The road to Onion Valley was clear on Thursday night, April 25, 1997. Friends had indicated that an avalanche had closed the road a few weeks earlier. I slept at the trailhead and by morning 3 more cars containing 8 skiers from the San Francisco area had arrived. Our group started toward Kearsarge Pass at 9 a.m. Participants were Gus Benner, Armando Menocal, Maggie Filmore, Chris Jones, R. D. Caughron, Heather Wilson, Dave Church, Randy Spurrier and myself. A short walk brought us to excellent corn snow that was the standard for the next 4 days. Several of us left our packs and telemarked back down to Big Pothole Lake from near the pass while waiting for one of our group to retrieve a better pair of skins from the car. We continued west and camped on the western edge of Charlotte Lake.
Our plan for this trip was to do a loop through the Gardner Basin and return to our car via Gould Pass (also called Dragon Pass). After skiing down the valley toward Charlotte Dome for several miles, we climbed up toward the old Gardner Trail which was barely recognizable. We posed for photos with Charlotte Dome in the background and took lots of pictures of Chris. It was fitting to have him in the foreground of the classic south face rock climb where he made the first ascent in 1970. Several miles of bushwhacking brought us to the snow covered valley which led northwest to Gardner Pass. A steep gully on the North side of the 11,200 pass required us to kick steps down at a point just east of the actual pass. After Gardner Pass, we stayed high and crossed into Gardner Basin at 11,100 feet through a col just south of peak 11,156. Again, step kicking was required to descend. After a wonderful ski run to a lake at 10,200 feet, we climbed several hundred feet and camped at one of the many lakes in this beautiful basin.
The morning of our 3rd day was spent climbing to Sixty Lakes Col, at 11,680 feet. No step kicking descent this time - we had a great run into 60 Lakes Basin. A short climb over the col south of Fin Dome brought us to the Rae Lakes and after another climb to Dragon Lake. We camped at a lake just west of Gould Pass at 11,800 feet.
An early start the next morning required lots of step kicking with ice axes to ascend the frozen snow of Gould Pass at 12.800 feet. At the junction below Golden Trout Lake. I left the group and climbed north over Lilly Pass (11,900ft) to finish the tour by skiing down Sardine Canyon, the next valley north of Onion Valley. In a good year 5,000 vertical feet of skiing are possible on a run that ends at an elevation near 6,000 feet. A short walk along an old road which intersects the paved Onion Valley road at the first big bend to the south returned me to my car which my friends had driven down from Onion Valley. This was not a great snow year, but I did get about 3000' vertical. It would have been even better had it not been for the 40-50mi gusts that almost knocked me off the feet at the top.
I can't remember a trip that had such consistent good snow for the downhill runs. The loop covered about 30 miles and gained a total of 10,800 feet. During the trip, we noticed lots of old avalanche debris from the major Sierra storms in January or February. Almost no snow fell after that so the avalanche signs were everywhere. In a normal year, fresh snow would have covered everything up. Sardine Canyon especially consisted of avalanche debris covered with corn snow. It was almost like skiing a mogul field!
It was a good trip for skiing new passes, my normal goal for Sierra spring tours. Five new ones this outing!
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