Ski Mountaineering

Sardine Canyon
(Private Trip)
Feb 13-14, 1999

Reiner Stenzel

A mid-winter backcountry trip in the Sierra Nevada is always an adventure. A break in the storm system was predicted for the Presidents' Day weekend. I had no luck in finding other SMS'ers on a short notice, therefore took off with my best friend Tatanka who never says no. Since on Fri eve, before the long weekend, the Fwy 405 was solidly covered with metal, I opted for an Alpine start on Sat, drove to Independence, inspected Sardine Cyn from the 395 and gave it a go ahead.

In this low snow year I was sure to be able to drive up to the Onion Valley parking lot. But trouble started already at the 7,000' snow level where, in spite of chains, the tires vanished in unconsolidated snow. The driving was over and a long ski ascent started (4mi, 2000' to the parking lot). No chance to do Sardine Cyn in a day trip. After skiing up the road and along Independence Crk I arrived in the afternoon at the parking lot. Not a soul around, not even ski tracks at this usually busy place.

The route up toward Golden Trout Lke starts with a steep climb. By 5pm I set up camp in a stand of old pine trees in the canyon. It was getting windy, cold and snow flurries came down. After dinner, the wind really picked up and periodically ferocious gusts came down the gully from Dragon Pk. We were all engulfed in spin drifts. Contrary to general principles, Tatanka was allowed into the tent. Actually, in these conditions I did not mind the extra warmth of a 90 lb K-9. Occasional growls kept prowling coyotes at a distance. All night long trees and tent were shaken by the winds, spindrifts found its way into the smallest tent openings, and a nature call became a true punishment.

Next morning, I awoke to a bloody red sunrise. Miraculously, the winds had calmed down. At 8am we headed up Lilley Pass (11,920', 0.5mi W of Kearsarge Pk). The slope was steep and frozen hard, requiring careful edging and a minimum of kickturns with a full pack. The dog had no problems uphill but downhill his claws don't break. Then I have to leave good tracks in which he usually follows. The upper part of Sardine Cyn was covered with windslabs but on the lee side of Pk 3877m there was dry powder snow. I contoured around this peak to look into Little Onion Valley. It's a superb ski terrain but there was no safe way down from the ridge between Pks 3877m and 3701 m.

After some nice tele turns down onto Sardine Lke there was a stretch of barren rocks, followed by a ski descent down the bench at 3300m. It was paralleling on hard snow. Below the mine, breakable crust required careful balancing or exhausting jumps with full pack. Then, a zone of spring-like snow started for great telemarking. Below the upper mining road the canyon narrows and required short-radius turns around many bushes and rocks. Finally, at 2200m, one crosses again the mining road which one traverses South to the Onion Valley Rd. From Lilley Pass to the mining road it is a 4,800' ski descent, a great but exhausting run with a full pack. By 3pm I was cruising home in no traffic. The mountains were shrouded in clouds in anticipation of the next storm.

P.S. In March 30-31, 1996 the SMS also did a ski trip to Sardine Cyn. The snow conditions in upper Sardine Cyn were excellent and Howard Schultz enjoyed telemarking greatly. But the lower 3000' turned into breakable crust by early afternoon. The east-facing Sardine Canyon should be skied by midday.

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