Note: This page is an edited version of a 6/18/93 email message describing a weekend backcountry ski trip in June 1993; all the dates below are in 1993.
Before we left New Jersey for another summer in Palo Alto, John Ellis (Xerox PARC) had offered to arrange a camping/backcountry skiing trip in the Sierras for our first weekend in California. He promised something mellow—ha! I should've known better.
John made arrangements for me to rent Randonee ski equipment from Marmot Mountain Works in Berkeley (which, incidentally, is a great store). We went over on 6/10 to pick up the equipment so we'd be ready to leave just after lunch on 6/11.
Randonee skis are essentially alpine skis with different bindings, and they're a bit shorter. I rented Fischer 190cm skis; my regular alpine skis are 207cm. The bindings have a releasable heel. When released, the ski works like a cross-country ski, but it's substantially more rigid and heavier. When the heel is locked down, the ski works like an alpine ski. We also rented skins, which are mohair strips that are about 2.5" wide and the length of the ski. When attached to the bottom of the skis, you can move forward, but not backwards. John also had some ski crampons, which fit on the bindings and help keep the skis from going backwards.
Randonee boots are like lightweight alpine ski boots, but they're more flexible and much lighter, and there's an inner boot that can be worn around camp. They're comfortable enough to hike in and to wear all day; indeed, I took in only the Randonee boots.
The short summary of the weekend plan was: do a slow hike up on skis (with heel released), eat lunch, do a fast ski down (with heel locked down). Of course, these two activities take vastly different amounts of time and energy!
Friday, we assembled around 1pm at DEC SRC for the drive to Tioga Pass (about 240 miles). The group included me and Maylee, John Ellis and Michelle Calos (Stanford Medical School), Mark Manasse (DEC SRC) and Janet Mohle-Boetani, and Hania Gajewska (DEC SRC). John, Hania, and I had Randonee equipment, Mark and Janet had cross-country skis, and Maylee and Michele had small, mountaineering snowshoes. Only John, Hania, and I planned to do much climbing.
We drove to Tioga pass and John, Michelle, Maylee, and I camped at about 6500' in a campground on the other side of the pass; Hania, Mark, and Janet got the last motel room in Lee Vining, a small town on the East slope of the Sierras. There was lots of snow at 7000' and above; the road opened just 10 days or so before our trip, and 8" fell on the previous weekend. Saturday morning, the weather was crystal clear, and we assembled at the Saddlebag Lakes trail parking lot (just below Tioga Pass at about 9200'), loaded up our packs and began a 3-mile hike into a campsite at about 9800' nestled beneath numerous peaks. The temperature fell to 36 at 6500' during the night, but it was already 60 at 8am at 9200'.
Most of the hike in was on skis (carrying a 45lb pack) and slightly uphill. We walked for about 3/4 of a mile, but once we reached about 9500', almost everything was covered with snow. The trek in took about 3 hours and it was hot. I was wearing running tights, shorts, a midweight capilene turtleneck (opened, of course), a hat, and glacier glasses.
The fun began in the afternoon. John and I started up a drainage toward the top of White Mountain. The skis are amazing. I could easily (well,…) go straight up inclines of up to 15 degrees. On steeper slopes, we zigzagged our way up. This is actually more work because it requires an uphill kick turn at every change of direction (something I never mastered completely), and it's easy for the downhill ski to slip. On steeper slopes, slipping can be sort of spooky; there are no moguls—just smooth snow sloping away at, say, at 30 degrees on some pitches. I fell twice, but didn't slip more than a few feet. We were also carrying our lightly loaded packs; mine contained a parka, bunting pullover, ski pants, an avalanche shovel, and an ice axe. The bindings have a heel lift for climbing: it snaps into place so your heel stays about 2" off the ski. Achilles tendons love this device!
John and I climbed at a rate of 500-700 vertical feet per hour. I know this because John and I both have new Vertech altimeter watches the size of small computers (but that's another story). We climbed about 1700' and reached a somewhat precarious narrow ridge of snow about 250' under the summit of White Mt. at about 3pm. We were at about 11800'.
