All Sierra Spring ski tours are affected by conditions and weather. This year was no exception. The snow pack was substantial thanks to near record snowfall and cool temps in March and April. The spring thaw period, normally reserved for March and April started in earnest in May. The most troublesome period started around May 6th with lows temps above freezing. This continued through the duration of this trip. The forecast from the Eastern Sierra from the CSAC Avalanche Center called for "High pressure just off the West coast to move east and strengthen that weekend and on into the next week. This will bring dry and warm weather with no thunderstorms expected. Intense solar radiation, poor refreezing of the snowpack at night and gusty southwest winds at the upper elevations all add up to high rates of snowmelt. Start high and start early to get the best skiing and avoid the bottomless, rotten snow below 10,000 Ft."
This was the prognosis for the start of the 2006 spring tour as Helga Zimmerer, Stan Huncilman, Mike Rector and me gathered at the Taboose Creek campground early Saturday morning, May 13th. We got a late start from the Onion Valley Trailhead after doing the shuttle. After walking the first half mile on the trail, we attained continuous snow (with the exception of a couple of short rock bands on the way up) for the duration of the trip. The snow was truly rotten in some places, although the traverse up to Kearsarge Pass on the south facing slope was generally good.
This was especially comforting on the last traverse to the pass where mushy snowpack could have made that difficult. The west side of Kearsarge pass was quite different. The first quarter mile of trail down was free of snow. Once we reach the late afternoon snowpack, we discovered sections of bottomless mush. Luckily, most of these sections were identifiable by a darker rough look. The areas to avoid were around exposed rock and buried trees. We traversed high on the intermittent crud and mush near the summer trail above Bullfrog Lake. Luckily, the snow was firm enough on the traverse to avoid a drop into the lake area. Helga led a couple fine traverses through steep terrain to near the saddle separating Bull Frog and Charlotte Lakes. Even though the arrival at camp was late (5:30PM), we enjoyed summer like warmth on a rock island until about 7PM. During the night, the full moon had shown so bright that you needed the brim of a night cap to cut the glare enough to sleep.
At the start of our 2nd day, spirits were generally high despite some expected sleeplessness from the first night at elevation. The feeling of warmth was already in the air as the first beam of light graced our campsite from the sun rising above the Sierra Crest. The snow around camp was firm despite balmy night time temperatures. The route appeared to follow the summer trail above Charlotte Lake, but we soon discovered that the slope was too steep with considerable rock bands. The best route requires dropping to near the level of Charlotte Lake and than traverse up the canyon to the north east of the lake. The touring was quite pleasant as we skied to the first of the pass lakes. We took a high traverse above and to the left of this first lake to the base of the pass climb. Unfortunately, at that point, the above normal temperatures made the west and south facing slopes difficult to traverse. So much so, that we had problems with soft snow well above the ankles. After surveying the situation, we decided that the accent of Glenn Pass and the descent on the other side would be exceedingly difficult and dangerous under the current conditions. The night time temperatures created an unstable situation for a climb best suited for booting up using an Ice Axe. The decent back down to Charlotte Lake was survival skiing at best. We managed to get a few turns in, but the threat of rotten patches of snow was a concern. Nevertheless, we did manage to make it down to Charlotte Lake without incident. Some feeling of disappoint were felt upon not attempting the pass. Although, in retrospect, it was the right decisions given the conditions. After a short search, we found a pleasant rock island near the Lake for a campsite.
On the 3rd Day, we woke to a cloudy sky. The sun did manage to break through and provide some of that daytime warmth that we had grown accustomed to. We decided that this would be a layover day to explore the area. We started with a ski across the frozen Charlotte Lake. Mike had tested the lake the night before, so we felt confident that it was safe. We ascended the left side slope above the lake to the bowl directly below Mt. Bago.
The opportunity to ski to the Mt Bago crest promoted a short and steep traverse to a snow saddle between Mt. Bago and the next peak on the crest separating Charlotte and Bubbs Creek. We felt strong without the weight of 40 pound packs as we got the first glimpse of the Bubbs creek drainage. Stan managed to record the scene with a sketch.
The decent back down was doable under heavy soft snow. Mike led the way to the base of the climb on Mt. Bago high above Charlotte Lake. The ski down the snow field to the lake was fabulous. The snow wasn't corn, but it was soft enough to make skiing enjoyable. At that point, we retreated to our rock island on the other end of the lake for a leisure lunch under the mid day sun. In the afternoon, we took a tour down past the outlet of Charlotte Lake to a series of pleasant meadows and woodlands. Eventually, we got to the most scenic open expanses of views to the west.
We found a wonderful North Facing slope with an excellent view to the West and Charlotte Dome. The feeling of this intimate and remote canyon contrasted with the open expanse and stark beauty of Charlotte Dome to the West made for a most enjoyable experience. We managed to get several late afternoon runs down this north facing slope. Eventually, we retreated once again to our campsite on Charlotte Lake.
At the start of the 4th day, we experienced intermittent clouds with rising thunderheads. The plan was to ski the slopes of Mt. Bago until noon, pack up and move to a campsite closer to Kearsarge Pass. Some apprehension was expressed at the prospect of thunder showers. Even though it was not in the forecast, the signs looked all too evident. We secured camp from beast and weather before venturing out for our day ski. Just after crossing the lake, the sun and humidity came out with a vengeance necessitating the search for a shaded route to our intended ski decent. Mike made the first drop from the upper snow fields. The conditions were quite pleasant for the first 400 feet until reaching the heavier conditions near the lake. After making the assessment that the conditions would not improve, we decided to make our move to the next camp. After packing up, we marched across the lake under a new appreciation of pack weight and up to the saddle between Charlotte and Bullfrog. The route took the low middle of the saddle and dropped into the Bullfrog drainage. We skied to the right of Bullfrog under a cloudy sky and sprinkles. Expecting a deluge of rain in the late afternoon, we bolted to the most perfect projection of rock overlooking the whole basin in all directions. We quickly setup camp, donned rain gear and waited for what we thought was the inedible.
At that point, the sun than came out in all it's glory necessitating the need for sun protection. We had the most pleasant afternoon looking out to the West at Bullfrog Lake, Mt Bago, the sharp drop to the Bubbs Creek drainage and Mt. Brewer in the distance. A few more minor sprinkles came our way in the late afternoon, but we felt comfortable that the rain had stopped for good by 6PM. Much to our chagrin, the rain came back during the night as Mike and I lay under scant bivys. It's amazing how a little weather can dampen spirits in the high country. As the rain continued sporadically during the night, anxious thoughts arose from most of us ranging from the possibility of having to pack up in the rain to a saturated dangerous snowpack.
All fears ended up being for not as the morning sun quickly dissipated the remaining clouds and the snowpack appeared to not be effected. Stan made the first claim to the surreal Alpine goal on clouds shrouding Mt. Brewer to the West. It was one of the most beautiful scenes of color and lights that the Sierra's have provided in my experience. The climb to Kearsarge Pass was quite manageable despite a couple sections of rotten deep snow. The accent down from the pass was interesting as the snow varied from firm pack to slush. We ended up having the most wonderful ski down the south facing slopes after descending past the top two sections. We managed to get down to the cars within three hours of leaving camp.
Even with the change in our initial plans, we still managed to have a wonderful and challenging wilderness experience. Thanks to Mike, Helga and Stan for making it all possible.
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