Ski Mountaineering

Sawtooth Ridge, Eocene Pk

May 23-25, 1998

Leaders: Reiner Stenzel, Gerry Holleman

Ten eager skiers came together for a long weekend of backcountry skiing in the Eastern Sierra Nevada near Bridgeport. These were Pat and Gerry Holleman, Maya Hostettler, Randy Lamm, Eric Watts, Richard Contreras, Duncan Livingston, Richard Geist, Ken Deemer, and myself, seven telemarkers and three on randonnee gear.

Having survived the Friday holiday traffic on Hwy 395, we met on Sat, 5/23, 7:30 am, at Twin Lakes (7,092') among many fishermen and a few fellow skiers. After obtaining parking permits for the private lot we started up Horse Creek Trail by 8:45 am. We hiked up a few switchbacks and encountered continuous snow roughly near the waterfall (7,600'). Last year, when we skied Matterhorn Peak on the same weekend there were abundant wildflowers on the trail, but this year El-Nino left abundant snow. Travel through the brushy part of Horse Creek was actually quite short and easy. Nevertheless, we made good use of my portable radios where the leading group would scout for a good route and advise the rest of the party. When we reached the first steep slope (8,600'-9,200') it started to snow on us. We had a break and wondered about the weather forecast promising a warm sunny spring weekend.

Our route left Horse Creek at about 9,200' and turned west toward The Cleaver where we planned to set up our basecamp. A second steep climb got us to about 10,000'. As it got rather windy we looked for a sheltered spot among trees and found one on a ridge west of the broad gully leading up to Matterhorn Pk. It was very scenic with Horse Creek Canyon to the north, the Sawtooth Range to the South, and a finger-like peak to the West. We dug in behind trees, built a luxurious kitchen, and then six of us went on an afternoon ski exploration toward the Dragtooth. Unfortunately, the clouds sank down, obstructing the view of the peaks and made skiing in flat light difficult. Thus, we took a run down into the Matterhorn Canyon and since the snow was excellent we dropped all the way down into Horse Creek, then skinned back up and were back at camp for cocktail hour at 5 pm. As we sat around the dining table and cooked dinner we wondered about tomorrow's weather. The forecast ranged from pure sunshine to snow showers, depending on one's optimism. The latter won since plenty of stars were seen during a nature call at night.

On Sun morning there was not a cloud in the sky. I had called for an early start and indeed we were ready to ski out by 7 am. Pat and Richard C. preferred to stay near basecamp, thus eight went on the planned long daytour to the Incredible Hulk at the Western end of the Sawtooth Range. We headed toward the Cleaver Notch (10,880') which was reached after a short steep climb. Once in the col we were rewarded with an outstanding view of peaks, snow-filled chutes and bowls without human tracks. To the South one could see the Dragtooth, the Doodad, one of the Three Teeth, Polemonium Pass, and to the West there was the massive Blacksmith.

The ridge north of the Blacksmith was the next obstacle to overcome. With this years amount of snow we thought that by staying high we would have a chance to ski over the ridge into the next bowl but, tough luck, there was a steep rockwall to the west. Thus we skied down parallel to the ridge to find the unnamed col (10,800') described by John Moynier (p. 160). This included a fine steep descent in genuine powder snow, then a sharp turn west and a short climbed into the col. Now, another vast range of snow fields opened up to the West, finally bounded by the long ridge of the Incredible Hulk. But our eyes caught on to Eocene Pk (11,581') which had a smooth 30-40 deg northeast facing slope with continuous snow coverage to the summit. It called for being skied.

After a snack break on a flat rock below the Blacksmith, we headed toward the Western end of the Sawtooth Range. A cliff below Eocene presented a minor obstacle due to steep snow with cracks. The snow was getting pretty soft now and on a neighboring slope the first wet snow avalanche came down. The ascent of Eocene Pk took another hour. The group was spread out widely with typically Duncan at the summit while the last were just starting at the base.

Once on the summit, the view was outstanding. We sat in a wind-sheltered place with view to the South overlooking an endless range of peaks and valleys with nearly complete snow coverage. All lakes were still frozen over. The sky was clear, the sun strong, but a cold steady wind blew from the north. After a relaxed lunch and picture taking it became 2 pm and time to return. The great ski run down Eocene Pk was ahead. The northeast facing slope was so broad that everyone could carve his/her own tracks. I picked the most east facing slope which was had soft and wet snow which my 115 mm wide skis were made for. At each turn the wet snow slid a bit, big balls were rolling down, and after a few turns one had to stop to let the moving hill settle. This thrilling game of testing the snow stability went on for 1000'.

Looking back from the bottom the hill was totally carved up by ski tracks and vertical streaks from sliding snow. Of course, in a few days the slope would be as smooth as before. We retraced our steps to the unnamed col in the ridge north of the Blacksmith. Looking down from the col to the northeast there was a beautiful narrow gully leading down to Avalanche Lake. Wrong direction, but how can one resist such beautiful untouched corn snow? Six of us plunged down with the expectation to climb back up in the adjacent gully to the Cleaver Notch to which Gerry and Richard headed without detours. We stayed in radio contact all the time.

The skiing down was "as good as it can get". But for so much pleasure one has to pay a price. As we turned toward the next gully there was a vertical cliff and no way down. There were two options, one was to climb out along a steep ledge above the cliff, the other one was a humiliating, long, but safe retreat. Half chose the latter option, the other half went for the adrenaline hike. Gerry at Cleaver Notch was informed about our progress by radio. He, in turn, told us that clouds were moving in and sinking onto the peaks. Thus it was time to get over the last pass. At about 4:30 pm we had all made it over Cleaver Notch. Some hiked it down, most skied it down. After a last fine ski run we were all safely "home" at basecamp after a 10 hour ski adventure which could not have been any better.

We were greeted by Pat and Richard, who also had a fine ski day with Richard successfully skiing Matterhorn Pk. We relaxed in the community kitchen with cocktails, hot drinks and dinner. The evening sky filled with stacks of lenticular clouds, not particularly a good sign. At night the wind increased and ferocious gusts were blowing over the ridge, rattling tents and bending trees. Some time in the night the sound of snow on the tent walls started.

On Mon morning, winter had returned. The sky was uniformly grey, it was snowing and a cold wind was blowing. Nobody was eager to get up. Eventually, some joined Duncan eating breakfast in the kitchen in a snowstorm. Our plan became obvious: We had to get out asap and head for the hot springs. But easier said than done. First we had to pack up in the snowstorm, then descend two steep slopes on hard snow since not enough fresh snow had accumulated. Skiing with a full pack in 50 mph gusts was not everyones taste, thus some hiked down, others did survival turns, while the randonneers had their day. The wind decreased in the lower part of Horse Creek, but the snow now turned into rain. Below the waterfall, it was back to hiking on the trail which got us all safely down to the cars before noon. In the sheltered valley it was hard to believe that we just came out of a full fledged snow storm. Finally, on our way home half of the team regrouped and soaked their bare bodies in a hot spring.

This end-of-the-season tour had all the elements of a great ski mountaineering trip: Abundant snow, endless ski terrain, steep passes, a peak climb, summer weather and a winter storm. Our group was harmonious, had excellent skiers, and there was freedom to ski to ones limits. Thanks to Gerry for helping to lead this SMS adventure in the Sawtooth Range.

Reiner Stenzel

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