May 15 2011

Semi-Lite lessons from the Sierra High Route

It’s been just over a week now since skiing the Sierra High Route. Unlike my previous attempt two years ago, this time we skied all the way across. Two years ago I started out with ASI’s Geoff Clarke, Nick Washburn, and Nori Hamaguchi. We made it to the beginning of Deadman Canyon before hitting the brakes HARD when the entire bowl settled three to six inches — ka-whoomph! It wasn’t that we were worried about Deadman letting go — it was just a 20° slope. But the equivalently oriented slope dropping in to Cloud Canyon from Coppermine Pass had a 38° rollover. If it had any inclination of whomphing on us there, that might be the beginning of somebody’s last ride and no one was volunteering to be the avy poodle (not that Geoff was taking volunteers either).

Geoff Clarke teles beneath Consolation Couloir, near Pear Lake Hut, May 2009.

We set up camp early and hoped the slope would freeze solid overnight. When the slope still let out an audible crack that echoed off the rock walls around the bowl the next morning we decided that was an omen to retreat. We headed back to camp one and spent the following day leaving tracks off the ridge leading up to skier’s Alta Peak near Pear Lake Hut. Still a great trip into the Sierra Nevada interior, but not the classic traverse.

During the first week of May, 2011 the stars aligned, the weather broke for the first time since Junuary, and six of us rendezvoused at Wolverton trailhead to ski the Sierra High Route, West to East. How we went from six to five is a story in itself, but I’ll save that for later. Maybe.

For now I just want to share some of the lessons I learned before I forget them so you might benefit from the analysis in preparing for your next overnight adventure. Substitute your fave food or fetish for the examples below.


How much Food? Too much food!

Backs bent from not leaving the kitchen sink behind. Approx 90 minutes into the tour.

Once again everyone fell under the spell of red flag syndrome, bringing much more than we needed to. If we had simply stuck to the guidelines ASI provided, we could have all had 30 pound packs, at least the three pinheads among us. The guide, of course, was obligated to carry an extra 15 pounds or so of safety equipment. However, this 30 pound premise was dependent on at least one other person in the group who didn’t stick to the 30 pound limit and brought a ton of extra food we could mooch off of.

Instead, all of us brought more food than we needed by about double. I reduced the amount of gorp I brought on the trip by half since my inaugural tour on the High Route, but it was still more than triple what I actually consumed.

Its lighter on the inside than outside in the pack. Food break to lighten packs and energize for the climb to come.

It was wise to bring some salami, and dried fruit. Those items were fully consumed, and lasted through the whole trip. They held their appeal at altitude, although the salami wasn’t that desirable until I had acclimatized. Candied walnuts were a hit, as were licorice Scotty Dogs, every flavor of cheese, jerky, and some of the extra soups I brought for appetizers on the rehydration plan that ASI recommends, especially Nile Spice’s Black Bean Soup.

Overall the dehydrated meals provided by ASI were solid, but half of ‘em weren’t my cup of tea when it came to flavor. I prefer spicy stuff which makes it easier to develop an appetite for dehydrated food, especially at altitude. The problem wasn’t so much that the meals were bad, but since they’d been repackaged in ziploc bags (to save weight) there was no indication what was in the bag. We could certainly tell what noodles were included, and what dehydrated veggies were in the mix, even the meat, but flavor wise it was a gamble. Some were great and hearty, some bland. Next time I’ll provide all own my food based on taste, but follow ASI’s guidelines for quantity and the mix of components.

Somehow I managed to forget cheese. Next time, a solid block of Parmesean, up to a pound, regardless of the weight penalty. A flavorful electrolyte would be good too, like Emergen-C. And some crackers, Trader Joe’s woven wheats, the full salt variety.


Just Enough Clothing

Terry Fisher demonstrates how easy it is to ski with a big pack. Easy, of course, when you have corn base covered with 'Lilly's Lace.'

Clothing wise I managed to nail it. I used every bit of clothing, every day, and didn’t need any extra. The first night at the trailhead my fingers and toes took awhile to warm up, but they did, and the nights got milder with time. Glad I bought a new 800-fill down vest. It easily scrunched down to the size of a grapefruit, and fluffed up quickly. This was paired with an old Marmot DriClime windshirt, a base layer of merino wool from Dale, and a hooded Schoeller shell by Cloudveil. For my feet and legs it was just a pair of merino wool long johns and a pair of Mammut Champ ski pants with Point 6 wool socks and PrimaLoft® insulated booties by Big Agnes. They were kind of cold to walk around in on the snow so I pulled out the liners and walked around camp with my booties inside the shells of my tele boots. My sleeping bag was a 30° down bag from Moonstone, maybe 700-fill down. With booties, long johns and 3 layers up top it was enough and I slept toasty. The secret here wasn’t so much all the clothing, but my medium thick, down insulated Exped sleeping pad for insulation from the cold sink we slept on — ¾-length to save weight.

