Backcountry Skiing In California's Eastern Sierra

Backcountry Skiing In California's Eastern Sierra

Spring Ski Touring in California’s Iconic Mountain Range

The five of us rendezvoused Friday afternoon at a natural hot springs near Bridgeport, California to soak, scheme, and toast to the weekend ahead. Friends from across the country – Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, and locals from nearby Mammoth – connected through an odd web of friendships and work, but it felt like we had known each other for years. After a long soak and a quick jump in the snowmelt river to cool off, we made a fire and started boiling water for dinner, trading stories from the last few months.

But these exchanges felt different. There was no posturing, interrupting, or withholding. Just raw stories, big questions, and lots of silence to digest them. Something happens when you cross over to the eastern Sierra. Time seems to slow, space opens up, and people relax, notably. Away from major metros like LA and SF, gridlock traffic and busy jobs, life takes on a different form. Maybe not better, but different.

We had some big objectives for the weekend, but for the moment they were happily left for tomorrow. As we filled our bellies with warm meals, stories about families, partners, and dreams flew back and forth as fast and openly as most people talk about their favorite TV shows. It was easy and personal, surrounded by the vast solitude of BLM land.

Dusk faded to dark as we mused about parents and the values they handed down to us. We stoked the fire and continued to banter, and I began to feel a deeper appreciation for the men in my life willing to be vulnerable. Hours later, with the sky coated in stars and a budding excitement for approaching morning, we said goodnight and crawled into sleeping bags.

Morning came early and we moved quietly and efficiently, packing up gear, making coffee and eating a simple breakfast. I could tell it was going to be a warm day and began to wonder how the snow would hold up on east and south-facing slopes. Nothing I could do about that now.

Driving 20 minutes to the trailhead at the end of Twin Lakes, the energy among the group started to surge. After weeks of planning through emails and phone calls, we were finally starting our ski trip to the Matterhorn, a zone I had wanted to ski for years.

When we arrived at the parking lot it was easy to see that snow had receded well above the lakes, forcing us to hike the first couple miles of steep switchbacks. Laughter and jokes filled the air, foreshadowing for a fun few days ahead. After 45 minutes of marching single file in tennis shoes, we hit snow line and crested into the first valley, taking a short break to throw on skis and skins and grab a snack.

We had packed light, other than the extra beers and requisite mountaineering gear like crampons and ice axes. Still, hiking with skis and boots lashed to your pack is an arduous endeavor, for even for fit folk. Still in the shade of a granite wall, the snow in the valley was icy and challenging to traverse on. We climbed a second face into a higher valley, staying as a group and methodically stepping to avoid a fall.

Now a couple thousand feet above the trailhead, the group debated campsites and opted for a large, flat rock to call home for the next couple nights. We threw up tents, inflated pads and left our sleeping bags and overnight food stashed at the campsite.

Without wasting much time, we continued uphill with only our day packs, avy gear, and a few snacks. This made a huge difference, and we caught up to a few groups on the bootpack that followed. We seemed to accelerate uphill as the lines we had been dreaming about came into view.

Weather and snow permitting, Saturday’s vision was to ski a couple of lines adjacent to Matterhorn Peak, with Ski Dreams Couloir being the key objective. A steep, 40-degree slope that ran over a thousand feet from its wind-blown ridgetop to snow-filled bottom, it was perfect for our skills and experience, at least on paper. As we bootpacked methodically up the pitch, we had ample opportunities to assess the snow quality and the crux, a small choke in the middle of the run, maybe 20 feet wide at most. The group felt good about conditions, so we continued on.

Slightly nervous but comfortable with the risk, we ripped off skins at the top of the run and strapped on our skis. Stoke was pretty high – I remember the howls bouncing off nearby ridgetops. We dropped one at a time, each of us carrying a radio and communicating back and forth about safety and line choices. The top of the run was as expected, a big icy chute and pretty poor skiing, but after the first hundred feet the snow softened and we opened it up, ripping down the backcountry couloir like an inbounds groomer.

Collecting as a group at the bottom of the run, we knew avy danger was rising and decided to call it a day. As we descended a few thousand feet to basecamp, the hootin’ picked up, as the five of us zoomed downhill as a group on a route that stayed around 30 degrees. There truly is nothing like the feeling of a good party ski. Despite this being the first trip we had done with just this group, I had a good feeling it wouldn’t be the last.

Back at camp and feeling physically worked from a long day with six thousand feet of vert, we jumped through a hole in the snowpack directly into an icy river and then laid out on our flat rock to sunbathe in the last few hours of light.

At this point the group was in sync, each person helping with small tasks and chores without need to communicate about it. As the sun started to drop and temps cooled off, we began collecting wood for a fire and boiling water for dinner, Good To-Go dehydrated camp meals. We each had a different flavor, selected the day before.

We sat in a semi-circle around the fire and ate, mostly in comfortable silence. My mind wandered to how thankful I was to be healthy and surrounded by people who enjoy long days like this in the mountains. On one hand backcountry skiing is meaningless – it doesn’t add any clear value to the world or matter to anyone else – and on the other hand it helps give a lot of people, myself included, purpose. We go to the mountains to reflect, build community, and simplify. We go to the mountains so that we can come back happier, richer, calmer, grittier, and just a little bit better.

Story and photography by: Andy Cochrane | IG: @andrewfitts

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