Sierra High Route in a Day

May 15, 2005

 
Starting out at Midnight


At the stroke of midnight, I left the car and started my trek. Earlier, Saturday evening, Id dined with friends in Lee Vining, and then cleared my mind as the night got late, blasting loud rock music at an otherwise quiet spot off of a dirt road in the desert-like Sierra eastside.

 
Symmes Creek obliterated by avalanche debris

I had scouted the first few miles of the route a few days earlier, having heard about trail damage along Symmes Creek due to a major avalanche in early January. It had been a biggie, and the wreckage was stunning. At 6850', one reaches the tail end of nearly a mile of deep avalanche debris, resembling a flowing glacier of tree trash so thick that you can't even see the deep snow debris underneath it (all more than 1000' below the current prevailing snow line). Thanks to Thursday's scouting dayhike, I found my way through the mess in the dark without any significant delay.

 
Climbing the Shepherd Pass headwall at 6AM

Doing patchy snow in the dark was tricky in places; I lost the route farther up, before Symmes-Shepherd notch, and later just above Mahogany Flat, but didn't need to bushwhack all that much before I found the trail or boot-tracks in the snow. It was much easier after "Advil Camp", ~10000', when the ground finally had pretty even snow coverage. And I was glad to get some daylight as I approached the "Pothole" base of Shepherd Pass. I passed a yellow tent below the headwall and scrambled up to the 12000 pass. I topped out at 6:20 AM, and felt great. Took a photo, ate a cheese sandwich, put on skis, and moved on.

 
Atop Shepherd Pass

 
Looking across the Tyndall Plateau towards Milestone

The snow across Tyndall Plateau was wonderfully fast, as I toured across open country towards the Great Western Divide and the striking apex of Milestone Mountain. I refilled my hydration bag at the Kern River probably around 8:30, at one of the spots where it wasn't snow-covered, and contoured around into Milestone Basin.

 
Feeling good in Milestone Basin

Milestone Pass tops out around 13100', and the last thou of that is where I started sucking wind, feeling the aerobic efficiency flag some. I tried to pace myself, and got to the pass at a little before 11:30. It was time for a break! I took off my boots for the only time of the trek, partially airing out the accumulated moisture, and I had another cheese sandwich. In addition to being the tour's high point, it was my last opportunity to turn back. I was getting pretty tired, but at that point I was looking at only 4000' more of gain (with nearly 10K' of descent). The next four hours would be crucial; I figured I could limp my way out from Coppermine Pass to the west, but things really needed to go right over the next few passes until then. Could I do it? Sure. Snow had been near perfect so far, weather was holding up, and though I was growing somewhat weary, muscles were still doing their thing without complaint. So at 11:50, I put on my boots and dropped into Milestone Bowl. It was a moment of exhilaration, and the sweetest descent of the trip.

 
Approaching Triple Divide Peak (the turns belong to skiers who'd gone in the other direction)

I got a sobering up soon after that though, as the east-facing ascent of Colby Ridge featured some surprisingly rotten slushy snow. The daytime heat was affecting both me and the snowpack, and I lost some time going up this moderate (700') ascent. I was relieved to find a fresh up-track to follow soon after that, which made the ascents of the next two passes significantly less of a chore.

 
In Cloud Canyon, Triple Divide Peak in the background (the route goes over the pass to the left of the peak)

 
Looking down Cloud Canyon, flanked to the right by The Whaleback

I did the long traverse up to Coppermine Pass (below), getting there at about 3:45 PM. The snow had improved some here on the north side of the east-west divide, but I was getting seriously wiped out. But it felt so good to reach this point, and to have a reasonably finite 1300' or so of elevation gain left in the trip. I took a break, 15 minutes maybe, in which I ate more bread & cheese, popped another electrolyte tab and a B vitamin, and added a few handsful of wet snow to the water bag (which would then melt while cooling my back).

 
The approach to Coppermine Pass

 
Cruising along upper Deadman Canyon

The next pass (above) was an easy ramp-up, especially with the tracks that I was still following. It was a little before 5PM when I caught up to the group responsible for those tracks, six guys from Truckee, at the camp that they were setting up. I traversed down and then up into the Tablelands, enjoying views of the Kaweahs to the south (below). Snow was getting quite slushy once again, especially no longer having the other group's tracks. But it was miles of downhill at this point, so I pointed my ski tips and cruised.

 
The Kaweahs

I reached the Pear Lake Hut at 6:45, sucked down a PowerGel, and pushed on. The snow quality was now ridiculously awful, skis sinking as much as a foot into the unconsolidated slop, and I didn't have a lot of daylight left.

 
Looking north from near Aster Lake

Those last two little uphill sections were the tour's final insult. I was grateful to find a snowshoe-mashed path from Heather Lake up to the Hump, or that final +200' might have done me in.

 

I reached the Hump at 7:45 PM. How fine it was to reach that familiar ridge top. The sun was setting and I was in the home stretch. I glanced back, wishing I could linger on that last view of the Tablelands, waves of lenticular clouds reminding me of the East Side where I started. I had time to smile, before descending to Wolverton as fast as I could.

-Bob Akka, 5/18/05

 
The Tablelands at sunset.


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