Eastern Sierras
March 2003

For the second year in a row, Dave Anderson and I took off for a long weekend of unmechanized winter adventure in the Sierras. Last year it was heroic (at least to us) ascents of some of the mountains around Lake Tahoe. This year Ron Kuivila joined us and the plan was to try our hand at randonee skiing. Unfamiliar with the term? So were we.


I flew into Reno on Thursday night, and was on the road for Tahoe by 9:30 am Friday. The weather was glorious.


I arrived a couple of hours before the appointed meeting time, and went for a snowshoe on the Tahoe Rim Trail. It turned out to be a land of many snowmobiles, but they were blessedly silent while I was there.

1:30 pm and Dave and Ron arrived on schedule. They had rented the randonee gear in Berkeley and were eager to try it out before our class started on Saturday. Randonee is downhill skiing with special bindings that allow your heel to lift when walking uphill. Synthetic "skins" glued to the soles of your skis for the uphills provide the friction. If you're thinking that ski boots are perhaps not the most comfortable footwear for going uphill, you're right.

All went smoothly, and we made our way about a mile to a rocky outcropping with a fantastic view west across Lake Tahoe.

After this shakedown run we drove south on US-395, heading for Lee Vining at the eastern base of Tioga pass where we would spend our first night. At sunset we stopped in to check out some beautiful peaks near Bridgeport. Cleaver Peak and Mount Walt will have to wait till another year.

In Lee Vining, we dined at Nicelys, then headed down to Mono Lake to do a little stargazing. Ron held the star chart aloft, and after splitting a small bottle of Bushmills the moon swam in circles through the dark and starry skies.

Saturday morning, and we met up with SP, our guide from Sierra Mountain Center in Mammoth Lakes. The group was just Dave, Ron, I, and Boris from LA. SP sized up the four of us, and decided that our first day's expedition would be on a hill called "Chicken Wing" near Deadman's Pass about 8 miles north of Mammoth. Chicken Wing is in the middle of the first picture above. The second is of SP gearing up.

Chicken Wing proved to be a bit of a challenge. There wasn't enough snow to cover all the bushes properly, and what there was was crusty and difficult to ski. Nonetheless, we got a beautiful view from the top of its neighbor White Wing, and a sense about what this randonee thing is all about: Hours of sweaty climbing followed by minutes of high speed obstacle avoidance.

We spent Saturday and Sunday nights at Tom's Place, an old stage coach station turned gas station turned fishing lodge. It was the real thing.

The brave conquerors of Chicken Wing salute their achievement.

Sunday morning, and we all piled into SP's four wheel drive for the approach to Witcher Bowl, a little south of Tom's Place. We put our skis on only steps from the truck and started climbing by 8:30.

The morning was clear and very warm. After 45 minutes of climbing and only 750' of progress on a 4,000' mountain it was apparent that we weren't going to the top.

After another hour we were 1,500 feet up and had climbed the first steep couloir. The views across Long Valley to the White Mountains were glorious. Dave felt he'd gone high enough, and stretched out for an alpine nap on the rocks.

Continuing up we entered a sparse forest of dead trees. Boris is executing the kick turn as we zigzag up the mountain. After only a few minutes the snow began to stick to my skins, and I decided that I had gone high enough. I looked down at Dave (on the rock almost hidden by the middle tree), and two minutes later I was down there with him. The snow was much easier to ski than Saturday, and after a break to dry out my skins I climbed back up the mountain and did another run.

Sunday night, back in our cabin at Tom's Place, we celebrated with a leg of lamb cooked expertly by Ron.

Monday morning, and we all decided we'd had enough of this randonee thing, and a little exploration was in order. First stop was Convict Lake in the shadow of Mount Morrison.

Reflections at Convict Lake.

Next stop was Hot Creek, very near Mammoth. Hot springs come up under the creek and the intermittent emissions make it hot one moment and frigid the next. Norwegians would love it. Actually, we loved it!

The South Tufas at Mono Lake were our final stop.

Heading home, Dave and Ron crossed the stormy Sierras. I dropped the rental car in Reno, and flew back to Seattle. Another epic winter adventure complete.

(Dave's account of the same trip, with better color commentary, can be read here.)