Sequoia Whitney Sierra Traverse
In February of 2016 I tore my ACL less than a mile from the car while trying to ski the mountaineer's route on Mount Whitney. That was totally lame, so to prove to myself and to the world, I decided to ski the route by fair means. What this meant to me at the time was to start from the west side of the sierra, walk all the way across the sierra to the top of mount Whitney, and then ski down the mountaineer's route to Whitney portal.
I could not find any information about anyone skiing the mountaineers route this way, but I could find the story about Otto Steiner traveling by ski, foot, and horse from Visalia, up the Kern to Whitney, skiing the west face, and then back down to mineral king in Sequoia in 10 days by himself. This is something we were not interested in. What is certain is many people have skied everything that we skied but possibly nobody has skied what we skied all in one go, however, probably people who do not publish trip reports have skied what we did given that the red line traverse has been skied and that Whitney has been skied from the west before. That being said, this route is a new variation to the best of our knowledge, a fact that was buttressed by the Sierra Mountain Center guide who asked us where we were going on the night before we left, we told him, and he responded "I've never heard of that route". Also, some bros also did a new traverse variation this year also, but did not our variation.
Anyway, I had seen a couple trip reports including one by Hamik saying that the standard traverse can be done in 1 or 2 days! Our traverse was a little more vertical and distance, but not too different. That all sounded pretty exciting so I assembled a crack team of 4 including me, Gnarly Nafeesa, Jubilent Justin and Montana Graham. We settled on 3 days for the group of 4, but secretly I wanted to do it in 2 days. My goal for the trip was to sleep at the top of the Kern.
We got a prompt start from Caltech and made good time up to the trailhead at Wolverton. Just before we lost service though, our friend called us and told us that there had been a big slide on Whitney with a possible death. We were unable to get any more info about that, but that was a little stressful.
We woke up at 4am from our car at Wolverton in Sequoia and immediately skinned up. There were some nice blazes on the trees that we followed and eventually they started having fun, black kitty cats on them. We kept following the kitty cats through some beautiful trees until we finally arrived at a pass that overlooked the Kaweah river valley. Panther pass! We were off route by about a mile and on a slow pace. Undeterred we forged on toward the hump which is the small shoulder off summer Alta that guards the pear lake and upper Marble Fork of the Kaweah region from wolverton.
We reached pear lake hut around noon on the final day it was open for the season. Stress was high as the pace was slow and clouds were looming overhead, but we forged on. Above pear lake hut we made another wrong turn by going straight up the valley above the hut instead of following the marble fork of the Kaweah, at this point we really started dragging ass. By 5pm we were on the right trail and on top of the table lands. Our original plan was the descend all the way down to Big Bird Lake and then up to Deadman canyon. A more careful look at the map made us realize that this was a horrible idea.
Somewhat discouraged, but also stoked, we decided to camp. Justin and Nafeesa would give Graham and I their food, they would head back to the car to be at work and at baby on time, while Graham and I would finish the traverse.
In the morning we decided that splitting up sucks and we (or maybe just I) got scared by a light wispy cloud that maybe drooped one snowflake on us so we all decided to turn back.
Undeterred by our bad physical fitness and inability to read a map, we did a little better route reconnaissance, planned for 4 days, and skinned back up. This time, there was no room for error because Justin and I had an important meeting the day we planned to get back.
The first day started pretty uneventfully with no route finding difficulties. We made it to the pass between Tablelands and the lonely lake basin by 3pm. The sun was hot and the snow was sloppy but our goal was to at least get to Lonely Lake and hopefully get to Glacier Lake by the end of the day. After a short rest, I skied first from the pass to a safe zone before a roll-over and beckoned everyone else. We decided that given the heat of the day, it would be safer to pick a line through low angle terrain to the bottom and then head up to the lake instead of traversing around the basin to Lonley Lake below steep, glide crack terrain. I skied down again and a small wet release peeled away from my ski track and slide the 15 feet down the mountain to the next bench. This freaked me out a little because the snow was moving a little more than I thought it would despite the heat. I again beckoned Nafeesa, Justin, and Graham to me so they could have "eyes on" for the next 100 vertical feet. I took a fast traversing line toward a safe zone so the release would not catch me as I turned, I hoped that wasn't a wet slab, and I pushed off. Luckily everything went well, the wet slide again peeled away from my ski track, but I skied sideways away from it and I was safe. I was then at the bottom of the basin, and Graham, Nafeesa, and Justin joined me. We then took turns skinning the low angle ridge to Lonely Lake. Just as we reached the lake, the standard west side clouds rolled in. The site was amazing, it looked like a dam had breached and clouds had spilled from the reservoir behind and were flowing over Lonely Lake and down into Deadman Canyon and the King's River Valley beyond.
