Access & Resources: Heading Out on the High Route

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, February 1995

Access & Resources: Heading Out on the High Route
By Seth Masia

Skiers who've traversed Europe's Haute Route, from Chamonix to Saas-Fee, will find the Sierra High Route higher, rougher, and more isolated. While thousands of people ski the Haute Route each spring, crowding into the alpine huts and leaving tracks as deep as wagon ruts in the glaciers, the Sierra High Route gets far less traffic -- the only tracks you're likely to see will be those left by squirrels and rabbits. Since there are no huts serving French-Swiss mountain suppers, skiers have to carry tent, grub, and fuel -- up to 70 pounds.

The classic route is the one that John Skow took, from the Symmes Creek trailhead near Independence, west to Wolverton. You'll be on snow for about 40 miles, crossing nine major cols and passes as high as 13,000 feet -- a three-day trip for the acclimatized and superfit, and up to a week for good skiers with sea-level lungs.

The best time to ski the High Route is late April and May, when the snow has firmed and stabilized, the days are long, and the weather is generally benign. The route is skiable as early as February, if you don't mind slogging mile after mile through bottomless heavy powder, and as late as July (in a good snow year), if you don't mind skiing on sun cups and slush.

GUIDES. If all this seems intimidating, hire a guide who makes the trip frequently and knows the terrain intimately. If you're not already acclimatized to high altitude, plan on a shorter "training" trip with your guide earlier in the season, even if it means extra travel. It may be the only way to gauge your aerobic capacity under the pack.

Bela and Mimi Vadasz at Alpine Skills International (916-426-9108) run a six-day trip each spring (this year, May 7 - 12) for $542 per person. "We set a more leisurely pace," Mimi says. One group starts from the east, another from the west, and the two meet in the middle to celebrate. ASI guides dig partial snow caves each night, which saves bringing expedition tents, one reason clients carry relatively light 28-pound packs. Another recommended guide is John Fischer (619-873-5037), who specializes in customized trips throughout the Bishop - Mammoth Lakes area; he charges $100 per day per person for a party of three.

GEAR. Because spring snow is so variable, my own equipment choice -- honed after years of serious mistakes -- is comfortable telemark boots and relatively soft alpine skis. GS skis also work well, but they're heavy; your best bet is one of the lighter "recreational slalom" models, with a tail soft enough to round the turn out nicely in deeper snow. This rig permits both telemarking and a reasonably controlled parallel christie.

Choose a moderately stiff all-leather telemark boot; more modern-looking plastic-cuff racing boots offer plenty of control but can be a pain in the Achilles on a long, sweaty climb. Break the boots in with a heavy dose of lift-served skiing before you even think about trying a 50-mile forced march. Also essential are climbing skins, which keep skis from sliding backward as you head skyward. Because you'll be edging and traversing on steep, icy terrain, the only acceptable skins are polypropylene glue-ons, as opposed to strap-ons, which can slip off the ski sideways (dark-colored skins are the best choice, as they tend to dry faster than lighter-colored ones). An ice ax and a light rope also come in handy on the trickier sections.

SAFETY. If you self-guide, you'd better be in shape, know how to use a map and altimeter, and be prepared to spend a few days waiting out the odd Pacific storm. For safety you'll need shovels, probe poles, and avalanche transceivers -- and you'll need to know how to use them. (A good source for avalanche safety equipment is Life-Link; call 800-443-8620 to find the dealer nearest you.) Bring a tent big enough to house the whole party and then some, because in a storm you'll need to bring the packs and kitchen inside. The rule of thumb on fuel is a quart per day per skier early in the season, when you'll be melting snow, and a pint per day in June, when you'll merely boil water dipped from streams and lakes.

The safe party travels with four skiers, so that if one sprains an ankle, a second can stick around while the other two ski out for help. Among them, these four skiers should know plenty about route-finding, snow safety, first aid, weather, equipment repair, water purification, and camp cuisine. Start by reading Backcountry Skiing, by Lito Tejada-Flores ($10), and Going Higher, by Charles Houston ($13). John Moynier's Backcountry Skiing in the High Sierra ($13) is a decent guide to the High Route terrain. A good source for books is the Backcountry Bookstore in Lynnwood, Washington (206-290-7652).

Then practice. When you've slept comfortably for a few nights in snow caves at least a thousand feet above the trailhead and can ski windslab snow with a third of your weight in a pack, you're ready.

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