Backcountry Skiing in the Sierras (Mammoth to Tioga Pass)

The last week in March, me and 3 friends skied from Mammoth Lakes to Tioga Pass.  We started skiing Tuesday morning, and reached the car Saturday, early afternoon.   We passed through some truly spectacular country.  Here are some details of our trip.

We drove to Lee Vining, and left our car at a parking lot near the winter gate that closed the road up Lee Vining Canyon.  We used a shuttle service, Mammoth Shuttle, to pick us up from there and drive us to Tamarack Lodge.   We spent Monday night at the Tamarack Lodge and had a great dinner at the Lodge’s restaurant.  Tuesday morning we headed out on our adventure.  The touring started on the groomed Tamarack Lodge x-country ski trail right outside the door.  We took the left fork at the warming hut, and were on our way.

We skied along the gentle, groomed trails following the signs to Horseshoe Lake.  Then we left the groomed trail and headed up and over the broad slopes of Mammoth Pass and down into Red’s Meadow.  From the meadow, we decided to take the road north, following snowmobile tracks, and eventually taking a left fork that brought us to a bridge crossing across the river.

From here, it was a long, steady climb up towards Minaret Falls, through open forests.  We had planned to reach Minaret Lake the first day, but we were getting a bit tired, and decided to make camp in the drainage a ways below the lake.  The camp spot was sheltered and pretty, and surrounded by big trees, but if we’d known how scenic it was at Minaret Lake, we probably would have pushed on the extra hour to reach the lake.  GPS coordinates for our camp site are:  37.653633/-119.112911

Our first camp

Next morning, we followed the drainage up to Minaret Lake.  When we finally crested the steep rise and saw the basin, we were treated to some really beautiful alpine scenery.  In fact, from here on, the terrain became much more rugged and alpine in nature, with sweeping vistas and granite peaks replacing the pine forests we had been traveling through.

Climbing up to Minaret Lake

 

 

 

 

View from Minaret Lake

The pass above Minaret Lake leading to Cecile Lake was steep and icy.  We strapped crampons on our boots, and strapped our skis on our packs and headed up a left-slanting couloir the led up to the top of the pass.  If we hadn’t brought crampons and axes, we probably could have booted up it, but it was quicker and more secure with our ice gear.

From the pass above Cecile Lake, it was a nice, mostly downhill run down to the valley above Ediz lake.  From there, we had to climb again, and by late afternoon had arrived at Nydiver Lakes.  We were tired, and the weather was cold, blowing and the skies were filling with dark clouds, so we made our camp on the edge of the lake.

Because of the winds, we took our time preparing our camp, pitching our tents behind a rocky knoll, and constructing snow walls to shield us from the heavy gusts.  I treated myself to an extra cup of hot cider that evening to ward off the cold.

GPS coordinates for 2nd night camp by Nydiver Lake:  37.693705/-119.172778

Cold and windy camp at Nydiver Lake

The next day, we made short work of the 2 passes north of Nydiver, and then traversed the wide expanse of Thousand Islands Lake.  Then a long, steady climb up to Island Pass.

Up above Nydiver Lake

Traversing Thousand Island Lake

 

Climbing into the clouds

The descent down from Island Pass was quick, and we crossed the creek right above Waugh Lake.  The climb out of this drainage was strenuous, and by the time we got to the headwall/pass below Lost Lake, I was pretty beat.  We made camp in the valley, with views of the Palisades to the East, the Pass to the North, and the far off peaks we had passed earlier spread out to the South.

GPS coordinates for 3rd night camp:   37.769840/-119.203715

Our campsite the 3rd night

The next morning, we were faced with a bit of a conundrum.  We were not sure how best to tackle the pass up to Lost Lake.  Some of us thought that the couloir North/Northwest of us would be the best option.  Others (myself among them) figured that contouring around to the East and Northeast looked like an easier option.  In the end, we decided to contour around on the less direct Northeast route.  This way turned out to be pretty easy, with a relatively gentle slope.  (The direct route up the couloir might have been fine too, but I guess we’ll never know now.)

Skinning up to Lost Lake

After the pass above Lost Lake, we traversed Northwest  until it was time to turn Northeast and make the long climb up to the Kuna Connection pass.  We had been fearing the Kuna Connection for the whole trip, as it was reputed to be the steepest slope we would encounter.  If it was icy, then descending could be quite challenging.

