Ski Mountaineering

Kaiser Peak

Feb 28-Mar 2, 2003

Reiner Stenzel

Eight brave souls went out in wintertime to spend two nights in the snow without tents. All survived and enjoyed the experience of living in igloos. The participants, who came from Sacramento, LA, and San Diego, were Leslie Hofherr, Jim Crouch, Wally Drake, David Baron, Steve Stewart, Thomas Johansson and Jason Rivera. Here is what we did:

We met Friday morning at Huntington Lake at the beginning of the Kaiser Pass Road. Half of us had to find a place to buy the required CA Snowpark permits. By 9 am we were ready to leave, first walked a short distance, then skied up the snow-covered road. After two switchbacks we went XC up the Potter Creek drainage. Since it had snowed the days before we had break trail in 5-10 inches of new snow. Every 10 min the lead person was exhausted and we switched to the next one in line. We skied through forested terrain trying to find open routes through the trees. Switch-backing uphill with full packs in deep snow took its toll and it took us till 1:30pm to get close to Potter Pass. The clouds were rolling in as we selected our campsite on the summit of Peak 9149 just east of PP. The upper layer of snow was unconsolidated powder, useless for cutting blocks, but below there were at least 5 feet of settled snow. After a short break we went to work with our snow saws and shovels.

Teams of two partners shared the work of cutting blocks and layering them into an inclined spiral. Size matters: If the igloo is too big, the chances of closing the roof are slim. Two igloos had to have their roofs covered with a tarp. One igloo was slightly too small for its 6 foot inhabitant and needed subsequent remodeling, the fourth one was just right.

It took from 3.5 to 4.5 hours to build our homes. After that we were pretty exhausted from cutting and lifting at least 50 blocks. We converted the block-quarry into a community kitchen and cooked dinner as darkness fell. Occasional snow flurries came down but luckily there was no wind. After a hot meal we disappeared into our igloos. Inside it was quiet, warm (about 32deg F) and bright when several candles were lit. Of course one had to find a compromise between warmth and moisture: With 6 candles lit, our igloo started to drip and we had to cool it down again. It was warm and comfortable inside the igloo which one appreciated especially after a nature call at night. After a long winter night in tight quarters it was nice to see daylight again, especially sunshine in the morning.

Sat we had breakfast, packed and headed out for a day tour to Kaiser Peak. Before leaving we had a beacon and radio check. The tour started with a wonderful powder run down a steep forested slope leading to the Lower Twin Lake. The rear party radioed equipment problems: David decided to stay in camp to fix his bindings. Jay had problems with his split snowboard and his radio, and lack of communication got us concerned until he eventually caught up with us. We proceeded to the Upper Twin Lake, contoured north of it and climbed up to George Lake. What seems an easy hike on a summer trail was a workout in deep and sticking snow.

Southwest of George Lake is a steep chute leading into a hanging valley that ends at the corniced Kaiser Peak Ridge. After some soul searching we decided to try an alternate route north of the hanging valley. Jim and Tom turned back. The rest succeeded to climb the ridge without encountering cornices. The view from the ridge was exciting: Clouds swirled around the peaks, in the distance one could see Lake Edison and some High Sierra peaks, the Joaquin Valley was buried by clouds, and the corniced Kaiser Ridge dropped off nearly vertically to the east. We ascended the first obvious peak to the north (Peak 10,156'), only to be disappointed since my GPS indicated the real Kaiser Peak (10,310') was about 0.5mi away in the clouds. I had announced that our turn-around time would be 1:30pm and we had already exceeded it. When the clouds lifted temporarily, Kaiser Peak became visible. It would have been another hour round trip, probably no visibility on the summit, and a likely return by darkness. Thus, we called it off and were happy to have summitted our 150'-lower Kaiser "Junior" Peak.

After a snack we peeled the skins off and started our descent. A white rabbit crossed our path and disappeared in a hole. We found an excellent powder slope that dropped us into the hanging valley. From there we had little choice but to continue the steep gully down to George Lake. But because of the soft snow the steepness presented no problems and we all made it down safely. Jay had a great time with his snowboard. Then we followed our tracks, which made our return much faster than anticipated. After an arduous last climb we reached our basecamp by about 4:30pm and were welcomed by David with a nice campfire. Clouds were rising again from the west. Happy hour followed with snacks, hot fluids and finally dinner. The fire pit vanished into the snow and had to be dug out repeatedly. We enjoyed the warmth of the fire till after darkness. When the wind picked up and the feet got cold it was time to retire into our igloo homes.

On Sunday we awoke to bright sunshine, blue skies and temps in the teens. We had a relaxed breakfast in our kitchen. David climbed to the top of his solidly frozen igloo. Then we packed and started by 9:30am to ski down into Potter Pass. For variety we picked a different route down to Kaiser Pass Road. It first followed a roller coaster terrain through forest, then descended into the Midge Creek drainage, which steeply dropped down to the road. It was a challenging tree skiing experience with full packs.

On the road, we waited to regroup, and had a chat with a ranger on his snow mobile. After a long, thigh-burning ski run down the KP Road we were back at the cars by 1:30pm. We all agreed that it was a great weekend in the mountains, fun to live in the snow, ski all sorts of terrain, and to be in a group of very fine people. Last but not least, the drive from snow country down into the green valley with wild flowers and blooming trees was a real delight.

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