Spring Skiing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California
Honestly, this is my favorite time of year. Days are longer, the sun is stronger and if you are ever going to be in good ski shape, it’s now! You’ve had a whole season to hike up mountains, ski as much pow as you can and prepare, for the holy grail of backcountry skiing, Spring in the Eastern Sierra! Just don’t forget your sunscreen.
It’s hard to describe the passion and excitement that the High Sierra brings me, the towering peaks, golden rock and most of all, snow! Everybody likes a good hike into the mountains, but when that hike means you get to travel a little more efficiently via skinning and best of all, you get to ski down thousands of vertical feet through rock walls, peppered moraines and corn induced tree runs, it makes the hike all that more worth it!
Oh, and did I mention the sunrises and views into the Range of Light?
Our goal for the day was the North Couloir on Mt. Emerson. Zack and I have been to this area a number of times before and we have been up Mt. Humphries, Mt. Locke, Basin Mt. and Mt. Tom but Emerson has been the elusive piece and on both of our minds for the past few seasons. With the snow melting out from lower elevations quickly this season, it might be our last chance if we didn’t want to dirt walk the entire way……so, we went for it.
Read some of our past trip reports from the Eastside here.
Our starting place was the typical end of a 4×4 eastern Sierra road in typical spring shape…..rough and rutted! But, nothing Zack’s brand new sprinter couldn’t handle! See the map below for our route.
We parked the car around 8700 feet, walked on dirt for about 45 mins (half on dirt road and then half cross country towards the snow line), skis with skins on at about 9500 feet.
Of course, there is water, snow, dirt, downed trees, and just about everything trying to impede your progress. Good thing Zack is 6’5″ or so and he can just hop across or over most obstacles…..not the same for me;)
You are basically heading for Birch Creek and you can stay low and wrap around into the drainage (less snow this time of year) or go high to the bench for Mt. Locke and then descend a few hundred feet. We chose the latter and made a few soft turns down into the drainage to break up the climbing. Then, its up the drainage you go until you reach the obvious couloirs framing the Emerson summit.
Keep going a little further and the North Couloir peers down at you.
It’s always funny to me how it doesn’t look that steep, long, or intimidating in the pictures, but trust me, this was a good one! You are looking at an approx. 1800 vertical feet of 35-45 degree slopes with just about every possible snow type you can imagine. As you can see in the pic above, we were presented with a fresh canvas…..not a single turn, boot pack, or even animal track before us. This is why we do this…..there is nothing like laying first tracks on a line like this!
Now, its ice axe and crampon time, so we suited up and headed into it, not quite knowing what kind of snow we would encounter. Luckily, it snowed earlier in the week and the new snow had bonded well and provided good traction for boot packing. The scary part was that it also rained (or wet snowed) about 2 weeks earlier and that ice layer was felt almost the entire climb. It was pretty solid in general once we were in the couloir and as long as we could get purchase with our axe and crampons, we were feeling pretty secure. Here are a few shots from the way up.
It took us quite awhile to break trail up this beast….about 2 hours from the bottom to the top and lots of steps taken! The nice aspect of this route rather than hitting the Zebra couloir is that you actually get to top out on the ridge and who doesn’t want a High Sierra view from 13,000 ft?
Guess what’s next?
Yup, what goes up, now gets to go down. While the hike up is always an adventure, the down can bring about the unexpected. While the pics below make it look epic, it was actually a bit of everything with the best part being the nice, wintry pow that hugged about the closest 20 feet to the western side of the walls. Everything else had a bit of ice underneath, crust on top, soft snow that was amazingly carveable and everything in between. Zack got some great pics on the way down.
Getting up and down these chutes is only half the battle. It’s really the approaches and exits that remind you of the type of fun that spring skiing brings to the table. You better enjoy bushwacking, sage stomping, route finding and dirt walking if you want to enjoy what the High Sierra has to offer this time of year. It’s a challenge and its great to be able to rise to it. In this case, we basically retraced our steps so the ravages above were kept to a minimum! But, we did get a couple of awesome exit shots, one looking back onto Emerson and the other looking into the massive Bishop basin.
Another successful Eastside mission in the books. Get outside whenever you can, enjoy the loved ones around you and live life to its fullest!