In a season that promised to be short on snow, this tour was much better than expected. Location is everything in a low snow year. Originally this trip was planned for the Yosemite High Route. This tour skirts the Southern section of the park from Silver Lake (June Lake area) to Yosemite Valley. In Owen Maloy's words, this would be more of a Yosemite hike than a Yosemite ski. On his advice, we decided on the Crest tour from McGee Creek to Mammoth, which provided minimal routes with Southern exposures. This is a slightly abbreviated tour from the one described in Moynier's book "Backcountry Skiing California's High Sierra" as Rock Creek to Mammoth. He describes this as one of the best ski mountaineering trips anywhere. It was with this in mind that the five of us started out on this planned four-day journey.
Our group was a repeat of last year with Mike Rector, Bill Lutz, Evelyn McGuire, Joe McGuire and myself. Bill, Mike and I spent the night under starry skies at the McGee Creek trailhead. In the morning, I drove my truck to the winter road closure on Lake Mary road. Joe and Evelyn gave me a ride back to the McGee creek trailhead. The clouds began to roll in at about 7am. By the time we hit the trail at 9am, the sky was completely cloudy. As we quickly hiked the first four miles, it felt like a summer backpack with several stream crossings, abundant greenery and the smell of trail dust in the air. Luckily the rain was light. In fact, the cloud cover kept it comfortably cool. At about the 2nd stream crossing, we were into intermittent snow. This was quite exhausting! You could not put skis on and the snow was quite soft. A number of would-be mountaineers complained of knee deep snow as they hiked back to civilization. Apparently temperatures had not allowed the snow pack to freeze. My feet were getting pretty wet. Hate wet feet. We finally reached continuous snow at about 10,200 ft. after climbing the last south facing slope before reaching the bench to Big McGee Lake. We were all glad to be at our camp at Big McGee Lake. Even though it was snowing quite hard, relief could be found in the confines of a tent.
Sunday dawned clear. This was a welcoming contrast to the prior day. We took our time getting ready. More time allowed the sun to dry out our clothes and gear. Luckily our campsite on Big McGee Lake afforded us an early sun (up by 7 AM). We were off to a cheery start with dry clothes, warm sun and continuous snow at 9 AM. We had no problems climbing the ridge and gully to Corridor Pass. Mike did a good job finding the best route in that last mile to the top. We arrived at this very gradual pass by llam. Clouds started to intensify, so we made a quick exit down to Constance Lake. The North facing snow was hard yet somewhat still in transition. Care had to be exercised in some of the turns. It would have been nice to ski across Constance Lake, but with Mike's test of the shore ice it was decided to circumnavigate around the lake.
To our delight, hail started to fall as we put skins back on the skis for our traverse of the lake. The gray, black and red rock visible to the East are impressive. Upper Convict Canyon is extremely scenic. A great ski destination, if not for the long climb in from either McGee or Convict Canyons. After a short lunch at Lake Wit-So-Nah-Pah, we started out to our next destination, Pretty Pass. It should be named Pretty Darn Hard Pass. The ascent from the lake was on slightly soft snow. We keep to the left of the main Canyon below, as dropping down the main canyon towards Lake Dorothy would have cost 1,000 feet. This provided some exciting traversing. We went through several avalanche debris fields on a fairly steep traverse. This quickly got us to the base of Pretty Pass. Much trepidation was expressed at this very steep ascent, especially after 7 hours of skiing. Nonetheless we started our ascent. It was not too long before the slope became too steep for skis and we packed skis on the pack. The best approach seemed to be to boot right up the center. We sank to our thighs in some spots. Finally after much suffering, we made it to the top of the pass by 5:30. We were then faced with an even steeper descent down the other side.
This proved to be much easier as most of us booted down. The gully to the far right proved to be the best. Mike and Bill went down the center. They broke through to their thighs under hidden rock. At one point Bill accidentally rolled his pack down the slope while securing his skis. Mike was almost hit as the pack went right for him. Luckily the spectators below gave Mike some warning. We than made our descent to Franklin Lake, our much cherished campsite for the night. We were in a snowstorm at the top of Pretty, but were treated to 1.5 hours of warm sun at camp before the sunset. So fickle is Sierra mountain weather!
Monday dawned clear and warm. After yesterday's very long day, we all slept in late that morning. We basked in the warm morning sun as our cloths and gear dried. It was 10:30 before we got moving again. Not exactly an alpine start, but we all felt refreshed. The skate down to Upper Ram Lake was enjoyable on slightly soft snow. The coverage was excellent as we made for our next pass, Pika Pass. We got our first glimpse of it from lower Ram Lake. It looked every bit as steep as our experience the day before. John Moynier describes this as being more secure with crampons. The upper part was quite narrow with a rock band in the middle. It didn't take too long for us all to agree to try another alternative. The Bloody Mountain topo map showed a more gradual pass to the West. Some trepidation was felt because it was not described in any books. There is always that possibility that you will arrive at a cliff - especially with the conversion to metric maps, where the distance between contour lines is greater and the distinction less visible than on the tried-andtrue "feet" scale.
The reality of thru-trips like this is that you have to take some risks, whereas on a day ski, you can choose to go back the way you came. This is positive in the sense that you get perspective - perspective to realize the difference between true and imagined risk. It was great skiing the narrow creek gully that terminates at Purple Lake. We then had to walk the first 600 feet of south facing slope just above Purple Lake. It was a good thing since the slope would have been too steep to skin up anyway. We finally reached continuous snow and made the gradual ascent to the pass. The pass was just as imagined from the map, gradual ascent and steep, but manageable, descent. It took no time at all to ski down the slope just above Duck Lake.
The views of Duck Lake to the north were exceptional. Duck was frozen over and the snow coverage was excellent as far as the eye could see. As we descended to our campsite near Pika Lake, much relief and satisfaction was felt in getting this far in our intended journey. We had only easy Duck Pass to cross to our intended destination. There is always the possibility that weather or snow conditions will make it difficult to proceed. This was the case last year due to bad weather in an attempt to go from South Lake to Taboose Creek. The concern this year was snow coverage. Although, with the exception of the low south facing slopes in the McGee Creek drainage, the snow was continuous. The day turned out to be sunny, calm and pleasant. We, again, had the late day sun to enjoy in camp.
The last leg of our journey from McGee Creek to Mammoth was surprisingly good skiing. As we awoke on Tuesday morning, full cloudiness greeted us at our campsite near Pika Lake overlooking Duck Lake. Mike and Bill were ready to dart into one of the two tents during the night in the event that it rained. Luckily the sky was more bark than bite. In fact, as we readied for our final ski, the sun broke through and it was noticeably warm and humid. We were surprised to find the short climb up to Duck Pass on soft snow despite the lack of sun. We lingered at Duck Pass savoring the completion of our last ascent of the trip as we took skins off for the last time. The top of the pass was still somewhat unconsolidated as we sank into deep wet snow. It would quickly set up after each turn making it imperative not to edge too hard. After that, the snow became more firm and skiable. It was a delight as we traversed the creek down to Skelton Lake. We enjoyed threading our way through trees on very skiable snow to the parking lot at Coldwater Creek campground. We were even able to dodge the bare spots to Lake Mary Road.
It was a great surprise that we were able to ski so far, especially with all the warm weather and thin snowpack. We walked the plowed road to the winter road closure spot on the Lake Mary road. After a nice soak in "Polky's Pool", we made our way back to civilization.
Special thanks to Joe for co-leading these long tours with me for the last three years. Next year, we may ski another section of the Sierra Crest.
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