In 1985 after Ron Milnarik and I completed the Sierra High Route, we began searching for other high-level ski traverses across the Sierra. The most prominent line that we spotted left the Sierra High Route at Milestone Bowl and headed southwest, across the Kaweahs and southern Great Western Divide and ended at Mineral King. We dubbed it "King's Road," and made plans to attempt it. All of our plans fell through, however, due to drought, Ron's commitments to the air force, and for one year his attention was diverted to a ski tour to the South Pole. This is not a joke; Ron's party was the third ever to ski to 90 deg South, 77 years after Amundsen and Scott. But I kept the King's Road in the back of my mind, and thought that it would be a perfect CMC trip. I opened it to both skiers and snowshoers, and at one point had as many as seven participants signed up. Four dropped at the last minute, due to concerns over avalanches and taxes (!), and randonee skiers Greg Colley and Brad Jensen joined me on what turned about to be a challenging adventure.
The first five days of the trip were leisurely. The first night we bivvied at a convenient wind protected alcove near the first water beyond Symmes Creek Saddle along the Shepherd Pass Trail. The second night found us at Tyndall Creek; there were no cornices atop Shepherd Pass, but we lost too much elevation traversing west from the pass because the skiing was too good. Third night at a campsite along Milestone Creek with outstanding views of the Kings-Kern Divide and Whitney Massif; and, again, we lost too much elevation traversing to the Kern River due to excellent skiing. The fourth and fifth nights found us at the bottom of Milestone Bowl and above the Kern-Kaweah River. On the fifth day we climbed up and skied down remote Kern Point, our only peak on the entire trip. There were rings around the sun and moon on the fourth and fifth nights and we wondered what weather may be ahead.
Our sixth day of the trip was on Thursday, April 13, and the sky had a thin layer of clouds with some light snow falling. We packed up camp and proceeded up the Kern-Kaweah River, bound for Kaweah Basin that night. The clouds thickened, the snowfall intensified, and the wind picked up. Somewhere near Pants Pass the visibility dropped severely, and the three of us became more concerned with the increasing grim conditions. Around noon I called for a retreat, and we needed a map and compass to find our way down the distressingly flat, featureless floor of the Kern-Kaweah River basin. We found a tent site at I :00 p.m. among some trees and near some running water. We dug a pit for my ten-year old Chouinard Pyramid tent, and while it was being erected a rip formed in one of the panels.
And the snow continued to fall; I estimated that there was almost two feet of new snow at the site the next morning. The tent was in danger of collapsing, and Greg's ski poles arched dramatically under the weight. I added my poles for increased support, and finally Greg "Smart Guy" Colley had the brilliant idea of using our skis for more strength. We substituted squaw wood for tent stakes, and placed the skis tail first along the inside edge and up along the roof as rafters. This is what saved the tent from imminent failure, and for the rest of the day and evening we discussed our options. Kaweah Basin was now out of the question due to my fragile tent, and we decided to head for Mineral King as expeditiously as possible.
There were high clouds on Friday morning, and we followed a long, zigzagging route up to Pants Pass, due to avalanche danger. There was no avalanche activity however, not even any rolling snowballs. The top of the pass was thankfully not corniced at all, but the west side of the pass featured a layer of new snow over ice, and we were obligated to kick steps down it, facing in, for 800 feet. We then skied down Nine Lake Basin to the head of the Big Arroyo and made camp at 6:00 p.m. during a long white-out with more falling, blowing snow.
We were grateful to see the sun on Saturday morning, and the skiing down to the Big Arroyo was delightful. We stopped at some open, running water and drank our fill. We then made a shallow, ascending traverse up to Little Five Lakes, with outstanding views of the Kaweah Peaks. The clouds, snow, and white-out conditions gradually returned in the afternoon, and at 3:00 p.m. we stopped and made camp above Little Five Lakes, as determined by compass bearings off of the Kaweahs made during breaks in the fog.
Easter Sunday was supposed to be the last day of the trip, and we finished our supply of white gasoline that morning, and this gave us a powerful incentive to get out of the mountains on that day. The new snow stuck to our skis and skins to such a great degree that we took them off, strapped them to our packs, and postholed our way up towards Black Rock Pass. We avoided this pass, however, and headed for the lower saddle to the southeast. The west side of this pass consisted of ice, and I envied Greg and Brad as they put on their ski crampons and descended. I followed their route as best I could, when a crack marking a slab avalanche formed along their route. I quickly retreated while Brad and Greg rushed across the potential path. I began to descend another line, which was difficult with my pack, short ice axe, kicking steps into the slope while descending. Brad "Nice Guy" Jensen saved me by climbing 1,500' back up to me without his pack, kicking huge buckets the whole way, loaning me his long ice axe, and improving the steps while we both descended. We were in a white-out again at the bottom of the pass, and we followed our compass to Spring Lake, and then continued to follow the compass west and then southwest to the base of Glacier Pass. Somewhere along this stretch I somehow earned the nickname "Wise Guy."
Thus far we had been lucky with cornices; we hadn't encountered any! But as we approached Glacier Pass the fog lifted and there they were, white, menacing, overhanging monsters. The hour was late and we didn't discuss our options. Greg proceeded directly up towards a gap between two cornices. At first he post-holed, then swam vertically up the seemingly bottomless snow, and finally kicked steps up the hard ice and he was on top. Brad and I were hit by a small slide during this process, but hung on. Brad was up next, and he dropped me our 30' rope. It just barely reached, but I tied in and gratefully accepted the upper belay, and was soon on top.
We put on our skis and descended to Mineral King. We were still in a white-out, and at times we weren't sure if we were moving through the fresh snow. In my mind, this was the most memorable ski run of the trip. We traversed and kick-turned our way down to Monarch Creek in lightly falling snow, and then on to Mineral King itself in the waning light. We hit the road (figuratively, not literally) around 7:00 p.m. and skied crosscountry towards the road's end, where my father was waiting. We reached Silver City at 9:30 p.m., too tired to continue. We used a pay phone to call Greg's girlfriend, my mother, and the delightful young lady who was handling Sequoia & Kings Canyon Park dispatch. And we bivvied on someone's front porch that night.
Monday morning had a slow start. My feet were painfully cold in my sleeping bag, and I needed to stoke my furnace with real food to get going. I finished my gorp and I started to eat some generic SPF 25 sunscreen when a man showed up in a snowmobile to work on another cabin's plumbing, and I tried to get him to tow us out with our rope. He wouldn't go for it, but he did graciously offer to take our packs out for us. We didn't go for this, and instead waited for the sun to hit us (figuratively, that is). The man mentioned that my father was waiting for us at the end of the road, two miles distant. We gradually got up, packed our bags, and followed the snowmobile track for an hour and a half through some extraordinarily sticky snow to my patient father.
I was disappointed that we only climbed one peak, of course, but in all other respects, the trip was an astounding success. The pack weights ranged from 36 to 38 lbs at the trailhead, and every piece of equipment was used at least once. Brad and Greg are expert skiers and highly skilled mountaineers. I hope that week-long ski tours become an annual feature of the California Mountaineering Club's schedule.
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