We climbed through the clouds beyond Hayden's secret boulder, and up to the to a bench below Horn Col. There was a traverse left over to the col which guards Deadman Canyon from the Kern Watershed. 2 big glide cracks were in the middle of the traverse. Glide cracks are signed of notoriouly unpredictable avalcnhes. These so called "glide avalanches" start by meltwater lubricating the sliding surface (usually rock or grass). Eventually the melting water caused a crack to form that runs to to depth in the snowpack. After the crack appears the actual avalanche can release the entire slope's snow, but the tricky part is that release can happen anytime from minutes to months after the crack first appears. Graham and Justin decided to take the shallower option in the middle of the glide cracks and Nafeesa and I decided to take the steeper option above the menacing tonnage of the glide cracks. We all safely rejoined each other at Horn Cool and took turns skiing into Deadman Canyon. It was around 6pm and the sun was beginning to dip behind the ridge line into Big Arroyo. Dinner was dehydrated mac and cheese with some salted olive oil to add calories. We were all full of nervous energy for the rest of the trip, as we were now pretty far from our car and had already ran into a couple avalanches. But, our exhaustion got the best of us, and we were sleeping before we knew it.
We woke up at 5am in order to have breakfast and get going by 6am. Winter camping is always miserable, wet, and cold, so the adventure has to be good to merit it. We were already tired from the first day, but stoke was high to move fast and get to our goal, the headwaters of the Kern river. 30 minutes after starting we were at the base of Copper Mine Pass. I felt a little sick when we started off, but I just wrote it off as pre-dawn indigestion. The sun was still hidden behind the great western divide, so we stopped to boil some water to fill our bottles and warm out hands. After some welcome hot water, we slung our skis onto our backs and headed up the steep copper mine pass, luckily there was a good booter heading up it. From the top we spent several minutes admiring the view which was amazing. We had left the west side now, and were firmly in the middle of the Sierra. We took turns skiing the steep slope on the east side of Copper Mine Pass to the steep gully that separates glacier lake from the rest of the roaring river valley.
Another transition to crampons and a booter (this time we broke trail) took us to Glacier Lake where we looked up to Triple Divide Peak. Triple Divide Peak is an amazing peak that divides the 3 great rivers of the southern sierra, the Kings, the Kaweah, and the Kern. The lake that we were standing on below Triple Divide drains north to become the Roaring River which bends west and joins the Kings river in Kings Canyon National Park. The Kings then flows into a dam in the middle central valley near Fresno. The triple headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah are just south and west of Triple Divide Peak where Granite, Eagle Scout, and Hamilton Creeks join to form the Middle Kaweah which is later joined by the Marble fork the Kaweah which has by that time slid down miles of glass-like granite slabs and which we had skied across earlier. The mighty Middle Kaweah is joined by the South and North Forks and runs through Visalia and is finally halted by a dam where it is turned into citrus and wine in the south-central central valley. Finally, the headwaters of the Kern River can be found to Triple Divide Peak's northeast. The Kern steeply drains the western side of the Sierra Crest and the eastern side of the Great Western Divide. The Kern cut or ran into, I'm not sure, a remarkably straight canyon for around 50 miles before snaking west and crashing into the dams and the pump hydro stations just above Kernville where the water is used to store our solar energy and water the crops of the southern central valley. Later that day, we hoped to cross the Kern near it's headwaters, just before it plunges into the deep canyon behind the Tyndall Plateau and Mount Whitney.
A quick boot pack took us to the top of Triple Divide Pass. Graham and Nafeesa were the first up, followed by Justin and me. We all took in the vastness of the the Great Western Divide all around us. Milestone peak was sneaking its great thumb just into the horizon. A quick traverse led to some of the best turns of the trip in which Nafeesa aired a glide crack, making Glen Plake proud.
