Skiing the Sawtooth’s – a four day traverse with Sierra Mountain Guides

Last year I wanted to do more backcountry skiing but my injury and a low snow year dashed those hopes quickly but this year I was determined to get more backcountry exposure so I signed up for Sawtooth’s Traverse with SMG. Nicolas signed up with me to make the tour a certainty and we ended up being 3 people with Howie and Mark guiding.

We met up Friday evening in Bishop at SMG office to go over the gear and the logistics. It was snowing and another storm system was predicted so we discussed alternate plans if the avalanche danger got too high. We were going to meet at Bridgeport ranger station at 8am, get our permits, and then start from Twin Lakes. I spent the night in Mammoth and after early breakfast at Stellar Brews, I was off. My trip could have easily ended when I slipped on ice outside the cafe but luckily it wasn’t too bad.

I gave myself extra half hour since I wasn’t sure on how sketchy the drive will be because of the storm but luckily the roads were clear and I was at ranger station by 7.30am. We split up the gear, weighed our packs, and headed over to twin lakes. I had put in extra effort to reduce the weight of my pack and it paid off, it weighed 33 lbs with all the food and gear which was well within my expected range of 30-35 lbs for a trip like this.

We started off at around 9.30 am and even with fresh snow on the ground it was not worth putting our skis on so we had to carry them for a while. Crossing the Robinson Creek was challenging and after some bush whacking, climbing through some sketchy terrain we were into the canyon and could start skinning up. It wasn’t until noon that we got chance to put on our skis. There was a skin track that we saw and we didn’t quite follow it because it was too steep for our liking. I still got to practice some kick turns and learn from Howie on how to do them efficiently and not to mention it was interesting to see how he was setting up the skin track.

Crossing Robinson Creek

After 3 hours of more skinning we finally got to our camp site under the Hulk. Hulk is a big granite wall which has lots of climbing routes and I certainly hope to climb one of them. We found a cool spot for our camp and by the time we got established with the camp it was around 4pm so it wasn’t worth it to check out some of the ski lines around the Hulk. I was feeling good but wasn’t in mood to go skin up and ski, I didn’t mind waiting for us to put on our skis.

Incredible Hulk

Our Camp

We were planning to get an early start in the morning so it was soon time for bed at around 7.30 pm. I was hoping to do some night photography on this trip but the moonrise wasn’t until 9pm so for it to appear it would be around 11-12 and I certainly wasn’t planning to stay awake for so long.

Woke up at around 5am and we were ready to climb our objective Eocene Peak (11,569′) and then drop into the Blacksmith creek drainage to establish camp. It started off as a bluebird day but as we were climbing the clouds started to roll in. We were able to skin up for the most part but after a while we roped up and put on our crampons on. It was more of a precaution rather than necessity and around noon we were on top of Eocene peak and it was very windy.

It was now time to put on our skis for the first time and enjoy some fresh turns. The snow wasn’t firm and it made for some really good skiing. We wanted to find a sheltered spot to set up camp but in the end it didn’t matter since the wind changed directions. We were well established in our camp by 2 pm so now it was time to go check out some of the couloirs nearby and get some more skiing in.

First Turns of the Trip

I didn’t hydrate too well so was having a slight headache but I decided to go and get some turns in. I didn’t take my camera with me to avoid carrying extra weight and of course as we started skinning up, I regretted that decision. It was snowing little bit and quite windy so we had to access the conditions accordingly and couple of times we crossed across the slope one person at a time. Booting up the couloir it was knee deep snow and when we got to the top, I was little nervous. It was my first time skiing a consistent 45-50 degree slope in knee deep powder but I was so glad that I did it.

As we were approaching camp, the wind really picked up and it was almost whiteout conditions. We stashed all the gear and had a tough decision to make, whether to boil water for our food outside or in the tent. I didn’t really want to do any cooking inside since we would have to ventilate the tent really well and with the wind it would have mean’t that there would have been an inch of snow inside it. I put on all the layers and braved the weather to boil water for dinner and soon it was time for bed.

Bad Weather

The wind didn’t relent in the morning and Guillaume did the boiling of water this time for breakfast. We were ready by 7.30 to head for Hawk’s head notch and descend into Avalanche lake drainage. The climb to the notch didn’t seem too intimidating and soon enough after an hour we were at the notch. The descend required some careful skiing but we didn’t have to bust out the ropes but now it was time to climb to cleaver col which seemed really daunting.

Skiing Hawk’s Head Notch

Our goal, Cleaver Col to the top left. Looking from Avalanche Lake

We ascended a small gully to the right and it took a while, It was awesome to see Howie lay down the skin track with series of kick turns required, it definitely helped me improve my technique and I was definitely getting better at them. We took a break in middle of the gully and then after another hour or so reached Cleaver col. It was still overcast conditions but it seemed like it was slowly clearing up too. We had to lower our backpacks on the other side of the col while Mark belayed us down. We down climbed about 10-15 ft to get to the snow and start our traverse towards Horse Creek drainage.

Looking Down the Gully

It took some tricky traversing and route finding to get to our campsite and we were well established by 4pm. We scoped out the lines on Matterhorn and it seemed like east couloir had some rocks and there might be some more buried so Ski dreams seemed to be better option. None of us were interested in going for the summit but we decided to get an early start anyway so that we could possibly do couple of laps. We were planning to carry our day packs since we would return and then break the camp.

Sunrise over Matterhorn Peak

I was having some difficulty with cold and congestion in my chest so was hoping for a late start so that the sun would come out and that is exactly what happened. We didn’t going until 7.30 am and by that time sun was beaming on us.The snow once again seemed in great condition and it was knee deep when we started booting up the couloir. This time I was really feeling the congestion and no matter how hard I tried I wasn’t able to get my breathing in control as I ascended the couloir one step at a time. I made it to the top eventually but would have liked to keep my breathing under control.

Once again it was quite windy at the top but there wasn’t any wind loading and as we skied down everyone had huge smiles on our faces. It was a great run to the bottom and it is the reason we go through all this trouble and suffering if you may see it that way :). It was a perfect finish for our trip.

Our lines on Ski Dreams, Matterhorn Peak

We packed the camp and now it was time to head back, last time when I was here I had a 45lbs backpack so skiing down the Tributary chute wasn’t an option for me. I just didn’t feel confident but this time I was determined to change that. The snow was lot wet and heavy which made for some interesting skiing but I did ski this chute with 30lbs backpack and I was really happy about it. We knew the snow wasn’t going to last for a long time so after some adventure skiing it was time to carry our skis out for the last leg which took about an hour. We had lunch and some brews at the Mono Village restaurant and it was time to head back home.

Skiing Tributary Chute

Hike Back Out

It was an awesome trip and I learned a lot about backcountry skiing in general something I will carry with me going forward. I made a small image map of out trip from goole earth.

Map of our trip, Click for larger version

Finally to end, here is an awesome video of the trip edited by Howie.

Sawtooths Traverse April 2016 from Sierra Mountain Guides on Vimeo.

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