Ski Mountaineering

Little Onion Valley
March 11-12, 2000

Reiner Stenzel

Little Onion Valley is located north of Onion Valley in the California Bighorn Sheep Zoological Area. It may be entered only from Dec 15 to July 1, i.e., in the ski season. It's a beautiful remote valley, virtually inaccessible from any other direction than the Oak Creek drainage to the east. One can see it from Hwy 395, just north of Sardine Cyn.

Although we had many SMS trips to the regular Onion Valley, this was, to my knowledge, the first [recent] one to Little Onion Valley. It turned out to be a challenging but rewarding ski mountaineering trip. We were eleven, Tom Marsh, Angel Ocana, Dennis Landin, David Kaye from Arizona, Craig Connally, Maciek Malish, Coby Tefft, Ryan Oldham, Scott Koepke and Estelle Braaf. We gathered Sat, 3/11, 8am, at Grays Mdw Cpgrd where most of us spent the night before, then drove up the Onion Valley Rd to its northernmost switchback (2175m, sorry for the metrics, but the Kearsarge Pk topo is not in feet). There a closed dirt road leads to old mines in Sardine Cyn and Little Onion Valley. We left by 9am, skied most of the road, but had to walk on some dry southfacing sections. By 10:30am we arrived at an abandoned mine near the South Fork of Oak Creek (2400m) and entered Little Onion Valley. The first task was to find a snow bridge to cross the gushing creek which involved some serious bushwhacking. Then came the workout of a 600m ascent to our campsite at 3100m. By 12:30pm we started to set up camp near a stand of pinetrees, which provided windshelter and was away from avalanche runout zones. The views were great: In the west was a wall of steep mountains engulfed in spindrifts. To the east was Owens Valley and the distant Great Basin.

We were blessed with sunshine and abundant snow from recent storms. In a community snow kitchen we cooked and ate and relaxed, greeting our late arrivers. The ascent took its toll and the last ones arrived for dinner. In between, we skied the surrounding slopes, but after 4pm the soft spring snow turned into breakable crust and the fun was over. Dinner extended into the late evening with a beautiful sunset, later moonlight, stars, and the tiny lights of Independence below us. The temperatures dropped and it became a chilly night.

On Sunday we awoke to sunshine and clear skies. We were blessed with high pressure weather, i.e, spring time snow conditions. With light daypacks we ascended Little Onion Valley toward its westernmost end. It is blocked by steep walls and snowfields. Last February, I stood on the ridge north of Sardine Lake, looking down into the valley, but unable to descend into it with my fourlegged companion. The view into beautiful Little Onion Valley inspired this trip.

We continued to ski over the Parker Lakes, but took time out for avalanche beacon tests and dug a snowpit to evaluate the snow stability. With the assurance of good TG snow, we ascended some steep slopes leading to the base of Mt Mary Austin (3978m). However, at 11am it was too late for a peak ascent. So we lunched on the rocks, enjoyed the view of Dragon Pk and similar "aiguilles", and finally got ready for the ski run down to camp. The snow was just right for carving. The run down to the Parker Lks was exciting. The randonnée skiers (Angel, Coby, Maciek) enjoyed it so much that they did it twice. Further below, the firm base gave way to soft, grabbing snow which required careful balance on telemark turns. By 12:30pm we were back at camp, lunched, and packed up. Then it was another 3,000' ski descent with full packs in soft spring snow. Definitely, wide skis pay off in spring mush. We got again spread out but stayed in frequent contact with our three radios. It was a relief for us telemarkers that the randonnéers had their struggle, too. Maciek took a particularly interesting face plant on a snowbridge where his sunglasses fell into the creek and were never seen again. Earlier, Tom lost his radio in a fall but luckily found it. Finally, it was easier cruising on the mining road and by 3pm we were all back at the cars. Dave and Dennis signed out earlier and to stay another day in the mountains. We were all pleased with the trip. Although it was a challenge at times, we all enjoyed the weekend blessed by beautiful weather, a great scenery, and a fun group of people. My special thanks goes to Tom for his assistance in leading the trip.

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