Lunch break below the Kuna Connection Pass

When we finally arrived at the Kuna Connection pass, our first emotion was dismay.  It looked dangerously steep and pretty scary.  However, the South section of the pass was much steeper than the North, and as we traversed the ridge Northward, we found that the angle eased up quite a bit.  It was steep, but not suicidal.  However, there were a lot of large rocks midway down the slope that could make things quite painful if a skier were to fall here.   My friends all skied down.  I decided I wasn’t too sure I could get down without falling.  I knew I could get down walking, however, so I clipped my crampons on my boots, strapped my skis to my pack, and down climbed the steepest section before putting on my skis again.

On top of the Kuna Connection Pass

Looking at my friends, who were all very far ahead of me by this time, I was in a hurry to catch up to them.  I opted not to de-skin my skis and skied down the slope with my skins on.  This turned out not to be a very good plan, as it made skiing quite difficult.  Making turns was very challenging, and the skins would grab at inopportune moments, throwing me off balance.   I made it down, but would have been much happier if I’d taken the few minutes necessary to take my skins off.

With the dreaded Kuna Connection behind us, we had a long slog out the gentle drainage towards Tioga Pass.  The snow was deep, wet, and soft, and breaking trail was a real challenge.  We alternated positions in line, with the trail breaker rotating to the back when he got too tired.   Finally, we set up camp in the drainage along the creek.  It was noticeably warmer than it had been up at our higher elevation camps.   It was our last night on the trail.  The technical difficulties were behind us.  I was getting excited to get back to civilization.

GPS coordinates for last night’s camp by Parker Pass Creek:  37.874025/-119.242558

The next morning, the soft deep snow had frozen from the overnight low temperatures, so thankfully we didn’t have to slog through it breaking trail like we had the previous afternoon.  On good snow, the descent went pretty rapidly, with our biggest challenges being a couple of stream crossings.

We left the drainage, and headed north up a broad open valley with beautiful views and under sunny skies.  Finally, we reached Tioga Pass.   We were able to ski from the pass to just below Ellery Lake before we had to strap on our skis and start walking down the paved road to where our car was parked at the gate.   We all knew that a hike down the road was part of the trip, so we had packed running shoes to wear for this section.  I strapped my skis and boots to my pack and motored down the road, fueled by thoughts of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Hiking down Lee Vining Canyon

The hike down the road took several hours, and I was pretty happy to finally see the parking lot with our car in it.   The trip had been challenging and amazing, with gorgeous scenery along most of the way.

I can’t seem to figure out how to put in a downloadable link to a Google Earth track of our trip from Tamarack Lodge to the top of Tioga Pass.  However, if you contact me, I’d be happy to e-mail you the KML file.

Our route, along with an altitude graph

 

Our ski tracks down one of the passes (can’t remember which one this is.)

 

Skiing through the wind

List of gear I brought on the trip:

Clothing
Mammut All-Year top
Craft boxer briefs with wind panel
REI running pants
Black Diamond AT gaiters
Full side zip precip pants
Patagonia Piton Hoody
Mountain Hardwear Quasar pullover
Brooks Range down hoodie
Buff headband
OR Sun runner cap
3 pair Smartwool ski socks
Dynafit “TLT-5” boots with inserts
Rab phantom grip gloves
OR Supercouloir gloves

Personal Gear
Kelty Cloud Spectra backpack
Adidas Terrex Pro sunglasses
MSR Hydromedary 2.5 liter water bag
Petzl Zipka headlamp
Suunto Vector altimeter watch
Sunscreen
Android cell phone
4 paper towels .7
Toothbrush/paste 1.6
Lighter
Sony RX100 Camera
Extra camera batteries, lens wipes

Ski Gear
Life Link probe ski poles with powder baskets and self arrest grips
DPS Wailer 99 skis with Plum Guide bindings
Leashes
Ski Crampons
Mammut Barryvox Avalanche beacon with new batteries
Grizzly Folding shovel 21.4
Ski skins
Velcro ski straps .8

Ushba ice axe
Camp Aluminum Crampons

 

Personal Camping Gear
Snowpeak Titanium cup and lid 3.8
Titanium Spoon .3
Thermarest XTherm sleeping pad
Montbell pillow
Marmot Helium 15degree sleeping bag with Granite Gear compression stuffsack

