The High Sierra Ski Tour is often described as one of the most spectacular ski tours in the world. It is certainly an awe-inspiring journey through California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and is composed of towering peaks, incredible vistas, and vast terrain. You will encounter steep traverses, long ski descents, and various mountaineering challenges one would expect in remote, snow-covered mountains at elevations upwards of 13,000 feet.
This undulating, high-altitude journey starts outside of Independence, California at Symmes Creek, follows the boundary line between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park, and culminates 45+ miles later in Wolverton and the giant sequoias. Before you finish you will have crossed at least 8 mountain passes with half of them serving up steep ascents, and half of those potentially requiring ice axes and even crampons if it is icy.
Most guide services rate the tour as Class III-IV, and the preferred length of time is 5 nights and 6 days. However, keep in mind that ratings and time can be elevated because of difficult conditions such as blinding snow, bulletproof ice, or if you are simply not prepared to carry a heavy pack over the course of several days at high altitude. Furthermore, if you are not familiar with the route, and relying on a topographic map to guide you, this can also make the trip more difficult.
Coordinating the shuttle is no easy exercise either. We commandeered a ride from Lake Tahoe south on Highway 395 to Independence, and then scheduled a shuttle pickup through Sequoia Tours to be picked up at the Wolverton trailhead and driven to Visalia, California. As an aside, we also shipped a box of clean clothes and toiletries to the tour company, and managed to work out a shower in the Park. Larger groups can schedule a flight out of Visalia to take them across the Sierras either before or after their trip, and it runs about $1400 for an 8-passenger plane.
This is by no means meant to serve as a complete guide. Before attempting this trip purchase John Moynier’s, Backcountry Skiing: California’s High Sierra, as well as the appropriate topographic maps. A permit is also required.
Starting at the base of the Eastern Sierras, the trail meanders quickly up through the sagebrush along the creek bed and soon enters the John Muir Wilderness Area. It is possible to see Big Horn Sheep, for their meandering trails are evident in several places. It is quite a push to make it in the first day, approximately 5,000 vertical feet, but the recommended place to reach for the first night is Anvil Camp. That way you are poised to tackle Shepherd’s Pass the next morning, and it sets you up to cross the remaining passes during the most ideal conditions before the snow has the potential to get icy.
Shepherd’s Pass is quite steep and will no doubt require boot-packing to get to the top. If it has recently snowed or sun-affected you should be wary of avalanche danger. From the top you will ski a gentle, westerly descent until you are skinning again and making your way towards Milestone Peak.
Milestone Basin is absolutely beautiful, and Milestone Peak is unmistakable with its chimney tower. The key thing to know about crossing Milestone Peak is that you will proceed left of the summit even though it appears as if you want to go right. There is some exposure here, for you will be crossing above a cliff, so it is a good time to make use of that ice axe you’ve been carrying.
From the top you will ski down Milestone Bowl towards Colby Pass. Here is where we made the mistake of going too far and dropping down to the Kern River. Make sure you head right before the last drop down through the trees to the river basin. For us, this is where the weather turned and it began to snow. Visibility became poor, and it was definitely a challenge navigating the confusing terrain. That night we set the tent up in the snow and wind, but by morning it was clear and beautiful with several inches of fresh snow on the ground.
After you cross Colby Pass your next challenge will be the long traverse around and up over Triple Divide Pass. The Pass is further than you think, so continue to the far end past the prominent peak to your right. You’ll know you are headed in the right direction because the juncture is aptly named. The three divides that separate the Kaweah, Kings, and Kern Rivers come together at this point, and it is impressive to see with breathtaking views all around.
It is at this point that you ski down towards the Glacial Divide. The beauty of this place is inexplicable, and the size and distances of the mountains are enormous. Traverse across the Divide towards the obvious Fin Peak, and cross over Fin Pass.
Things get a little confusing here and the guide book nor the topographic map are all together helpful. After skiing down it seems natural to head immediately right with Hamilton Dome on your left, but you actually traverse around the left side of the dome and its neighboring peak, cross over Coppermine Pass, then the Horn, and into the Tablelands.
The Tablelands tempt you to ski down into the midst of them, but it is best to stay high and traverse around them. I am quite sure there are other ways to proceed through this chaotic jumble of rock outcroppings and snow, but I am not aware of the route. Eventually you will reach Pearl Lake.
From Pearl Lake it is a fun descent down past the Pearl Lake Hut. It is possible to reserve the Hut during the winter, and it comes complete with a pellet stove, bunks, and tons of great skiing and beautiful scenery all around you.
From the Hut you are faced with the last ascent of the trip called, The Hump, but before you know it you are meandering down through the woods towards Wolverton.
Gear & Tips:
- Skis – Karhu Jak BC
- Bindings – Fritschi Diamir Freerides
- Ski Boots – Scarpa Alpine Touring Boots
- Take only that which is necessary for a light pack is crucial. Backpack items included:
- Ice Axe
- Mountain Hardware Skyview Tent (fly, drop cloth, and poles only)
- Mountain Hardware 20 degree sleeping bag
- Therm-a-rest (No Chair Kit!)
- 1 Stainless Steel Cooking Pot
- MSR Superfly Stove
- 3 MSR IsoPro fuel canisters
- 2 lighters
- 1 Spoon
- Plastic mug with lid
- Headlamp and 4 extra batteries
- Mammut Barryvox Tranceiver
- Metal Shovel
- Black Diamond Probe
- Skin wax (take a small block; the spray will freeze)
- Wide-mouth water bottle
- First Aid kit
- 70 spf sunscreen (still got roasted)
- Patagonia clothing
- Das Parka
- Ski Pants with side zips and gators
- Mid-weight Capilene Bottoms
- Mid-weight Capilene Top
- 2 Silkweight T-shirts
- Silkweight boxers
- 3 Superlite ski socks
- Depending on the time of year (Trip date: April 5-10, 2008), you very well may discover thin to non-existent snow for the first 4,000 feet. Unless you really enjoy wearing your ski boots, you might consider taking an old pair of tennis shoes to wear for the initial climb up towards Shepherd’s Pass. The most responsible course of action would be to pack them all the way to the end; however, some skiers do opt to leave their shoes at Anvil Camp in hopes that someone coming from the other direction will pack them out and throw them away.
- The ski route is often called the High Sahara Route because of the lack of liquid H20. Nevertheless, it is important to stay hydrated. Whenever you pause for a break take time to mix snow in with the water in your water bottle. If the sun is out and air relatively warm, do your best to melt snow in your water bottle on the outside of your pack. Keep your water bottle in your sleeping bag at night.
- Dried noodles & soups
- Dried potatoes
- Dried cranberries & blueberries
- Clif – bars, shot bloks, luna moons