Sawtooth Bowls Tour

May 3-6, 2002

Trip report by Fred Hochstaedter

Lucy O'Brien teles down Mt. Eocene
A call for a telemark base camp tour near the Sawtooth Ridge appeared on the SnoNet pages a few months ago. Since Iíve enjoyed this area for years, I signed on as soon as I saw it. A few weeks later Bob, Cathy, Barbara, Dave, Lucy, Mark, Mike and I met at the Hays St Grill in downtown Bridgeport CA. Since my tent partner had dropped out unexpectedly at the last minute, I had to figure out new eating and sleeping arrangements. Graciously, Mark and Lucy let me use their stove and be a Mid Kid with them. The charge was cheap: two cans of fuel and some tent stakes in my backpack. I also agreed to do the Chin-OĎBrien variation of the trip: a traverse along the northern side of Sawtooth Ridge over to Horse Creek Canyon.

We reconvened at the Twin Lakes trailhead and soon were cheerily bouncing along to Blacksmith Creek with hopes high for a quick ascent up the canyon. Up through the pines we bounded following Bob and Barbaraís leads. Happily we arrived in the hanging valley of Blacksmith Canyon. And then we met... the willows. It was the crux move of the trip. We scratched, we fought, we climbed, we clawed, we yelled, and yet all we met were more willows. Up high, down low, willows were everywhere. We ate lunch to reassess the situation. We pondered the three types of fun.

This was definitely Type 2. Finally, we got down near the Creek and ascended the thin band of pines near the creek up to where we could... put on skis!

Up we skied about 1500 more vertical feet to Glacier Lake where we set up camp in a driving cold wind. Mark schooled me in the intricate and delicate art of Megmid site construction. After an hour of careful digging and stake setting, we had a palatial home. After dining on pasta with sausage in the cold wind, we watched the towering pyramid of Blacksmith Peak bask in the last rays of sun. Blacksmith to the southeast, the snowy slopes of Eocene Peak to the southwest, leading to the rocky spires of Walt. Blacksmith Canyon is beautiful.

Our tracks near the base of Mt. Eocene
Next day we were up and climbing up towards Eocene Peak. I followed Dave up some steep slopes and found out that he was much more comfortable on his ski edges than I was. But make it we did and soon we were to the top of Eocene. Fabulous views to the East down the crest of the Sawtooths. Blacksmith, Cleaver Peak, and on to the Dragtooth. Ritter, Banner, and Lyell to the south, Tower to the west. After a quick lunch we were skiing down some moderately steep slopes. At first a few of us were worried, but as we realized the snow was soft and forgiving, it became great fun.

At the bottom we decided to traverse over to the first pass that we would need to cross on the Chin-OíBrien variation the next day. Along the way, we came upon a small cornice over a small gully. Bob said, "Hey Fred, wanna jump this cornice so I can take your picture?" Clearly woozy and confused from the altitude and exertion, I suddenly thought I was "Alfred Hochstaedter, Skier de Extreme." "Sure," I replied, forgetting that Iíve never jumped anything before. I marked my spot and over I went... headfirst into the soft snow below. Cathy informed me that I went into telemark position a tad early, like before my skis left the ground. Cathyís qualifications on ski jump instruction, however, were quickly brought into question.

Onward to the pass, northwest of Blacksmith Peak. It looked steep, but we found soft snow and were soon kicking steps down, around, and then up the adjoining col in preparation for the next morning. After a delightful ski back to camp, we sunned ourselves in down jackets and warm hats in between bursts of wind and a few ever so light snow flurries. More sausages for dinner, this time with Barbara as we got in touch with our shared German heritage. "Do you like sausages, Barbara?"

"Of course I do, Iím German."

