders. The report was written by all of us. The group is most grateful for Amy Cutter who helped us with the transporation. Here are the details with maps, pictures and equipment list:

We arrived at the Shepherd Pass Trailhead, which is off the Kearsarge Pass Road out of Independence, shortly after midnight. Our car shuttle problem was solved by the wonderful chauffeuring service of our friend and avid skier, Amy Cutter, who planned to ski Mammoth during the week. Amy would then journey to the Giant Forest to meet us on the West Side of the Sierra the following Saturday using Reiner's VW Van, which nicely accommodated all of us, our gear, and Amy for the week.

Day 1: Reiner challenged us to rise and shine at 7 AM by playing a tape of a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, a brilliant beginning for our exalted adventure. Due to a prolonged picture-taking session (Amy had four cameras hanging from her neck) and light-hearted procrastination regarding pack on the back, we did not get under way until 8:15 am. In retrospect, this was our earliest departure on this amazing and relaxing ski tour. Including skis, our packs weighed between 50-65 pounds. We were a well equipped group carrying 2 shovels, 2 ice axes, a little more than a quart of white gas per person, food for back country meals, and various items to assure a high degree of comfort and safety, such as avalanche transceivers and blue foam pads with thermarest mattresses. Hiking the first day to Anvil Camp just below 10,000' was pleasant and delightfully social. Marcia was relieved that the sound she kept hearing were grouse calls and not trail farts. Reiner got to use his new water-filtering straw. We thought he'd suck the whole trip, but it was the first and last time we saw the straw. We traveled slower than expected. Would we make it to Anvil Camp (4400' gain and 7 miles)? At Mahogany Flat, we took the skis off our packs and skied uphill using climbing skins; the 7 -8 pounds removed from the pack created an amazing boost for our last uphill effort that day. We set up camp about 5 pm above Anvil Camp on consolidated snow where there was running water and where we thought the sun would hit early.

Day 2: The sun hit the tent about 6 am. We were serenaded by Chickadees and grouse, and circled by a hawk. Our modus operandi was leisurely and stressless. What joy! We managed to leave by 8:45 am heading for Shepherd Pass. The wind-blown slab below Shepherd Pass offered little security for our sharp ski edges. Near the top about 12,000', we strapped the skis to our packs, and Howard led the last steep portion by vigorously kicking steps in the hardened snow. We skied over to Lake 12,002' for lunch. After digging about a foot through the ice trying to reach water, we gave up and whipped out the stoves to melt snow. Our leisure lunch/siesta put us slightly behind schedule as we skied to a bench above the Kern River at 10,700'. Dinnertime was cold at 8 pm with the sky still illuminated. We were all tired but looked forward to skiing through Milestone Canyon the next day. (2000' gain, 1500' loss, 7 miles).

Day 3: We were in the cold mountain shadows as we packed up and got ready to cross the Kern River (10,500'). We heard the river, but never actually saw it. Reiner was truly disappointed since he had envisioned a major obstacle in the river crossing. Skiing along Milestone Creek, we were surrounded by one of the most beautiful areas in the Sierra. During one rest stop, Reiner put his trusty ice axe to a small lake and struck pay dirt-liquid H20. Reiner led the way through this marvelous terrain toward Milestone Peak. The rock hopping below the pass that is southeast of the Milestone Peak was slow going, but joyful. Finding herself out in front, Nancy continued to kick steps in the steep snow leading to the pass (13,000') which was reached about 3 pm. We skied down to a snow covered frozen lake in Milestone Bowl which had an enormous rock where we spread out wet gear and proceeded to set up camp. The weather had been fantastic - sunny with light breezes. Our spirits soared. Chilly evenings made us glad to for down jackets. (3300' gain, 2000' loss, 6 miles).

Day 4: Up early (7 am), but, as usual, no one was moving fast. Our 8:30 am leave time became 9:45 am, and what was going to be a relatively easy day turned out to be a long difficult slog. The first steep slope we had to traverse was icy. There were parts so steep that the down hill pole had nothing but air to grab as Reiner led the way to an unnamed pass at 12,000' south of Colby Pass. Marcia demonstrated skillful use of her self-arrest ski pole grips on a slide that removed several layers of skin from her elbow; the only injury on the entire trip. Reiner continued the lead toward the next pass (12,200') just south of Triple Divide Peak in steep soft snow. We arrived there about 3 pm, and Reiner began to climb Triple Divide Peak (12,634'). The weather was definitely changing as the temperature dropped, clouds filled the sky, and the winds picked-up. Monitoring Reiner's progress was difficult due to decreased visibility. We caught sight of him more than halfway to the summit in the middle of a snowfield just below the ridge with a large overhanging cornice. Much to our relief, our wise and cautious comrade retreated. Moving down the steep terrain from the pass toward Glacier Lake, we met the only two people we would encounter on the trip, two young men from Oakland touring out of Wolverton with no specific goal in mind. They had set their Chouinard pyramid tent up on the wind-exposed ridge above Glacier Lake. We took shelter on the east side of Glacier Lake as winds increased. Chasing gear across the lake, Howard did a full body tackle on an errant blue foam pad with an encore performance for a tent stuff sack. Although we were secure, there were exciting weather changes on the horizon. (1500' gain, 700' loss, 5 miles).

