Ski Mountaineering

Mt. Silliman, Great Western Divide

March 21-22, 1998

Leaders: Reiner Stenzel, RJ Secor

At the beginning of spring, on a warm sunny weekend, eleven skiers came together for a ski tour in the Western Sierra Nevada. Participants were Franz Zechner from Austria, David Kaye from Arizona, Dorothy Reilly and Mike McDermitt from San Francisco, and Dennis Landin, Danny Sommer, Susan Loftus, Jim DeRose, Richard Geist, Aaron Walter from the Los Angeles area.

We met at 8 am at the Lodgepole Visitor Center in the Sequoia National Park. Snow conditions looked very promising: At the roadside the snowbanks were 8 feet high, and the buildings were covered with snow to the top of the roof. It took some time to organize equipment to share. We talked Susan into leaving her brandnew 7lb tent behind. Aaron was about to call it quits when he discovered that he had forgotten his skins. He was saved by Franz who smilingly pulled out of his pack a second pair of skins, explaining that one always takes two pairs on touring in the Alps because of balling problems.

By 9:30am we started our tour at the Twin Lakes trailhead (6,760'). Luckily there was a bridge across the Kaweah River which was running strong. The trail steadily ascends toward Silliman Creek. There were a few obstacles on the trail and some route finding challenges in the forest. Luckily Danny knew the area well from his activity as an Outward Bound instructor. At noon, after several hours of forest skiing, we made a lunch break at a scenic spot overlooking the Silliman Creek. Near Silliman Meadows (8,200') we slowly got out of the forest and had our first views of the excellent slopes we would later ski on. However, there were also clear signs of avalanche activity. Deep, wet snow covered convex slopes of smooth granite and the obvious cracks warned us to stay away. Thus, we carefully ascended the steep slopes toward Silliman Lake among trees at the side of the cracked slopes.

Between 3 and 4pm our spread-out group arrived at basecamp next to Silliman Lake (10,049'). There was a nice bench, away from any avalanche runouts, with a scenic view of Mt. Silliman to the North, the Sierra foothills to the West, and the coastal range far beyond the San Joaquin Valley. Tent city grew with two megamids, a Bibler and 2 other tents. A large snow kitchen was dug out for cooking and socializing. But the day was too good for relaxing. So some of us skinned up to the base of Mt. Silliman and had a few warm-up turns on excellent spring snow. There were a few uneasy moments when after 5pm the clouds rolled in and the visibility and depth perception were gone, but luckily it cleared up for the descent. It was useful to bring my small Motorola radios along to stay in touch with basecamp.

After a good long sleep we got up by 7am to a sunny day. Little by little, thin high clouds moved in forming a ring around the sun, a precursor for the next predicted storm. By 8:30 am ten skiers headed up the Southern slopes of Mt. Silliman. At places, the snow was rather crusty requiring careful edging and even more careful kickturns. When the angle became uncomfortably steep, Susan and Dorothy wisely turned back.

By 9:15am eight of us summited Mt. Silliman (11,188'). We signed the peak register with the rewarding feeling having been the first party this year on the summit. The view of the white endless range of mountains was superb. Franz said he felt at home. The entire Great Western Divide was near us, the Kaweahs stood out in the South, the Palisades in the North, and Dennis even spotted the crack in Split Mtn (*_*). Snow-covered Mt Pinos rose above the fog of the San Joaquin Valley. We took many pictures and fully enjoyed the summit without hurry on this beautiful windstill spring day. By 10 am, we decided that the snow had softened enough and we could start our ski run down.

Franz, having skied all his life on stable randonnée gear, was seriously concerned how we would get down without "proper" bindings. He was surprised when the bunch of free heelers lay beautiful tracks and zipped down the mountain. Admittedly, the snow was perfect and on ice we would have been in trouble. It was a great ski run down which some of us spiced up with a steep drop into Silliman Lake. At basecamp, we had an early lunch and packed up. Dennis and David liked it so much that they contemplated of staying for another day. But because of the impending storm we convinced them to come out with us.

The ski run down from Silliman Lake started out under perfect snow conditions, a few inches of soft snow on a firm base. It was telemarking at its best, although a good workout with a full pack. Then came an invisible line in the snow where the firm base changed to bottomless mush. Everybody, even Franz, took a dive into the wet soup. It was time to change skiing style. My favorite approach was even weighting and steering the rear ski early into the turn. Then it was not too difficult to ski on mush, especially with superfat powder/crud skis (Dynastar BIGs, 115mm shovel).

Everyone struggled through the mush zone, and some got precariously close to the cracks in the center of the wet snowfield. After regrouping, we proceeded with our descent along Silliman Creek, followed by plenty of dense forest skiing, and finally down the narrow trail to Lodgepole. It was a delight that we could ski essentially all the way down to our cars, where we arrived at about 2:30pm. We felt the workout of a 4,500' ski descent. But we all agreed that it was a weekend of fine skiing in abundant snow, good weather, a beautiful terrain, an excellent summit view, and a harmonious group of fine skiers. Last but not least, the drive through the Sierra foothills in mid March is a delight in itself, since the hills are green and blooming while the high country is all white. While driving home, my odometer reading exceeded 200k mi, not too bad for an old VW bus with original engine.

Reiner Stenzel

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