By the next morning, the rest of the group had decided to join us on the Chin-OíBrien variation of the trip. So we all broke camp and edged up a pitch of hard snow and then mellow slopes in the sun to the pass. Off came the skis, out came the ice axes, and over the pass and up the steep section of the adjoining pass we went. By this time, another party had joined us: Ken and Dede. They were doing the long, scenic route approach to the Matterhorn, which they planned to climb the next day. On top of the pass we found ourselves in perhaps the most beautiful bowl Iíve ever been in. Blacksmith and Cleaver Peaks with Glacier Col between them loomed above a broad snowfield. The alpine zone of the Sierra at its best. We howled our appreciation. We could see that an easy traverse would bring us to our next objective, the notch in the Cleaver, the long ridge emanating northwards from Cleaver Peak.

As we skied beneath Blacksmith Peak, I had an artistic vision. I could see that some ski tracks leading up to the cliffs would look good in a photo from the opposite side of the bowl. After a short debate over whether the vision was fueled by art or testosterone, Mark and I skinned up 75 feet or so and made some sloppy turns in the slushy snow. After regrouping and looking back at our tracks, I think most folks shared my vision. "The soft, graceful tracks contrast brilliantly with the jagged edges of Blacksmith Peak," commented Bob, providing an insightful bit of art critique.

As we approached the Cleaver notch, it looked short, but very steep. Bob glibly sauntered over and sidestepped up without taking off his skis or putting on skins. We could see that the snow was hard and somewhat icy on that exposure. The precariousness of Bob balanced on his edges on the steep icy slope scared the crap out of Lucy and caused Cathy to swear. Eventually, steps were kicked up a short, steep section of an adjoining couloir. The other side was steep and rocky, but a route was found for us to climb down after lowering the packs on ropes. As I started down I tried to reassure Cathy that Iíd be able to do it by saying, "This p-p-p-pass is no p-p-p-problem, Cathy." No, I donít usually stutter.

Soon we were all down and happily singing happy birthday to Ken, whose rope was used to lower the packs. We ate lunch under the Cleaver with beautiful views of Threeteeth, the Doodad, and the Dragtooth, as well as the Horse Creek Canyon. I talked with Dede, and commented on her big four-buckle tele boots on this tour. "Yeah, I usually donít go much for tours; I usually just go for the couloirs," she said. I figured that she was a very good skier. Turns out she had entered the extreme telemark competition in Jackson Hole earlier in the season. "Changed the whole way I look at how to ski down a mountain," she continued.

Dede contemplates the meditative wonders of the springtime Sierra wilderness; photo by Fred Hochstaedter
We skied along towards the Dragtooth and soon enough came upon another little cornice. "Hey Dede, wanna jump this cornice so I can take a picture?" I asked.

"What cornice?"

"This one right here."

"That little thing? I thought there was some big killer cornice somewhere around here you were talking about."

"No just this little one right here. I can stand on this rock and take your picture with the mountains in the background."

"Heck, you could jump this one." I assured her that I could not, as I wasnít quite the skier that she is. She dutifully tossed her big backpack down the hill, put on her helmet, and jumped the cornice. I was quite thankful as I got a nice picture.

Soon enough we said our goodbyes to Dede and Ken and we were off skiing down to the little lake in the drainage below the Matterhorn. Lucy had had thoughts of skiing Ski Dreams, the big wide couloir just east of the East Couloir on the Matterhorn. We rounded a corner and had a great straight on view of the Ski Dreams. It looked steep. "I donít want to ski that," she said, after taking a quick glance at the steep slopes. So off we went to the little lake where we said our good byes. I had to ski out that afternoon whereas the others were staying another night. I skied out Horse Creek Canyon over some nice corn snow on the lower north-facing slopes. Back to my car at 5, out of Bridgeport by 6, and back home by 12:30 the next morning. It was a great trip. Definitely the best spring ski tour trip Iíve ever done. Thank you especially to Bob, Dave, Mark and all you more experienced mountaineer types who showed me how to hold an ice axe and eased me over the steep sections. Type 1 fun all the way!

-Fred Hochstaedter, 5/6/02

More photos and route on the Sawtooth Bowls main page