Day 5 - "May Day": Windy and cold. We strapped on and tested our avalanche transceivers and reviewed search procedures. All of us had taken the SMS avalanche field seminar last year. We finally started skiing toward Deadman Canyon at 10 am. This would be our most intense and adventurous day. It soon started snowing, and the terrain headed for Glacier Pass was very demanding. Howard did a terrific navigation job in a whiteout, often using his ski poles to "feel" old ski tracks under a smooth cover of new snow. Howard took his skis off 3/4'th of the way up to the pass on Glacier Ridge and continued kicking steps to the pass. Marcia decided to traverse higher under the corniced ridge leaving her skis on. They both got within the last 10 feet of the pass at the same time. It was steep and icy near the top. Howard balanced Marcia on the steep ice, handling her skis while she kicked the final steps to the windy pass. Reiner followed Marcia's lead, and Nancy followed Howard's. It was snowing harder now, and Nancy felt the last 100' to the pass on Glacier Ridge seemed more like 1,000'. There were no visible steps left by Howard that she could find, and the steepness of the slope made caution extremely important. Once on the ridge, the lack of visibility and the increasing winds made negotiating the short walk to the north over a small bump incredibly breathtaking. The steep chute leading from the ridge to Deadman Canyon necessitated kicking steps down facing into the slope. The steps filled in with falling snow almost as soon as they were made. Visibility was 5-10 feet. Finally, as the slope mellowed in steepness, we put on our skis to descend to the 11,200' level and traversed Deadman's Canyon to the west headed to where we thought Horn Peak pass was. We were pushing powder to our knees. Time was ticking away and visibility was nonexistent as the snow continued falling. Horn Pass was nowhere in sight. Bivouac time. Reiner suggested that we go high right under a rock face at about 11,200'. It seemed like a reasonable decision, since slough avalanches had started to occur around us. It took nearly 3 hours to stamp out and extend a platform suitable for our two tents (a Bibler Eldorado and a North Face Westwind). The rock was slightly overhanging and tended to consume all the snow we shoveled into its void, but at last we achieved a solid ledge and started to set up the tents. Nancy was on one end of the ledge holding the tent when a slough avalanche came down and buried her up to her thighs. Marcia persuaded Reiner to climb up the slope to release any potential snow slough that might come down on our tents. Howard busied himself making a bathroom facility on a lower level.

The boundless energy and enthusiasm of Howard and Reiner during this adventure was greatly appreciated by Marcia and Nancy. The skies cleared momentarily, and we thought we saw Horn Peak Pass. We hurriedly got a compass bearing before the clouds and snow ruined the visibility. The next day, what we thought was Horn Pass turned out to be wrong. At 8 pm, it started snowing harder. We were all in good spirits and comfortable as darkness descended on our "Eagle's nest." In fact, we seemed to thrive on this challenge and excitement. (500' gain, 800' loss, 3-4 miles).

Day 6: About 16-18" of fresh snow fell during the night. Everyone was buried deep in their sleeping bags. Nancy got up to start the stove at 6:45 am and saw a very faint trace of the sun through the white-blanketed sky. Faint traces of mountains became visible, then faint traces of blue appeared in the sky, and, finally, she could see high winds blowing spindrift from Glacier Ridge. Reiner and Howard finally stirred with Nancy's exclamation: "You won't believe the photo opportunities! Eddie Nunez and Galen Rowell would kill for this moment!" The sun finally hit the tents, and we all relished its warmth. The great magnificence around us was awe-inspiring. This had been the most amazing adventure perched on this 40-degree slope during a storm. After packing up, we skied right off our tent platform at 10:45 am in knee deep, heavy powder headed for Horn Peak Pass with high winds, but clear visibility. Reiner broke trail through the new snow, which was turning quickly into heavy Sierra cement. We continued on to Buck Creek pass and finally entered the Tablelands. The view of the Great Western Divide partially covered by spectacular cumulus clouds was magnificent. Setting up camp in Table Meadows at 4:45 pm, we had an opportunity to dry our gear and eat an early dinner. We were pleasantly tired and euphoric from our May Day Ordeal. Today it warmed just enough so that large clumps of snow stuck to the bottom of our climbing skins (rats!). The area we camped in appeared quite barren and more hilly than mountainous. We had negotiated all seven mountain passes safely! The Tablelands were a new territory for Reiner and Nancy. Marcia and Howard had skied there from the Pear Lake Hut on previous outings. (600' gain, 800' loss, 4.5 miles).