Last time I skied out of Wolverton to cross the Sierra Nevada I brought my secret blister banishing nylons. A couple pair of knee highs per person is all it takes. All the guys in the group laughed as I put them on next to skin under my socks. Their blisters were too ugly to allow me the satisfaction of laughing at them later on. That would’ve been cruel.

Undeterred I bought a 10-pack this time and passed ‘em out at the trail head. When our guide admitted he tried ‘em and they worked everyone took a pair. A few even asked for seconds a couple days later. Mike still got some pretty bad blisters, but his boots didn’t hold his feet in place very well, making blisters more or less inevitable. Even I developed a small one, but it didn’t require any treatment other than a fresh pair of slippery nylons and tightening my boots so there was no movement in the heel pocket.


Sun Protection

Peter Leh dressed in sun reducing white.

Sun wise I did better with sunscreen this time, relying heavily on a canister of Dermatone’s Z-Cote. The zinc oxide really helps to block the sun, and the zinc is good for your skin, a natural way to combat the harmful effects of UV-B rays. Unfortunately it tastes like crap, but my nose and lips didn’t blow up during, or after the trip, so the yukky taste will be forgiven (until next time).

It was obvious when our group met up with Peter Leh’s group that he’s been doing this a long time. He knew enough to wear a loose fitting white shirt with a white colored sun hat too. Those are two items that should be de rigueur for spring tours in the Sierra. Maybe a Bula too, several folks were using them to protect their faces from too much sun.


Red Flag Items

One red flag item that was going no matter what, was a 12 year-old Outdoor Research vacuum thermos. It paid off in spades. On the second day a few of us were running low on water and the snow wasn’t melting as fast as we were drinking. A quick 8 oz. of hot water from the thermos changed that in a hurry, for more than one person.

But that wasn’t the main reason the thermos was a required luxury. Waking up to hot coffee was the reason. I’d brew it up as the last task every evening before crawling into the sleeping bag to watch a few eyelid movies and let the body recover. Then it would follow me in to the bag to stay hot through the night. Come dawn, I wouldn’t have to start the stove and wait, I could be sipping hot joe within a minute of sitting up. Ahhhh!

Camp 5, after a long day across the Tyndall Plateau, down SuperBowl, across Shephard Creek and up to Mahogany Flats. Can you find the nylons and thermos?

Geoff disparaged my thermos soundly, vehemently stating, “that’s a stoopid idea!”

When he said that everyone looked up with surprise.

“Why is that?,” asked Ben.

“‘Cuz he won’t share!”, Geoff bellowed.

Everyone roared at that. It still makes me laugh.

Next time the only thing I’m changing about the coffee routine is to use Starbuck’s new Via instant coffee packets instead of Folger’s coffee bags. They’re lighter, better tasting, and have less waste material. On a high route, what’s not to love about that?


  • bentheripper

    Ahoy Craig,
    Bentheripper here (ripper because of my surgical background, not exactly descriptive of my tele style…yet!).

    Mike and I, well mostly Mike, set up our food plan together. Mike did a great job and was influenced from a recent trip up Acongaua, where the super high altitude makes eating anything difficult. His genius was including lunch meats, generally off limits for backpacking, but with lots of snow around we had good refrigeration (just froze them the night before going ‘in country’). Thus, at lunchtime, Mike would produce prosciutto and gouda or compte cheese for a bagel (we used ‘bagel thins’ which are soft bagels that are considerably less bulk but still serve as an excellent sandwhich vehicle). Turkey and proscuitto went in the first two days, then peppered salami, then summer sausage. The protein really helped us motor through the long climbing days, and the cheese was awesome. Fat and protein is what you want for high output days, not carbs.

    My biggest mistake was bringing too many cliff bars, I brought two a day for supplementation. In the end I had 6 left over.

    More drink mixes would have been good, Mike and I used crystal light and Emergen-C.
    Just to put my comment in about my skiis, my BD Justices (115mm at the waist) were absolutely SICK in the perfect corn, felt like William Wallace charging the field at Falkirk (with just slightly less bloodshed)!

  • http://www.earnyourturns.com Dostie

    Can’t disagree with anything you said. Was totally stoked you guys had a solid commissary to borrow from. My peppered salami got old fast, but the summer sausage stayed appetizing all the way through. ;)

    Most definitely agree with more drink mixes.

    Have some photographic evidence on how sick the Justices were in the Sierra corn…but I’m holding back until a more appropriate moment.

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