Now that backcountry skiing has tickled the consciousness of mainstream skiers, all sorts of destinations have become normal fare for the average hardcore skier. From the Green Mountains of Vermont to the Washington’s Cascade Range, Wyoming’s Tetons, the Wasatch of Utah, or California’s Sierra Nevada, the tracks of backcountry skiers are plainly visible where there are no chairlifts in sight.
However, while the evidence of turn earning skiers is more plentiful than ever, their tracks subside rather quickly the further you get from the road. Instead of fanning out and becoming more plentiful everywhere it seems they have only expanded the range near the resorts. Even from pure backcountry trailheads the inclination for exploring beyond known popular trailheads is rare. Deep and remote destinations remain as wild and untraveled as ever, in some cases, even more so.
It seems the conveniences of daily life in America have come with a hidden cost where the extra time promised by technology is simultaneously robbed by the time required to pay for it. Unless you live in the mountains, and even if you do, finding the time to breakaway for more than a day tour becomes more and more rare.
Consider just one ‘popular’ tour where remoteness is a dominant part of the trip – the classic Sierra High Route. The standard High Route was first defined by Dave Beck in 1975, traversing the width of the Sierra Nevada between Shepherd’s Pass and Wolverton. It derives its name from the fact that the route stays above 10,000 feet for most of its length, minimizing the ups and downs as it crosses seven high passes along its 50-plus mile length.
In the 80s and early 90s guiding outfits like Alpine Skills International routinely led groups of 20 or more in both directions on the route. In the new millenium ASI’s average group size for the SHR is five or six, usually once, sometimes twice a year. To be sure part of the difference is there are more guide services to choose from these days, but one would think with at least a ten-fold increase in the number of skiers earning their turns that more would want to experience one of the grandest ski tours on the planet. Instead, the number of interested skiers remains flat, or down a little.
However, my theory on that is there is a simply a misunderstanding of the value to be had from going longer and deeper in to the backcountry. No doubt it means making some sacrifices to save weight. Most of those sacrifices have to do with conveniences that must be left behind, from the two burner camp stove, sun shower, and espresso machine to monster boots and bindings. If you become adamant you need such things you will surely burn out bearing their inevitable burden.
Which begs the question, are those sacrifices worth it? Oh most definitely they are, but they are not easily rationalized, they must be experienced to be understood. Which means any attempt to convince you through mere words on paper will fall short. Nonetheless, that is my purpose here so let me try anyway.
The biggest misunderstanding comes from the goal of an adventure like the Sierra High Route. It’s not to earn your turns. While this is a common motivation for backcountry skiers, to get a great workout in while farming untracked snow, the emphasis for most is on making turns in untracked snow. If you still think the turn is greater than the earn, you are not ready for the Sierra High Route.
By comparison, the SHR is about earning your way across one of the world’s great mountain ranges. Satisfaction comes from being able to traverse its width under your own power, with the speed and agility that skis allow. With a good group and good weather there will be opportunities for some righteous turns, but if turns are your only motivation you will feel severely under compensated.
So what could the motivation possibly be? It is twofold. As just mentioned, there is a satisfaction that comes from achieving such a monumental undertaking. It comes from recognizing and taking on the challenge of crossing the Sierra Nevada on skis, with a small self sufficient team of like minded individuals.
That challenge itself is twofold. You must possess the physical fortitude to make the journey. This involves climbing several thousand vertical feet per day over the course of approximately 10 miles a day with at least a 40 pound pack. You can get away with a lighter pack; Otto Steiner made a two week solo tour there and back with only a 20 pound pack in the 30s. However, modern skiers have a hard time leaving all their conveniences behind and even small things like an iPod, a vacuum thermos, and must-have snacks take their toll on the terminally weight conscious. More likely your pack will be closer to 50 pounds and if it is, just know your unwillingness to sacrifice at the trailhead will result in more suffering on the trail.
That is the crux of the second challenge, mentally acknowledging and accepting that even should you manage to pare down your pack to a mere 35 pounds, there will be some suffering involved. If you prepare well most of the suffering will be mere physical discomfort on a long climb, or accepting a freeze dried version of your favorite camp meal. It does not mean you need to leave so much behind that you’re freezing at night, or starving. It also means knowing how to stay hydrated enough to be able to push through the inevitable lassitude that comes with altitude.
The importance of the mental and physical stamina required was underscored on my last trip across the Sierra in May 2011. It was a banner year and the big question going in was whether the weather would cooperate or not. The snow kept on coming and while that meant easier skiing over some of the rockier passes of the SHR, it also threatened the dream of sunny, fair weather crossing.
We lucked out though and the snow abated for the week prior allowing the snowpack to stabilize, and didn’t return until we were back in the comfort of our homes. However, our party of six at the trailhead was reduced to five at the top of the first climb.
Before we donned packs and headed up the trail our guide, Geoff Clarke, gave us all a little pep talk on how this was a strenuous undertaking and we needed to work together as a team to make it. I’d been on this same trip with him two years earlier with no such introduction so I figured it was just a new protocol he adopted.