Day 7: Our coldest night was last night; it was easily below zero. No one stirred until the sun warmed the tent for quite a while and that was about 8:30 am. Talk about a relaxed, laid back, easy-going group - we were it! We took advantage of the sun to dry our gear before packing up. It was the first day my boots were somewhat flexible by the time I put them on at 10:30 am. When we scrambled out of camp shortly after 11:30 am, the clouds had drifted in and the lighting became flat making it difficult to read the snow as we skied through Table Meadows toward Pear Lake. Soon we were in another whiteout, but we continued to ski. Howard was convinced he was headed correctly, having used his map and compass since we left camp. He took the lead. We stopped to put on climbing skins to head up a hill we couldn't see that might be above the hut. We got to one point where we could hear a river (the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River) in the distance. While Howard and Reiner huddled over the map, a compass, and an altimeter that was now inaccurate, Marcia and Nancy found a rock to sit on until the fog lifted. Marcia turned to Nancy and asked, "Do you see a roof through the trees?" Nancy peered hard into the fog where she pointed. "What trees?" Believe it or not, there was a very slight clearing at that moment, and we all stood in amazement: the roof of the Pear Lake Hut was clearly visible at the base of the slope we were on. Reiner and Howard, who bore the brunt of whiteout navigation dilemma, couldn't have been more pleased. Visibility faded once again, but our elation was enormous. Among joyous whoops and hollers, we "skied" down (skiing that terrain with little visibility was tough!), collapsing on the steps of the locked hut. After sharing a delightful lunch in the mist, we set up camp in a grove of trees nearby. The sun came out, visibility improved, and that meant SKI TIME! Howard and Reiner, of course, had made several runs earlier without visibility while Marcia and Nancy had tea in camp. They came back to fetch the ladies when the sky cleared, and we skied playfully until 7 pm. (1300' loss, 5 miles).

Day 8: We left Pear Lake Hut area about 8:30 am. The finches serenaded us eagerly awaiting our crumbs as we packed up after a delightful breakfast. The 6-mile ski out to Wolverton was pleasant under sunny clear skies, which was similar to the weather we had at the beginning of our journey. A bold marmot was out enjoying the sun. The wind-packed hard snow made us exercise a bit of caution on the first leg of the tour headed for Aster Lake. But after that, climbing in the forest toward Heather Gap was not only easy but offered spectacular views of this premier back country ski area. At Heather Gap, we shared and munched down all our extra goodies: Snickers bars, Hershey Kisses, peanut butter and jelly on pita, gorp, and dried fruit. Our climbing skins were ceremoniously removed from our skis as we anticipated skiing thousands of feet through forested terrain with our lighter packs. The best word to describe the terrain was "dicey." But nothing could stop us now; we were "tried and true ski mountaineers. " We were invincible pinheads headed for the showers, determined to ski right to the paved parking lot, which we did. There to greet us was our loyal fan and trip support skier, Amy Cutter, with a banner of congratulations, which displayed all the mountain passes and our names. Overwhelmed by our celebrity status greeting and the refreshments Amy had brought us (Corona beer, soft drinks, chocolate fudge brownies, carrot-nut bread, and Haagen-Dasz ice cream), we reeled about in an ecstatic state not even removing our packs until we could get some photos of this special moment. It was a moment of truth for the four of us: Reiner, Howard, Marcia, and Nancy had become a unique team, a most relaxed, competent, caring, protective, fun-loving team, and each of us was convinced we had skied the best High Route Tour ever! And our appreciation of this exquisitely precious experience would be a treasured memory. Amy whisked us away to the very clean showers (25 cents for 2 minutes) at Lodgepole just minutes away from Wolverton. The ride through the Giant Forest en route home was beautiful, and the Sizzler in Bakersfield satisfied every appetite craving imaginable (well, maybe not every). (200' gain, 2300' loss, 6 miles).


Maps-15' Mount Whitney and Triple Divide Peak.

Skis- 3 Chouinard Tua Toute Neiges, 1 Karhu XCD Extremes.

Ski Poles- adjustable avalanche probe poles, 1 with Ramer self-arrest grips.

Tents- a Bibler Eldorado (3 lbs, 12 oz) and a North Face Westwind (5 lbs, 14 oz).

Packs- 3 Gregories and 1 Dana.

Fuel- white gas, used 3-4 oz per person a day; varies depending on access to running water.

Stoves- 2 MSR Whisperlite.

Food- individual commissary, mostly added boiling water to freeze-dried dinners, top ramen, oatmeal, Reiner's home dehydrated veggies and fruits, assorted lunch munches.

Miscellaneous- avalanche transceivers, an altimeter is highly recommended, ski repair kit (especially tape for failing adhesive on skins), first aid kit (especially for blisters), some grip wax would be useful for flatter areas like the one above Shepherd Pass and the Tablelands. Recommend 3 pairs of wool socks (things tended to stay damp).

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