2 Person Group Gear:
Pyramid tent with pole adaptor
MSR Reactor stove 20.1
Snowpeak titanium bowl 1.8
3 Fuel canisters (12.5 each)

Entire Group Gear:
1st aid kit with firestarter, duct tape,
Lighters
Map
Skin Wax
Compass with inclinometer
Epoxy, steel wool
Brooks Range Ski Multi Tool
inReach satelite transciever

Food

Breakfasts
12 oatmeal

Lunches
10 energy gels
10 shot blocks
10 energy bars
5 packages of pepperoni
Cheese
5 Bagels
5 Baby Ruth candy bars
Nuts

Dinner
4 freeze dried dinners
8 hot drink mixes

 

 

 

 

 

Teton Crest Ski Tour

April 9-12

I just returned from a four day trip skiing along the Teton Crest trail.  We started the trip at Teton Pass at the base of Mount Glory, and 4 days later, came out Cascade Canyon.  It was one of the best ski trips I’ve ever been on.  Scenery was fantastic and we had perfect weather for the trip.

This was my fourth attempt on this route.  The first attempt, we never even got to the Tetons, as I rolled my car on I-80 in southern Wyoming in a storm.  The second attempt, my partner broke his ski binding 2 hours into the trip.  The third attempt, I ripped my ski binding out of my ski at the end of the first day.

After trying to get it done so many times, it was great to finally get to ski the whole route.  We had a great time.  After we left Mount Glory, we didn’t see anyone else the whole time. It ranks as one of my favorite backcountry experiences.

What follows is a brief summary of the route, along with some (hopefully) helpful information for anyone else who is interested in skiing this amazing route.

Right Click and “save link” to download a Google Earth Track of our trip.

Unfortunately, the road to Jenny Lake doesn’t open until May 1st, so you have to park at Taggart Lake.  This means that at the end of the trip you’ve got to hike from Jenny Lake to Taggart Lake.  Because we would be leaving our car at the Taggart Lake parking lot for 4 days, we stopped in at the Park Visitor’s Center (open at 9:00) to let them know we would be leaving the car in the Taggart parking lot for 4 days.

A note on regulations:  If you are going to sleep inside the Park boundaries, you need to get a backcountry permit from the Park, available at the Visitor’s Center.    We didn’t  plan on sleeping inside the Park, so we didn’t bother with a permit.  If you do get a permit, you may also be required to get a bear canister.  However, if you are going to sleep above 10,000 feet, a bear canister is not required.  It’s easy to find campsites outside of the park boundaries and/or above 10,000 feet, so I would recommend not carrying a bear canister.  No bear in its right might is going to be messing around in deep snow at high elevation, so it’s not worth carrying the extra weight.

We dropped our car at the Taggart Lake parking lot, and used a taxi to take us to Teton Pass, where the trip starts.  For the shuttle, we used Drop Horn Taxi.  They were great.  He arrived early, and charged us $85 to take the five of us from Taggart Lake parking lot to  Teton Pass.

From Teton Pass, it was a long grind up to the top of Mount Glory.  The snow was crusty and the angle steep, so we booted up a well-worn boot track instead of skinning.

At the top of Mount Glory

From the top of Mount Glory, we were treated to beautiful views.  After a brief rest, we took off, following the ridge crest curving around to the left.  The route generally follows the wilderness boundary north.  Generally, the easiest route stays just a bit back from the edge of the ridge.  Eventually, we dropped down off of the ridge for a long, open run to Phillips Pass.  We saw some snowmobile tracks here, but no snowmobiles.  The drop down to Phillips Pass was our first chance for some actual downhill skiing, and we enjoyed some turns in mashed-potato snow.

At Phillips Pass, we contoured down into the Moose Creek drainage.  We traded altitude for distance, slowly dropping down as we picked our way through trees, cliffs and gullies as we headed north up the drainage.   Eventually, we dropped all the way down to the East bank of  Moose Creek, and skinned our way up the gently sloping, open track.

Skinning North along Moose Creek

We’d already had a pretty long day, as we had left Salt Lake at 2:00 a.m. to get to Jackson that morning.  We were all pretty tired, so we decided to make camp at the top of the Moose Creek drainage.   We found a nice spot with easy access to the creek for water.  We spent a pleasant night.  It was calm, beautiful, and not too cold.