The sun was out and the temperatures were warm as we climbed from 7,000 feet to the first pass at 9,500-feet on the regular trail to the Pear Lake Hut. We all stripped down to T-shirts and sweat poured from our brows. One guy complained about his pack and how he felt completely maxed out. The rest of us tried to encourage him that this was normal but when we got to the top of the climb he wanted to quit.
There was little doubt he had too much unnecessary stuff in his pack. Nor did it help that he was using a NTN binding and boot made for short tours which made skinning up more laborious than a rig with a free pivot and smaller, lighter boots. However, later in the week we ran into a guy using Hammerheads which have no free pivot for touring and that guy was happy as a clam with no complaints whatsoever and an equally heavy pack so the physical discomfort only magnified the mental.
While we refueled for the next leg of the journey we tried in vain to convince our suffering friend that this was part of the game and he would get used to it. In the end, however, he was adamant that he wasn’t prepared to make the journey and he didn’t want to hold us up. Though we didn’t want to admit it, we figured if he was that candid about it, it was probably true and when a pair of skiers happened by heading back to the trailhead our guide relented and let him bow out.
It was a hard decision to accept, but we soon realized it was the right choice. If he was having that hard of a time on the first climb of the route, with many more to come, and at higher altitude, the mental fortitude was simply lacking. And he was claiming he was physically maxed out. While skinning with a 45 pound pack is indeed strenuous, it shouldn’t require 90% output all the time. Whatever he did for training hadn’t prepared him for hours upon hours of uphill climbing with a pack.
His loss would be our gain. He was right, he would have just been a burden on the group and while we needed to work as a team, everyone on the team needs to be able to carry his own load too. We still had our moments where we needed to hunker down and help one another along.
One time involved a dicey traverse on skins where a slip would cost a lot of time regaining lost vertical. But we rallied and encouraged those who were nervous.
On another occasion our route took us up steep frozen snow nestled among cliffs. Again, the nerves were tested and if we had all been willing to carry the extra weight of crampons we could have flashed an exposed section in 15 minutes as a group. But we didn’t, and the sacrifice cost us more than two extra hours of setting up a fixed line and chopping steps to make the same journey.
Even in this, however, there was a benefit, the kind I’m alluding to that can’t be explained so much as experienced. To make this crossing required more than setting up the fixed line and chopping steps, it required us to help those who were more nervous not merely by offering to carry their load, but doing so in a way that did not insult their pride. For some in the group this was normal mountaineering and something that with experience you learn how to focus on the task at hand and block out the consequences of a mistake and just not make one. Rock climbers are intimately familiar with this, as well as the camaraderie that results from sharing the sensation of being scared spitless.
This is part of what skiing the Sierra High Route is about, testing yourself mentally and physically alongside others, with friends who become better friends, or strangers who become friends.
The second reason, the one that words fail to convey, is the opportunity to immerse yourself in the 24/7, 360-degree panoramic majesty of the Sierra that only a handful of people in the world will ever see and experience. To that end consider the panoramas in this article as an inadequate tease of the real thing. Pictures are said to be worth a thousand words but both fall short of the glory of actually being out there in the midst of what John Muir called the Range of Light.
So do yourself a favor. Gird up your mind and chasten your bod in preparation for a week long adventure in skiing the Sierra High Route. Though I didn’t promote it much, you’ll even get a few righteous turns in along the way. Not the first day, but every day will take you over at least one pass, sometimes three, and with each climb up there will be turns on the other side. If you make good time, you can easily set up camp and then do a quick lap before the sun sets, especially if you make the crossing in May when the sun sets late.
The standard route starts in the east at the Shepherd’s Pass trailhead and heads west to Wolverton. The first day is a four to five-thousand foot climb on dry trail with a full pack and skis on your back. In exchange for a brutal day one, most of your descents will be on west or south facing slopes that tend to provide easy skiing corn snow.
The other option is to start on the west side, out of Wolverton. You may start this easterly traverse with skis on you back, but you’ll soon be skinning and keep your skis underfoot until the last day when you hike down the dry trail with a lighter pack. Descents tend to be on eastern and northerly slopes which can get crusty late in the day but you also get to ski the Superbowl, a four-thousand foot descent from the Tyndall Plateau to the Shepherd’s Pass trail. It’s a fitting grand finale for a trip dominated by skinning time.
Either way to travel it, this is one trip you won’t regret and will recall with fondness for decades.
Alpine Skills International
Sierra Mountain Center
Sierra Mountain Guides
After getting hooked on backcountry skiing in 1982 Craig Dostie went on to create and publish Couloir (est. 1988) and Telemark Skier magazines (est. 2002). The guiding principle for Couloir was to promote all things related to earning your turns, now matter how the turn was made – alpine, snowboard, or telemark – as long as it was earned with sweat.
He continues to advocate adventure skiing through the website EarnYourTurns.com, an online resource promoting a self reliant, adventure seeking, freedom demanding life. As such EarnYourTurns.com reviews the equipment necessary to experience backcountry skiing where the conditions are untamed, the rules immutable, and the joy unspeakable.
You are encouraged to join in and make your voice heard as he continues to inspire and inform snow riders with stories of adventure and lots of photos to make you feel the burn of the earn and the satisfaction of the turn.
He resides in Truckee, California. You can contact him through earnyourturns.com.