We all met up and took in our tracks while we melted some more snow and rehydrated. Skins on again, we skied around and up to the ridge that descends from the parent ridge that links Milestone and Triple Divide peaks, this ridge is known as "not as steep as it looks pass". A very fun ski led down to a meadow. We regrouped and slowly trudged up to Milestone Pass. As we climbed up the rolling terrain toward Milestone, we were happy that we were higher and the temperature was lower than yesterday, because the terrain that we had just come down would have made for some very fine wet slides if it had been a little sloppier.
The wind increased steadily as we approached the thirteen thousand twenty-five foot Milestone Pass, our second highest point of the trip. By the time we had reached the small lake below the pass the wind was so bad that, despite our tired legs, we had no interest in taking a break and just quickly got more layers out of our packs and pressed on. We reached the low point in the pass where we could finally see the tall thumb of Milestone Peak in all its glory jutting ominously into the sky. I took my skis off planning to jump and scramble up the rocks and ski down the other side of the pass. Luckily, I looked before I leaped because a 200 foot cliff was all that met me on the other side of the "pass". The wind howled at me as I peered over and looked left and right. Nafeesa then noticed some faint boot tracks heading up toward Milestone Peak, and we decided to check those out before hucking our meat. A short, but exhausting traverse in light snow over boulders lead to the true Milestone Pass, just above the Milestone Col. While the pass definitely was better than a 200 foot cliff, it was a small steep spear of wind scoured snow that stabbed into the rock above a 190 foot cliff. Whippets out (a whippet is a ski pole with an ice axe pick attachment on it), we took turns cautiously traversing to relative safety and then skiing down the sandpaper snow to the east side of the Great Western Divide.
We all breathed a collective sigh of relief to be past Milestone, but we had to hurry because the sun was getting low in the sky and the spindly shadow of Milestone's thumb getting long. The skiing down towards the Kern felt like riding a jet ski. The slope was almost flat, but the refreeze was fast so trees and rocks whizzed by. We lost our way in a jumble of cliffs once, but quickly made it into a truly flat forest, back below treeline around ten thousand feet for the first time since leaving Pear Lake two days ago. A brief reconnoitering effort, lead to us skinning back up and heading north for about 15 minutes until our map told us that we had crossed the Kern River. It was past 7 and getting dark, but we still had a couple hours of food making and water boiling to do. This day was a long one, so I added about 8oz of oil to my mac and cheese before eating it.
In the middle of the night I woke up nauseated and raced to the door to expel the contents of my bowls all over a tree. I didn't get much more than 2 hours of sleep that night as my nausea kept me up and the the anxiety from being nauseated in the winter in the middle of the sierra kept me up even more. The next morning was a morning that, if I had to work, I would have called in sick, but I had to make it across the sierra so I broke down the tent and loaded my pack and trudged on. My nausea was horrible, I almost vomited several times, and I violently evacuated my bowls several more times that morning.
Luckily the skinning was easy up to the Tyndall Plateau, but the sun did not help my nausea like it did the morning before. Here, is where we would leave the standard route. The standard variations of a sierra ski traverse would either directly cross the plateau and ski out the Shepard Pass Bowl below Mount Williamson's famous Giant Steps Couloir, or turn North just West of Caltech Peak and head over Deerhorn Pass to Kearsarge Pass and a car. We, however, had decided to make a, to our knowledge, never skied before variation of the traverse which turned south at the Tyndall plateau and headed South some ten miles to Crabtree Meadow and then east again to Guitar Lake and the crowds at fourteen thousand, five hundred and five foot Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Sierra and the contiguous united states, and a popular hiking peak for people all over Southern California and the world.
We crossed the plateau quickly, I took a long look at Shepherd's Pass and felt my stomach before deciding that I was going to finish the traverse, indigestion or not, and I turned south toward Mount Whitney. We were surprised and pleased to see that there were footprints on much of our route from PCT hikers braving the historic snow year. Walking on the snow without skis looked horrendous, but those PCT hikers are a hearty bunch. To ignore my stomach which almost brought me to vomiting with each step, I dug deep into the recesses of my mind thinking of warm air, soft beds, and pepto bismol as we trudged south. Now that we were so far east, the rain shadow of the Great Western Divide kept the snowpack much thinner and for the first time we saw the dirt in tree wells. It was impressive to look down into the Kern River Gorge and over towards the black-volcanic Kaweah Range. After a long mellow ski, we found what looked like the last snow bridge over wright creek and I convinced everyone to take a break. Everyone ate and boiled water while I layed down the tent and took a nap. About 45 minutes later, we had to go, and Graham kindly took the stove from me as my stomach was still feeling atrocious. Another three hours of up and down took us to the afternoon and the ridge overlooking Crabtree Meadow.
