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Backcountry ski and snowboard gear, camping

Mount Conness Summer Skiing, June 2002

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"You're not really going skiing, are you?"  I must've heard that question from 20 people last week, as temps in the Bay Area began climbing towards their summer heights.  I saw the same incredulity on the faces of the people we passed on highway 120 when they noticed the skis on the roof.  Yep, believe it or not, we're going skiing.

Tioga Pass

Tioga is one of those places that you just can't get enough of -- especially if you are a skier or snowboarder.  Access in winter is difficult, and because the road over the summit generally doesn't open until mid to late spring, there's not a lot of time to explore the area before the snow melts out.  Fortunately, the Tioga area holds the goods longer than most places in California, and has mindblowing terrain to boot.  Take one look from your car window while driving through Yosemite and you'll understand why Tioga Pass is the spring and summer skiing destination in the Sierra Nevada.

Armed with a favorable snow report from Mitch and Big Tim, I made plans to head back to this backcountry mecca -- specifically, to climb Mount Conness and ski the chutes and bowls on its east ridge.  I was joined by a good crew of friends:  EB, Lance and Griffin joined me from the Bay Area, while Ross, Chris and his trusty pooch Sierra came up from the Sacramento area.  Chris set off on Friday night to spend a day fishing the lakes of the 20 Lakes Basin.  The Bay Area crew and Ross met up at Saddlebag Lake on Saturday night at around midnight.  Taking advantage of the warm weather, we eschewed tents in favor of car camping and sleeping out underneath the clear, starry skies.

We woke before 6am to a perfect day.  Already the sun was bright and the air was warm.  The morning alpenglow on the east ridge of Mount Conness was a spectacular sight from the trailhead.  Fortunately, there was still some snow clinging to the peaks, so we strapped the skis on the packs and began our hike along the rocky west shore of Saddlebag Lake.  After about 35 minutes, we arrived at Greenstone Lake, where we picked up Chris and Sierra and headed up towards Mount Conness.

The hike up to the Conness Lakes is spectacular -- lush green meadows and waterfalls contrast with nasty looking chutes begging to be skied.  We climbed the granite slabs above the lower Conness Lake, and then the big snowfield leading up to the Conness Glacier.  At this point, Ross decided to hang back and ski the bowls above the lakes instead of pushing for the summit.  The rest of us donned crampons and made our way up the "dirty snowfield" towards the base of the prominent Y-couloir that splits the peaklet to the east of Conness.  Our goal was to gain the ridge via the chutes in between the Y-couloir and the summit.  One small problem stood in our way, however:  a monster bergschrund.

But it was to be our day!  Upon closer inspection, we discovered that the bergschrund could be crossed on a narrow snowbridge to climbers' right.  Being the guinea pig, I gingerly inched out towards the snowbridge and poked at it with my ice axe.  "Solid as a rock" was my expert assessment.  I crossed without incident and led the way up the steep couloir to the east ridge.  At the saddle, we dropped our skis and snowboards and made our way up the surprisingly exposed summit ridge. 

As you can expect, the summit views were spectacular.  All of the major peaks in the Yosemite area were visible, including a 360 degree view of Tower, Matterhorn, Dunderberg, Dana, Parker, Kuna, Banner, Ritter, Lyell, Cathedral, Clark and Hoffman.  To the east were Boundary and Montgomery peaks on the Nevada state line.  To the west, Half Dome and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River were plainly visible.

After snapping the obligatory summit photos, we headed back down to the saddle.  Chris dropped in first, ripping up the 45 degree chute and making it look so easy.  At the bottom of the couloir, Chris opted out of the snowbridge exit, instead carving a turn off the lip of the bergshrund and airing over it.  Very impressive.  The rest of us took the easier way out, skiing down towards the snowbridge, and then pointing them down through the narrow gap to the glacier below.

A high traverse of the Conness Glacier brought us to a point below the "notch", the obvious 11,800'+ col that splits the east ridge of Mount Conness to the northwest of Alpine Lake.  From below the notch, we skied a steep finger of snow down to the Conness Lakes.  In contrast to the deep suncups we encountered on the traverse, the 800' or so "snow finger" down to the lake was silky smooth corn snow.  Lance, Chris and I traded huge grins at the bottom of the runout.  We debated hiking back up a bit to climbers' left -- to the top of Flinty's bowl -- but given the late hour and our drained bodies, we decided against one more run.  As we looked up at our tracks dropping down from the ridgetop, we called it a fitting end to a great season.

Well, at least for some of us.  Not content with that as his last run, Chris put his board back on the pack and set off for the nicest looking line on the entire mountain -- the serpentine "S couloir" that rises above the 10,667' Conness Lake.  We all took up our positions on a sunny rock as Chris booted his way up the shaded couloir.  At the top, getting doused by a waterfall, Chris clicked in and bombed it perfectly.  Shouts of joy accompanied rooster tails of corn as Chris exited the couloir to the lakeshore below.  I'd say that's the way to finish the season.  As Chris is fond of saying, "there's a right way and a wrong way."

Click on the link below to see the photos.


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