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Snow-shoeing the Sierra High Route

The Sierra High Route is a classic mountaineering and ski route cutting through the heart of the Sierra-Nevada mountain range. Its rugged landscape features draws an elite crowd of people every winter who traverse it on telemark skis, alpine touring skis and split- snowboards. But this April, the Atlas Snow-Shoe Company sent a team clambering across the High Route’s 45 miles of towering ascents and descents armed with their latest line of snowshoes.

As part of a marketing and R&D effort, Atlas general manager Daniel Emerson, product engineer Peter Chapman, Explore Winter Women’s Workshop manager Teri Smith, and I, as trip photographer, strapped on some of the company’s newest products and set off. In the end, we came away with a lot of great stories, photos and one very important piece of advice: Snowshoes are the ticket for accessing the winter backcountry if you don’t want to bother with the technical aspect or steep learning curve of skiing or snowboarding.

Day 1, 0830h – Symmes Creek Trailhead – Elevation: 6,300 ft.

We started at Symmes Creek, our eastern gateway into the Sierra-Nevada mountain range. The trailhead lies just west of Independence, California where the Owens Valley ends and the mountains begin. Our road up had ended the night before in a parking lot at 6,300 feet. At that elevation we were still well below the snow line.

Bending under our bursting packs, we bade farewell to our support team and started to hoof it up along Symmes Creek carrying our snowshoes. The creek has cut a deep gorge through the rock which provides pleasant patches of shade in the strong California sun – it’s a classic welcome to the Sierras. Once through the half mile-long gorge, we had to pick our way through a messy pile of natural debris. The evidence was prominent that earlier in the season a snow avalanche had come powering down the steep slopes of the ravine churning up trees and rocks and grinding them into fragments. Once the avalanche stopped, so did the debris. As the snow melted, the chunks of rock and trees were left behind in an unruly pile for us to climb over. Our track took us out of the main slide zone and up a steep north-facing slide shoot covered by a firm – but also debris-laden – snow pack.

After two hours, the terrain finally leveled for a moment and we took our first break. We’d gained 1000 feet, but the north-facing slope continued above us. We unhooked our snowshoes from our packs, strapped in, and continued up.  A faint pair of ski tracks zig-zagged up around us while we charged straight up, not bothering to ascend in the switchback fashion that skiers are confined to.

Being early in the trip our packs were heavy, so we took frequent brief breaks. To just bend over, shifting the weight from our shoulders and hips squarely onto our backs was sufficient. After a dozen such breaks, we finally crested the ridge separating Symmes and Shepherd Creeks and voted unanimously without speaking to stop there for lunch.  At 9,090 feet we found a clear patch of dry ground to setup our first mountain picnic.

The journey’s next leg alternated between snowy northern aspect slopes and dry southern aspects along the dusty trail. At first we thought we could get away with leaving our snowshoes on for the dry patches, but soon realized it was ridiculous to plod along wearing snowshoes in the dirt. In the end, the snowy northern slopes were pretty firm and it was just as easy to boot it until we reached Shepherd Creek where we’d have snow the rest of the way.

After one last big push up a steep, snowy face, we reached a small plateau and declared Camp I. We had just punched through the 10,000 foot barrier and there was still more up all around us. Behind, we could see all the way down to the brown Owens Valley, now enshrouded in the long shadow of the Sierras. But for the moment, a quick change into dry clothes, setting up our kiva shelter and dinner were the top priorities. The sun wasn’t with our camp long. The cold set in quick and after a tasty dinner of hot lasagna, we were just as quick to jump into bed.

Day 2, 0530h – Shepherd Creek – Elevation: 10,100 ft.

The next morning, I was up to watch the sun rise from the hazy horizon. After some oatmeal and attempts to remember how we had fit all this stuff into our packs in the first place, we were moving again, ever upward.  Now, the trees, which had been our steady companions all the way from Symmes Creek, slowly thinned out and finally disappeared, replaced by rocky outcroppings. We were still climbing, with occasional mellow plateaus in the terrain.