We sat down for another break while I reclined and boiled water. After 30 minutes or so it was time to go and miraculously, my stomach felt fine! I ate some food for the first time that day and I felt stronger. There was some dirt to navigate around on the south facing slope. At Crabtree Meadow, we turned east again to finally head up Whitney Creek toward Mount Whitney. On our way up Whitney Creek we saw the first humans of the trip, we passed their tent silently nervously thinking of the last obstacle of our trip. I blew it and lead us too high on the ridge above Timberline Lake so we had to descend one hundred painful feet to Guitar Lake. It was about 6:30pm when we got to Guitar Lake, I started setting up Nafeesa and my tent while the rest of the crew debated which route we should take up Whitney, West Couloirs, or generally follow the John Muir Trail. Justin kindly offered to boil water while I laid down and recovered my strength. I slept well that night, thanks Justin.
We woke up at 5am again. We knew the routine now and were fast that final morning. I had my full appetite back and happily wolfed down several bars for breakfast. We decided that it would be safer with out tired bodies to head up the trail as there were some boot tracks that way. After a couple hours we met up with the Whitney Trail just North of Trail Crest and felt like we were back in civilization as we joined the crawl behind dozens of Mount Whintey hikers clad in everything from full winter mountaineering regalia to running shoes and cotton pants.
Getting to the summit was an uneventful slog, but it released a torrent of emotions when we did. Graham, Justin, and Nafeesa all were overtaken by victorious tears at the site of lone pine and the Inyo Mountains, and the White Mountains and the Kaweahs and Milestone Peak and the Kern and all the of the terrain that we had covered. I however was stressed and excited about the terrain to come and would not be crying until my boots were off at the car.
After snapping the requisite summit photos, we turned our tired legs back west and started heading for the entrance couloir to the mountaineers route. We peered down the direct route which due to cornicing was vertical for about 15 feet and then steep after that. Mountaineers were repelling so we passed on that and moved on. We hiking down until the mountaineers route opens up more and you can easily traverse into it. The snow on the traverse was a little funky and difficult to get purchase with our crampons, but we all slowly plodded onward. One by one we finished the traverse and collapsed at the notch. We laid there wriggling and gasping for air like fish out of water. The site of the mountaineer's couloir immediately replenished my energy. This had been my goal before tearing my ACL, this was one of Davenport's 50 classic skis of north america, and walls were high and beautiful the snow was corn, and I was STOKED. I quickly scrambled down to the snow, and transitioned while I waited for the others to arrive. I patiently made some hop turns until it opened up and then I was overcome with stoke and irresponsibly skied all the way to the base of the couloir in some big arcing GS turns while the others were still at the top. The couloir was FAT and this is why I dragged my fat skis all the way across the sierra instead of taking my much lighter skinny skis. I wanted to ski that couloir fast and proud, so I did. I felt bad as I looked up and waited for everyone else to come down, but also I didn't. Hopefully no one would get hurt, and I was confident in the team.
No one did get hurt and we regrouped near Iceburg Lake and took off in a line down the mellow terrain snaking around antique lateral and terminal moraines to Upper and then Lower Boyscout Lake. Normally, here we would have taken our skis off and booted down the ledges and bushwhacked out to the car, but we were so exhausted that we decided to follow some old ski tracks that were traversing high and on the skier's right side of the gully.
The tracks kept going down and I figured that there must be so much snow this year that you could ski the whole way down over the usually 100 foot cliff that is below our skis. The ramp narrowed and steepened as we skied, but continued. Eventually I saw three others starting a rappel from a tree and my heart sank. We did not bring a rope to rappel, all I had was 50 feet of p-chord. This was woefully inadequate to descend on this cliff. I asked if they could leave the rope and harness behind and we would return it to them in the parking lot. The woman was hesitant, she said that she was guiding. This is an attitude that I was not accustomed to in the mountains. In my opinion we all help each other in the mountains, but it was her job to take care of her clients first.
