version of the Kuna Crest trip. Rich has given
elsewhere; I just thought different perspectives
on the same trip might be interesting. Mine is
perhaps a bit more personal, written as much to
preserve my own memories as to tell you what itís
like out there. Please note that some of the place
names are different in my version. Also, none of us
has any delusions of skiing these chutes for the
first time; the names are just an informal way of
describing where we were and what we did.
The first thing I want you to know is that this trip has
enabled me to enter a state of extreme serenity and bliss. I
have come to understand that this state is unexplainable
through words or pictures. It is a place I can only go
through gliding, dancing, and bending my knee through some
sweet buttered corn in the High Sierra. Hey, itís better
than smoking cigarettes.
Kuna Crest: Where the Corn is Sweet and the Turning is Easy
Thursday evening, May 23rd. Driving east across
the Central Valley, the sun low in the sky behind, the
enormity of the California sky opens up around me. It brings a
feeling of freedom as I start to envision a long weekend of
skiing the Kuna Crest in the High Sierra. I am to meet Sam and
Rich, new friends from
telemarktips.com, and hook up with Greg, another buddy I
skied with for the first time last weekend. I look forward to
celebrating my 47th, 48th, 49th,
and 50th ski days of the season, numbers I will
not likely exceed in the near future. I hope for a fitting
celebration of this incredible season.
Driving up through the foothills of oak savanna: oldies
station on the radio, the low sun turning the dry grass into
waving fields of orange, tombstones of metamorphic rock
marking the rise of the Sierra. The warmth of day settles into
the coolness of evening. Rolling Stones and Motown blast as a
nearly full moon rises in front of me. Feeling free I drive
fast through empty roads winding through oaks. Yes, it was
going to be a good weekend. Up into the chaparral, the small
towns that surround Yosemite start to appear. Their neon signs
beckoning tourists interrupt the cool night sky. Into
Yosemite, the pines appear. I stop at Wawona for the night to
camp and visit with my cousin from NYC, who is on vacation
RVing through California. They own a small ski shop in Forest
Hills. ďSo, are you going to spend a few days with us?Ē she
Iím meeting some buddies tomorrow to go skiing,Ē I reply. This
50 day season has taken some sacrifices some members of my
family may not understand.
Friday, May 24th. Up the next day for a
leisurely morning in the sunshine we take pictures of the two
cousins for our 101-year-old grandmother. Then Iím off for
Tioga Pass, which opens today at noon from the west. I meet
Sam at Tioga Pass. Tall, easy-going, confident, and competent
are my first impressions. We get our stuff together at the
trailhead and head off about 2:15, walking upstream to find a
snow bridge over the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River. We talk
for a while about skiing as we hike up the trail. I come to
understand one thing: Sam is a better skier than me. Arriving
at our lovely campsite, Sam schools me further on proper
Megamid site preparation.
couscous is nearly ready as dusk announces the arrival of
a nearly full moon. Weíre about to eat when what do we
hear but a shout from somebody nearing camp. Itís Rich,
the famous Steeleman of t-tips trip reports and panoramas!
I feel like Iíve known him for a long time. I canít tell
you how cool it is to be hanging out in the wilderness and
have a buddy walk up to your camp. One more bag of
couscous into the pot and soon weíre sharing a warm meal.
Turns out Rich left the Bay Area at about 1:30, only 45
minutes before Sam and I started our hike. And here he is,
sharing dinner with us. Rug-ged Steeleman, Rug-ged!
Saturday, May 25th. The sun hits our tent by
six am. Weíre up and skinning up to the lip to Helen Lake not
much later. We climb over Helenís Lip and see Helenís Bowl for
the first time. After some discussion of where to go, we head
to the northeast facing Helenís Pass. After some steep booting
we top out to gorgeous views from the Cathedral Range to
Ritter and Banner, with Lyell and its glaciers crowning the
center of the view. We climb a nearby ridge to enjoy the view
and eat some lunch. Sitting on a high cliff with some of the
most famous Yosemite peaks spread out before us. We are
enchanted and enthralled.
Back to the pass, we begin our descent. Sam rips it up on
a steep section, making a mess with lots of snowballs
rolling from his turns on the steep slope. Yes, my
prediction is confirmed: Sam is a better skier than I. So
I traverse out to a gentler section and start turning down
the slope. The snow is a bit heavy, but forgiving. I can
do it. Corn prevails lower down as we make quick turns in
the sunshine. We regroup down near the lake.
to do now? Itís afternoon so we head over to the northwest
facing side of the bowl. Up we stomp a long aesthetic line of
snow that reaches all the way to the ridge just to the east of
some serrated teeth along the ridge. So I call it Helenís
Tongue. We skin and boot all the way to the top. I sometimes
climb the rocks and talus, Sam and Rich booting through the
snow. We reach the top. It is steep at the top. We eat lunch
#2 gazing at the sharp ridge leading to Kuna Peak. Sadly, itís
too late to bag the peak.
