Ski Mountaineering

Mineral King Loop Ski Tour

April 23-26, 2004

Rich Henke

The Mineral King ski trip is history! After talking about this trip for at least 5 years, it is finished. For years we had hoped that there would be a way to avoid the 6-mile walk along the gated road that leads to Mineral King. Although the road is snow free late in the spring, Sequoia National Park does not normally open the road to vehicles until around Memorial Day and if you wait that late, there is usually not enough snow to ski.

On 23 April 2004, four of us met at the locked gate, about a mile before the Atwell Mill Ranger Station. It had taken over an hour to drive the last 20 miles or so from the Mineral King road intersection with Route 198. Karen Davis, John Langbein, Steve Cochran, and I planned a 4-day loop going counterclockwise over Farewell Gap, Shotgun Pass, and Sawtooth Pass. Most of the route can be seen on the Mineral King 15 min quad map. The eastern portion is visible on the Kern Peak map.

Day 1 - Locked gate (6,500 ft) to South of Farewell Gap (9,700 ft). We walked about 6 miles to the Mineral King Guard Station. One more mile of walking got us to the end of the paved road at 7,500 ft where we could see Farewell Gap to the south. Skiable snow was reached at 8,000 ft and conditions were good all the way to the pass (10,500 ft). The best ski line was along the snow-covered stream west of the summer trail. The sun was setting as we had our first of many great descents on this trip. We camped at a large flat area below the pass, just west of Bullfrog lakes.

Day 2 - South of Farewell Gap (9,700 ft) to North of Rattlesnake Creek (10,800 ft). We had 2 options. A steep climb to the east past Bullfrog Lakes led to a pass at 11,600 feet that would connect us directly to Rattlesnake Creek. We could also continue south, dropping to below 9,000 feet, counter around a ridge, and head north over Shotgun Pass at 11,500 feet to reach the same destination. We choose the latter which in retrospect was a mistake. The snow disappeared quickly and we had to carry our skis about 3 miles. Luckily the summer trail was easily followed. Shotgun Pass was a straightforward ski ascent. From the top, we could see Mt Whitney and Mt. Williamson across the Kern River Canyon to the Northeast. To the south, much lower terrain was visible for miles. This is really the edge of the High Sierra! The north side of Shotgun Pass provided great corn snow as we descended 1400 feet to Rattlesnake Creek. A short climb brought us to a pleasant campsite with water and a view.

Day 3 - North of Rattlesnake Creek (10,800 ft) to Columbine Lake (11,000 ft). We had early sun and a beautiful day. By 9 am we were skiing toward Little Claire Lake but almost dropped too low. Luckily John's map reading skills kept us from skiing back down into the Rattlesnake Creek drainage. We had a fast icy descent to Little Claire Lake and then an excellent steep descent to Soda Creek. Part way down, John attempted a turn on an icy spot in the shade. He slipped and slid down about 150 feet before coming to a stop against a tree. He had a couple of minor scrapes but we were concerned that his back was bothering him. We offloaded some of his gear and continued on.

He was able to finish the trip OK. We stayed on our skis for several miles as we descended Soda Creek. Below 9000 feet, we had to carry our skis but found the summer trail and followed it to the west into the Lost Creek drainage. We soon were skiing and had good snow all the way to Sawtooth Pass. It was late by the time we approached Columbine Lake. A steep ascent was required to get to the lake and we didn't arrive at camp until 7 pm. We camped next to the lake and were able to chop a small hole for water. It was the 3rd straight night that we had water, one of the real advantages of late spring trips.

Day 4 - Columbine Lake (11,000 ft) to Locked Gate (6,500 ft). Again, we had early sun but we took our time to let the snow on Sawtooth Pass soften up some. It was quite cold during the night; 18 degrees in our tent. The route over the pass went directly over a cornice. I angled up to the right of the cornice and climbed on rock for the last 100 feet. The others took a line further north and climbed over a slightly higher pass staying on the snow all the way. We had to remove our skis and kick steps. The snow was hard enough to get our attention and it almost required an ice ax. From the top, we could see Glacier Pass below us to the west. Taking a long break, we let the snow soften some more and then had 3000 feet of wonderful skiing before the snow finally gave out about 1000 feet above the end of the road. More walking the trail to the road, we repeated the 7 miles of walking to our cars. Luckily, we got a ride for the last mile or so from a person who had a cabin at Silver City (a small picturesque village about 3 miles from Mineral King). He had a key to the gate. Having friends in Silver City would be very nice if we ever want to repeat this trip! We arrived back at the cars at 5 pm.

Summary - We estimated that we covered around 40 miles including the walk along the road. There was considerable elevation gainabout 9,000 vertical feet. It was a late spring tour and we went light. Steve and I averaged about 31 pounds at the start including full water bottles. We shared a Bibler tent while John and Karen were independent of us in an Integral Designs tent. There was no avalanche risk at this time of the snow year. Due to a mistake, I had brought only one cartridge for the hanging Bluet stove that Steve and I used. We thought that we would have to "beg fuel" from John and Karen but we managed to get 6 mandays out of the 7 3/4 oz cartridge. Further proof that the hanging stove system is the most fuel-efficient setup that one can use. An alternate tour would avoid dropping low at the southern and eastern parts of the loop. In the 1 st edition of "Backcountry Skiing in the High Sierra", Moynier talks about skiing Bullfrog Pass (11,600 ft) and it also appears feasible to cross the crest from Amphitheater Lake to Crystal Lake. Another possibility is the class-3 pass between Sawtooth Peak and Needham Mountain. You will need to review the maps to make sense out of these alternatives. Bring ice axes for those deviations and plan to do some climbing. With more time, the upper bowls east of Franklin Pass looked inviting for skiing.

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