Justin, Graham, and Nafeesa joined me, and I did a pretty bad job of explaining the situation and I skied down the ramp while they stayed there. I was hoping that I could find a sneaker. I skied to the end of the ramp and looked over a hundred foot cliff. Cliffed out. I then panicked, what if someone didn't convince her to leave the rope, what would we do? Of course, we would have just hiked back up to lower boyscout, but I didn't think of that at the time. I started sprinting up in the snow, which really must have not been very fast given my tired legs, heavy gear, and the snow. I was yelling as loud as I could but I didn't hear a response, and I got even more anxious.
By the time I got back to the party, the rappel had not ended and Nafeesa had managed to convince the guide to leave us her rope and old harness to use. We had a carabiner, and some p-cord to add to the mix. The main worry was the possibility of a double rappel and what we would use for an anchor. We did not know if the rope would reach or not because we lowered all of the guided climbers on a single rope. Three of us could be lowered that way using a bend in the rope called a muther hitch. A munter hitch is a useful bend to use if you forget your belay device at the last belay ledge or you are in a sticky situation because it can be made only with the rope and a carabiner. This situation would mean that the last person would need to do rappel with the rope folded over on itself with a double munter hitch on a carabiner. Justin first lowered Nafeesa while Justin and I talked about what to do. We only had a single harness so Nafeesa had to tie the harness to the rope for it to be pulled back up. After talking, we decided that Justin would do the final rappel because he was more confident with the system, however, we gave Graham Justin's backpack and me Justin's skis to make the job easier. Justin lowered Graham next with double backpacks. He went over the edge and out of sight wobbling from the weight of his load. I don't remember exactly what we heard next but we saw one backpack fly down the snow slope that Nafeesa was standing on. Nafeesa dove out of the way. Justin and I had no idea what happened and we tried to yell and signal to Nafeesa. It appeared that Graham was at least alive so we continued to lower him. A few tense minutes later and Graham, maybe a little shaken from the excitement wandered into view. Justin and I took a sigh of relief. When we all got down, we would later learn that Graham has been forced upside down by the weight of the double backpacks and had to ditch one to right himself. Stressful. Graham tied the harness to the rope and it was my turn. The harness belonged to the female mountain guide so I was worried about fitting it onto my 6 foot 1.5 inch, 210 pound frame. After several minutes, I forced the harness on over my hips and tied in. Justin and I discussed the plan one more time before he lowered me. I would tie the harness on and shuttle it up. Justin would put the middle point of the rope over our anchor. Justin would take our carabiner and put a double munter hitch on it. Justin would also take the 50 feet of p-chord to make a second anchor. There was a good sized tree halfway down for the second anchor, but to get to it, it would require shuffling on the rock in ski boots. Ski boots are not ideal for smearing on rocks. We took a deep breath and I started down.
I managed to join Graham and Nafeesa without to much trouble and more good new was I though that the folded rope rappel would reach a triangle of snow that it would be reasonable easy to scuttle down from. I tied the harness on, Justin raised it, tied his munter hitches and started his rappel. I watched on pins and needles. But, the double ropes easily reached the triangle. Justin disroped and yanked on one end. The other end of the rope tumbled down and slide across the steep snow to me. Justin then easily scrambled down and we were all together again at the bottom of the cliff. We breathed a collective sigh of relief.
After a little reconnoitering we decided to put our skis on. We skied down another few pitches and then put our skis on our backs. A few short minutes and we popped out of the brambles on the Whitney Trail just up trail of the roaring North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. I buried my face in the cold water and drank deeply directly from the torrent. We all walked quickly down to the car in silence where we met the guide who lent us the rope, she was just in front of us. We finally got to the car, took off our boots, jumped in lone pine creek, hugged and sat on each others laps for the long drive back to LA. As a side note, I should add that Aaron and Dustin drove our second car to Whitney Portal to complete our car shuttle, thanks so much guys, you can read their trip report on skiing the Whitney trail. We noted that at only 11.5 hours, this day was our shortest day!
We were all exhausted an a mix of emotions on the way home. Happy to be out of the woods, a little sad to have it end so dramatically and with someone else's rope, but excitement that we did it! Can't wait to traverse again using the Kern Hot Springs :). As a group we may have a claim at the first people to do this variation, but Nafeesa may have an even better claim of being the first woman to do this variation, go Nafeesa!!!