1st Night's Camp in the Moose Creek Drainage

Next morning began with a steep climb up and over the pass into Granite basin.  After getting up over the ridge, we more of less followed the summer trail along the gentle Middle Fork of Granite Basin, then into the steeper North Fork.  At the North Fork, part of our party dropped down North East into the drainage, while two of us contoured West up to the head of the drainage, which connected with two benches on the North side of the drainage, passing the frozen Marion Lake along the way.  We joined up just above Marion lake.

Looking down into the North Fork of Granite Creek from the North Bench

We stopped for lunch on a ridge line just before the drop down into the wide open plateau, with Spearhead Peak to the North East, and the Grand Teton looming to the North.  This broad expanse seemed more like a huge glacier in Alaska than something in the Western wilderness.  The vistas were simply breathtaking in every direction.  We kept heading North, passing below Spearhead peak, moving slowly closer to the Grand Teton, which loomed to the North.

Skinning up to Fox Creek Pass

Approaching Death Canyon Shelf

At the beginging of the Death Canyon Shelf, Spearhead Peak in the background

We finally pulled up onto the Death Canyon Shelf, and followed it for a while.  It was getting late in the day, so we decided to look for a camp site.  We found a beautiful sheltered spot on the Death Canyon Shelf.  We were treated to gorgeous evening light on the Grand Teton as the sun set.

Camp on the Death Canyon Shelf

The next day was probably the most difficult on the trip, primarily because of some route finding choices.  (Note that I’m not admitting that we got lost, just saying that we may have chosen a path that was not the easiest.)  At first, it was pretty straight forward, as we just followed the Death Canyon Shelf along to Mount Meek pass.   At this point, however, we were lured East by some skier tracks from a party that had passed this way some time earlier.   So, when we got to the ridge above Alaska Basin, we were too far East to see the Sheep Steps which lead down into Alaska Basin.  To the West of us, where the Sheep Steps should be, all we could see was a long line of cliffs, with no apparent way down.

The ski tracks that we had followed went East, off of a steep face dropping down toward Death Canyon, then contoured North under Buck Mountain toward Veiled Peak.  We decided to follow the tracks and cross Alaska Basin on benches along the Basin’s North side.  Dropping down off of the plateau was more exciting than I would have liked, as it involved skiing down a rather steep face with cliff bands below.  A fall here would have very unpleasant consequences.  I locked out the release on my bindings, and carefully skied down the face, following my friends’ tracks.

Dropping down into Alaska Basin

We contoured North East, then North West, following a high bench on the North side of Alaska Basin.  Eventually, we got to a point where we could see the South side of the basin clearly, and we saw the obvious weakness in the cliff bands that was the Sheep Steps, West of where we had been.  We then realized that if we’d just kept going West along the ridgeline, we’d have been able to drop down into the basin relatively easily rather than skiing the steep cliffy band we’d negotiated.

The climb up to Hurricane Pass was a long slog with some steep climbing to get up out of Alaska Basin.  We had a bit of urgency because our calm blue skies had been displaced with clouds and wind.  As we approached the pass, the sky was darkening, and we were keen to get over the pass and down into Cascade Canyon before the storm hit us.

Approaching Hurricane Pass

When we reached Hurricane Pass, the wind was blowing strong, giving us an incentive to get down off of the pass as quickly as possible.   However, the slope on the North side of the pass was pretty steep.  I didn’t measure it, but it felt like 50 degrees.  My friends disappeared over the edge one by one, and finally it was me (the worst skier of the group) who was left to descend the slope.  It took me a while to get up the courage to commit to the slope, but ultimately, when I finally decided to just ski it, it all went well.

With the weather changing for the worse, we made camp just below the pass.  We spent more  than usual care pitching the tents and making sure our camp was secure, as the winds were already rising.  That night, the winds blew heavily.  It started raining, then the rain turned to snow.  Between winds that were shaking our tent walls, and heavy snow that  kept collapsing the tent edges in on us, nobody got much sleep.   We woke up to a bit of a blizzard, with limited visibility and high winds.  We didn’t bother with breakfast.  We just threw our stuff in our packs and started skiing down the canyon.