Then, without warning, we were on the headwall, punching our way up a bulletproof slope to Shepherd Pass. Three-quarters of the way up the 800-foot headwall, Peter, who was in the lead, found a small nook behind a large rock to stash his pack in and came back down to check on the rest of the group. We were sidestepping like inchworms and toe-punching the toe cleats of the snowshoes into the icy slope, working our way across. Every step required great concentration to ensure a good purchase with our poles and the front cleats of our snowshoes.

Teri reached the small nook where Peter had stashed his pack and bundled up to wait for the rest of us. The wind howled, adding to the intensity of the climb. But in relative terms, the 50+ mph wind was on the low end of what Shepherd Pass can dish up. 

When Daniel, Peter and I reached Teri, she said it had felt like ages for us to get to her and had started wondering if something had happened. Everything was fine, but I was still happy to lay down for a minute and share a snack with the group before pushing on up and over the pass. This time, Daniel and I led while Peter and Teri brought up the rear. The winds held strong and threw fragments of snow and ice at us as we continued charging the slope. To relieve our burning calves, we would scout out spots where we could set our heels down and rest between stints of punching up on our toes. After a half dozen such stops we crested the pass. We all felt such relief.  After staring at this steep slope for the past hour, our field of view opened up and we were now peering across the great expanse of the gentle snow-covered upper Tyndall basin, the impressive Diamond Mesa and down into the upper reaches of the massive Kern valley.

From here, it was a gentle tromp down around the toe of Diamond Mesa, a brief stop for lunch in the lee of a large rock as the winds persisted, and finally after cresting over and down a few small ridges, Camp II. Teri and Peter were in the lead and found a small island of trees and boulders to act as a windbreak for our camp. They immediately started digging out our shelter while Daniel and I concentrated on getting the kitchen up and running. Soon enough, we had our shelter set up, hot drinks in hand and dinner gurgling away in the big pot.

Day 3, 0600h – Tyndall Creek – Elevation: 11,511 ft.

Another early rise put me on the crest of the hill near our camp waiting for the sun. As it worked its way up from behind the eastern range we’d tackled yesterday, the light spilled out onto Kern Ridge in the west, our objective for today.  Departing camp, we continued to toward the Kern Valley from a side plateau and were soon traversing along the headwall, getting a unique view straight down the wide U-shaped valley lined with dark trees, their rows punctuated by white snow.

From the headwaters of the Kern, we started going up again. This time we worked our way west up Milestone Creek, guided by the 13,638 foot monolithic spire of rock that is Milestone Mountain. Fueled up after a solid lunch of cheese and sausage at 11,000 feet, we broke above the timberline again and marched west. At this point the sun had already reached its zenith for the day and our shadows slowly elongated behind us.

After the mild rolling terrain of the lower part of the Milestone ravine, we confronted the steep rock-strewn talus slope just below the spire of Milestone Mountain. Peter had charged ahead to scout out the route and found he had to double back several times to find the best approach for cresting Milestone Col. The sun was now well ahead of us and the shadow of Milestone Mountain was creeping down as we continued to work our way up. When the shadow overtook us, the temperature took a drastic dive and the wind started up a regular gusting assault.

Once Peter found a way over the col, he dropped his pack and came back down to guide and assist. The higher we climbed, dodging our way through the scattered boulders which have fallen from the top of the mountain, the steeper it got. Once in the shadows, the snow pack firmed up and we were back to toe-pointing and for a small stretch, side stepping. On a small ledge, we had to get out of our snowshoes and scramble up a 50 foot grade III stack of rocks to gain the 13,000 foot col. A fall here wouldn’t have been fatal but it would have been a long slide down the steep headwall and a long walk back up.

Once on the ridge, we were back in the streaming sunlight, orange now from its lower position in the sky. From Milestone Mountain, the craggy Kern Ridge jutted away from the Great Western Divide. The low light and pattern of shadows along the ridge accentuated the ragged sawtooth texture of the ridge drifting away from us. The light did not last however, and before we started our steep descent into Milestone Bowl the shadow of the Great Western Divide overtook us again.

The climb down was steep and slow. Some of the team took it easy and opted to face the slope and down climb while others went for the more expeditious glissade. We didn’t get Camp III established until 7pm and one team member was stricken with a mild case of hypothermia. This required the dedicated attention of a second team member while the remaining two built the shelter and supplied hot drinks and dinner.

Once everything was secure, the team was down and out for the night. 

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