I took a much-needed rest while John scrambled over rocks and along another ridge to the 12057' summit to take pictures, sign the log book, and generally feel good. It was also clear to me that I had done a poor job of protecting myself against the sun. All of this climbing is above the tree line, and the reflection off of the snow was fierce. I've been paying for my mistake all this week.
John and I started the trip down at about 3:45pm. This is actually a bit late; the snow softens considerably, so the best skiing down is around 1-2pm or even earlier. The descent was absolutely wonderful! We skied alone in untracked corn snow all the way down on pitches of various steepness. Skiing with a pack on short skis was a new experience, but it didn't take me too long to adjust. It took us about 30 minutes to descend; we stopped for pictures, water, the view, to catch my breath, etc.
While John and I were having fun (and working hard), the rest of the crew had set up camp on the snow. After dinner, we turned in early at about 8:30 because it got dark and cold. Camping on the snow was a new experience, too. It's cold, and some of our gear, which works fine on bare ground, doesn't work so well on snow. Thermarest sleeping pads, for example, seem to get cold because the vapor in the them freezes.
Sunday, we got up in time for John, Hania, and I to to head up toward Mt. Conness by about 8am. Hania and John were eager to ‘bag the peak.’ I was eager just to survive. Except for the sunburn, I was in better shape than I expected. I rigged a bandana hanging off my baseball hat to protect my face and neck; I wish I'd done this a day earlier.
This climb was, on average, steeper, we climbed further, and I was still recovering from the previous day's jaunt. Again we climbed about about 700 vertical feet per hour; we climbed about 2180' stopping many times on the way for water and snacks. It's amazing how dehydrated you can get climbing in snow. We stopped along with 2 other climbers (and an amazing dog) for lunch at another semi-precarious perch at 11970'. One of the other guys was 60 years old, but he didn't look it. He said he'd been doing backcountry skiing for 35 years.
We were halfway up a steep pitch and perched at about 300' feet below the summit (or, more precisely, the ridge to the summit). There was an enormous cornice (6' to over 20' high) blocking most of the way to the summit. After lunch, John and Hania decided to leave their skis and try to make it to the summit, or at least go look for a way around the cornice. The other 2 climbers had already headed up toward the summit. I volunteered (!) to stay and watch the skis (and rest, of course).
Much to my discomfort, when John and Hania reached the cornice, they decided they could get over it at its lowest point near some rocks. It's difficult to describe, but suffice it to say that, up close, it didn't look very safe to me. I held my breath while they scrambled over the cornice using their ice axes.
Once over the cornice, they said the walk up the ridge to the summit would've been easy, but it was knife-edge ridge covered with snow—too dangerous. (We learned later that the other 2 climbers didn't attempt the ridge either.) Coming down the cornice proved to be quite a bit more difficult than going up; it took John and Hania about 20 minutes to negotiate it, and I held my breath again. Once over it, they did an entertaining and tension-relieving butt glissade back to my perch.
The 2180' descent was terrific! After 3-4 hours of climbing, the ride down is really invigorating. We all made wonderful figure-eight tracks on the way down, though John's and Hania's were better than mine. Later, we could see these tracks miles away. We also took lots of pictures that make me look like I knew what I was doing. I did, however, fall once (on an easy pitch, of course). The descent took less than an hour.
While we were having fun, the rest of the crew broke camp, packed up, and hiked out to tour Mono Lake. We arrived back in the remnants of our camp around 3:30pm and loaded the packs for the trek back to the cars. After the descent, the hike out was a lot of work, although it took us only about 1.5 hours because it was slightly downhill (remember, we're on skis). We got to the cars at about 5:30pm and headed home. I'm sore, but I'm not incapacitated; the sunburn was the worst of it.
This trip was the most fun and excitement I'd had in a long time. I'm probably now hooked on backcountry skiing, and anyone interested in skiing ought to try this at least once.