Ski Mountaineering

Winter Traverse of the Tableland

Feb 19-23, 2005

Reiner Stenzel

This was a winter ski tour from Lodgepole across the Silliman Crest, the Kings-Kaweah Divide, a traverse through the Tableland, and a descend to Pear Lake and Wolverton. The objective was to experience true winter wilderness, to travel where at this time of the year nobody can go on foot, and to be reasonably safe and comfortable in an environment where an improperly prepared person would probably perish. These conditions are found in the backcountry of the Western Sierra Nevada where in mid-winter the Pacific storms dump their moisture and the mountains are covered by many feet of soft snow. This year's Presidents weekend was no exception. A low pressure system moved slowly over Central California and produced real winter weather.

We left Los Angeles on Fri, Feb 18, in pouring rain. Luckily, the Generals Highway in Sequoia National Park was open and there was no problem to reach Lodgepole. The road was flanked by 6 foot high walls of snow. We car-camped in the empty parking lot and enjoyed a fondue-wine dinner on my birthday evening.

On Sat, 2/19, our small group of four (Alvin Walter, Steve Hessen, Stefan Schiede and myself) gathered at 7:30am at the Lodgepole Visitors Center. We drove to Wolverton where we left two cars, returned with one car to Lodgepole where we started our tour around 9:30am. Near the Visitors Center we skied on a snow bridge across the Kaweah River, passed through the employee's town where a concerned Ranger directed us to the trailhead and wished us well, then headed up the "trail" toward Silliman Creek. The sky was uniformly gray, it was snowing lightly and turned foggy as we ascended and/or the clouds descended.

Occasionally we lost the trail and simply continued to ski XC through the forest while navigating with my GPS. Near the streambed of the completely covered Silliman Creek we ascended north past Willow Meadow toward Silliman Meadow. It was now snowing heavily and trail braking in the deep wet snow became arduous. My original plan was to camp at Silliman Lake. The next morning we would do an ascent of Mt Silliman (11,198') and then continue to ski past Little Lakes to Silliman Pass. However, this plan had to be abandoned since the open slopes up Silliman Creek were too dangerous to ascend. They were loaded with heavy new snow and we were in a complete whiteout with continuous snow fall. Thus, by 3pm, we decided to ascend a safer forested ridge toward the Little Lakes. By 4pm a winter thunderstorm moved in. It was not safe to camp too high in the open. Thus we stayed near the last trees at about 9200', 0.3mi SW of the Little Lakes, and set up camp quickly to get out of the weather. The dark and gloomy evening was occasionally interrupted by yellow flashes of light followed, within seconds, by roaring thunder. All night it was snowing heavily.

On Sun, 2/20, after 12 hours in the tents, we woke up and there was still a whiteout and light snowfall. After we shoveled a foot of snow from our tents, finished breakfast, packed and got ready to ski, the clouds thinned, broke up and the sun appeared. Suddenly we were in a winter wonderland: All trees were rimed and loaded with fresh snow, all slopes were covered with velvet snow, the clouds were swirling around Mt Silliman; it was a wonderful sight - as long as it lasted. Out of the Central Valley the clouds were rising again and by 11 am Silliman was back in a whiteout. This was not the season for peak climbing, unlike 7 years ago, when we had spring-like weather on an SMS outing to Mt Silliman.

From the Little Lakes we headed north toward Silliman Pass, which is just south of the prominent Twin Peaks. The summer trail switchbacks from the Twin Lakes to the Pass, but in the present conditions the slopes looked too avalanche prone, thus we stayed high on the Silliman Crest to approach the Pass. Skiing along the corniced crest also offered us a grand view of the high country of the Sierra Nevada, in particular the Great Western Divide. During our lunch break at the 10,200' pass we took many pictures, enjoyed some sunshine, and were in a high mood, looking forward to a fine ski descent. For the break we had taken off our skis but we could not walk on foot since with each step one sank in to the hips. Thus, it would be impossible to travel in this terrain without skis.