Morning at Camp 3, Below Hurricane Pass

The skiing was fantastic.  Up until this point, we hadn’t really enjoyed any great skiing, but with 5 or 6 inches of fresh snow, the descent down the South Fork of Cascade Canyon was a lot of fun, with everyone swooping down the slopes, yelling with delight.  We alternated between skiing down the stream bed and staying just to the left of it.  Eventually, as we dropped down further, the stream bed became narrower, and we stayed left and higher up in the trees.  We must have been following the summer trail, because when we finally reached the junction with the main branch of Cascade Canyon, we ran right into the bridge across the creek.

In contrast to our quick ski descent down the steeper South Fork, the main Cascade Canyon was a gently sloped, slow slog out.  It took us longer than anyone thought it would to finally reach Jenny Lake at the mouth of Cascade Canyon.  Luckily, there was some pretty scenery for us to marvel at on the way out, including trees laden with fresh snow and Spanish moss.

Descending Cascade Canyon

By this point, I was pretty tired.  I’d skipped breakfast because of the nasty weather, and had only eaten an energy bar all day long.  The slow slog around Jenny Lake seemed to just go on and on without end.  When we finally reached the end of the skiing and got to the road, I was exhausted.  Because my feet were hurting, I took off my boots and made the hike from Jenny Lake to Taggert Lake in my socks.  It wasn’t ideal, but it felt so good to get my boots off of my blistered feet.

It felt amazing to finally see the parking lot with our car there.   We celebrated our trip with a dinner at Wendy’s and then drove home.

Celebration Dinner

After 4 days in my boots, I ended up with 13 blisters on my feet, including this one.

This trip was one of the best in my life.  It was a perfect combination of challenge, good friends, good conditions, and amazing scenery.

 

Here is a list of the gear I took on the trip.   At the beginning of the trip, my pack weighed 28 pounds, including 2.5 liters of water.

Teton Crest Ski Tour Gear
Clothing
Mammut All-Year base layer top
Craft boxer briefs with wind panel
REI Activestretch running pants
Black Diamond A/T gaiters
Marmot Pre-cip full zip pants
Mountain Hardwear Quasar pullover
Mountain Hardwear hooded Compressor jacket
Loki pile hat
Buff headband
Outdoor Research Sun Runner cap
2 pair Dahlgren ski socks
Dynafit “TLT-5P” boots
Rab phantom grip gloves
Outdoor Research Supercouloir gloves

Personal Gear
Kelty Cloud 60 liter backpack
Adidas Terrex Pro sunglasses
MSR Hydromedary 2.5 liter water bag
Mammut Lucido TX1 headlamp 4.9
Suunto Vector altimeter watch 2
Sunscreen in 1 oz squeeze bottle
Casio Commando Android cell phone
4 paper towels .7
Hand sanitizer (1/2 ounce)
Toothbrush/paste 1.6
Lighter
Olympus PEN E-P2 camera with 12mm, 20mm, 45mm in Mountainsmith Zoom-S case
Extra camera batteries, lens wipes

Ski Gear
Life Link probe ski poles with powder baskets and self arrest grips
DPS Wailer 99 skis (184cm) with Plum Guide bindings
Powder cords
Mammut Barryvox Avalanche beacon with new batteries
Ortovox Grizzly Folding shovel 21.4
G3 Ski skins
Velcro ski straps for securing skis to pack .8

Personal Camping Gear
Evernew Titanium cup
Titanium Spoon .3
NeoAir All Season sleeping pad
Montbell inflatable pillow
Marmot Helium 15degree sleeping bag with Granite Gear cuben fiber stuffsack
2 Person Group Gear:
Sylnylon pyramid tent with Black Diamond pole adaptor
MSR Reactor stove
Snowpeak titanium bowl
3 Fuel canisters (Should have only brought 2 of these)
Group Gear:
1st aid kit with firestarter, duct tape,
Lighters
Map
Compass
Purple wax, cork, and scraper
Skin Wax
inclinometer
Epoxy, steel wool
Brooks Range Multi Tool
Delorme inReach

Breakfasts
9 oatmeal

Lunches
6 energy gels
6 energy bars
3 packages of pepperoni
Baby Ruth candy bars
Cashews

Dinner
3 freeze dried dinners
6 hot drink mixes

1 gallon ziplock bag (for trash)