After peeling off the skins I noticed that the metal edge of my right TUA Helium ski had a crack under the binding and a bulge in the P-tex. With the knife I pushed the protrusion back down, not worrying too much. Then we skied down the east side of Silliman Pass in deep snow. While doing left telemark turns I felt some unusual flex in my right ski. It did not take long to realize what had happened: The ski had delaminated and cracked right in the middle. This was totally unexpected since I used the same skis the weekend before without any problems. It was a very serious problem since without skis one cannot get out of this terrain. The first precaution was to give up turning or trail braking to avoid too much flexing the cracked ski.

Then I put on skins and slid gingerly in the tracks of my fellow skiers. This worked fine till the late afternoon when we made camp in the upper Crowley Canyon, at 9200', at the South Fork of Sugarloaf Creek. We chose to camp in the last stand of trees since by 4pm the wind had picked up and it was snowing again. We had another dinner in the snow and then spent the next 12 hours in the tent; enough time to figure out what to do with a broken ski.

On Mon, 2/21, it was overcast but not snowing. After the usual breakfast of oatmeal with hot chocolate I started to repair the ski. I took the basket off my Life-Link ski pole, unscrewed the 3' long carbon-fiber shaft and attached it with steel wire to the underside of the ski on top of the skin. The pole was tightened at both ends and in the middle with steel wire around the ski. A small hose clamp fixed the wire to the smooth shaft. The idea was that the pole would keep the two halves of the ski together, take up my weight (220lbs with pack) on each step and present minimum friction when sliding forward. Finally, another wire was attached from the hole in the ski tip to the pole so as to prevent the pole from sliding backwards. A test run was made and it worked. In fact, it worked flawlessly for the rest of the trip. Shows that a good repair kit is vital on backcountry tours.

After breaking camp we ascended Crowley Canyon to cross the Kings-Kaweah Divide. Many of the passes were steep and corniced, but Alvin led us over the least precarious one near UTM 4056000N, 351500E. In the high open country of the Tableland we were greeted by cold winds, spindrifts and poor visibility. At 11,000' the rolling terrain of the Tableland offers no protection, no trees, no rocks. We kept travelling in a tight group following the directions of the GPS. We headed for Lake 10,559' about 0.5mi N of the Table Meadows. As we began our descent to the lake the clouds lifted and we had a wonderful view into the Kaweah River valley. Unfortunately, the Great Western Divide was still in the clouds. We (minus one) had a fine ski run down into the valley where there were many good campsites among small trees. Predictably, it started to snow at 4pm. Unexpectedly, an hour later the sun broke through some wild looking clouds. Now we could fully enjoy the scenery of the Tableland in sunshine. In the sunlight we spotted a large slab avalanche, a reminder to be very careful in this terrain and weather. A thick thunderstorm cloud rolled in and at dinner time it snowed heavily again. At a midnight nature call, the valley was in bright moon light.

On Tue, 2/22, we had an easy day. We only had to ski a few miles down to Pear Lake Hut. I had made reservations at the hut, since after three rough nights everyone would probably enjoy a warm shelter. The run down the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River was fun, very scenic and almost too short. The hut was open, the stove was running and we met a nice young couple. In no time we occupied all the laundry lines with our clammy clothes, sleeping bags, wet tents, etc. Like civilized people we ate lunch at a table, read books and talked around the fireplace. In the later afternoon we skied the hills near Pear Lake. It snowed and was sunny intermittently. While everyone was heading up to the "Little Matterhorn" I toured around Pear Lake and skied the mellower slopes. Although not easy, I managed to tele on one leg and one pole, gaining a deep respect for those who have no other choice. While everyone else was yo-yo-ing on the hills I compensated by skiing the summit of Pear Lake Hut.

On Wed, 2/23, we packed up, cleaned and left the hut. In fine weather we skied the low route past Aster and Heather Lakes, over the Hump and down the trail to Wolverton. From the Hump on down the snow turned into infamous Sierra cement. In the parking lot my left leg was burning from skiing primarily down on it with a full pack.

We had all had made it safely across the mountains and were happy with another great ski mountaineering adventure. After digging out the cars and shuttling back to Lodgepole we were on our way home passing through the beautiful green Sierra foothills covered with wildflowers. It was a great trip with great friends.

Two years later we would return to ski and climb on the Silliman Crest in perfect spring weather.

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