Because Helenís Tongue is so steep at the top, I request that
I can go 2nd so Iíll have one person above me and
one person below me as I ski the chute. I decide that Iíll
sideslip the first steep part. I get out on the steep part.
The snow is heavy. It is steep. I sideslip and traverse some
more, shopping for a turn. Suddenly Iím on some icy hard snow.
I start to slip. Iím gripped. My hands clutch my poles,
forcing them into the snow as my edges slip. My edges grab. I
keep my cool. I inch back towards the softer snow. Once there
I have to make a turn. I visualize the perfect jump turn. Sam
is getting cold above me. I hop. I hope. I land it. I
immediately traverse over to the central band of rocks and
take my skis off, strap them to my pack and climb down 40 feet
on the rocks to a mellower slope. My skis back on I negotiate
some defensive turns down to the waiting guys. Well, that was
out of my comfort zone.
ski on down Helenís Tongue, the snow gets better and
better as we start caressing it with easy turns that flow
with the moment. Yahoo! It is pure pleasure at this point.
So beware of Helenís Tongue; although it can be soft and
velvety down low, it can be fiery at the tip. For me, the
run was a success because on this steep slope I was able
to keep my cool, get my skis off, climb down, get them
back on, and ski down, all without completely losing my
cool in a sketchy situation. Sam and Rich, of course,
skied the whole thing perfectly.
in camp weíre preparing dinner and hear another whoop and
holler. This time it is my buddy Greg from the Monterey area.
Another buddy walking up in the wilderness. Nice!
Saturday, May 26th. Starting the morning with
Richís PopTarts, weíre ready to go again. This time weíre
skinning up to the east-facing slopes above the Kuna Bench.
Where to ski? So many choices. We ski to a high point on the
bench where we have a good view of all the choices. We are
overwhelmed with the moment. The mountains. The sky. The
beauty. The open slopes waiting to be skied. The blank
canvases waiting to be painted. On bended knee we raise our
poles to the deities of the Church of the Open Slopes (hereís
to you Allan Bard) and howl our appreciation.
again we climb up to the Kuna Crest and enjoy the
spectacular views. The boys pick out the steepest,
gnarliest chute around. After Helenís tongue-lashing the
day before, I opt to ski the Open Slopes of Kuna with
Greg. Sam and Rich climb farther up along the ridge to
plunge into the Big Kuna, while Greg and I hike the ridge
to enjoy the views. We agree to meet at the bottom where I
will film them skiing the Big Kuna. As Greg and I drop in,
nice corn greets us as we drop down and paint the Open
Slopes of Kuna with some even tracks.
Back to Sam and Rich,
after cutting the slope to clear soft wet snow, they both
ski the Big Kuna in fine style, with me trying my best to
faithfully record it all on video. All smiles as we
regroup on the Kuna Bench. We proceed to ski joyously
together down the easy slopes back to camp for lunch.
to do next? Itís obvious. Hit the couloirs just above the
lake. So up and over Helenís Lip we go, then climbing the
ridge to the top of the couloirs. I agree to go take a look at
them. We get to the top of Spillway Chute East. Sam and Greg
go out to check it out. I walk cautiously out to see what
theyíre seeing. Iím less than comfortable without my skis and
a bulging slope below. Sam is measuring the slope.
Greg: ďHow steep is it?Ē
turn around to walk back. ďNo, come back and take a look at
this, Fred. Itís not that bad,Ē Greg beckons. I walk back. I
look. It doesnít look that bad. I think I can do it.
put our skis on. Greg drops in first. ďItís puuurrffecct!!Ē
he yells as he disappears from view. I shove off as the
other guys head further up the ridge to ski Spillway Chute
West. It is perfect. The corn is just right. I trust the
snow. I link some turns just above some steep rocks. The
corn is sweet and the turning is easy. Itís wonderful. We
turn without thinking all the way down to the lake, just
in time to watch the other guys come down the steeper
Spillway Chute West.
skis over to us perched on a dry spot above the lake. His grin
reaches from ear to ear. Completely satiated, he says, ďI can
go home now.Ē And so we split up. Rich and Sam back to camp
and down the trail, leaving Greg and I the rest of the
afternoon and the next day.
what do we do now? Back to camp to lounge the rest of the day?
Heck no! Up into Helenís Lip one more time and then high onto
the ridge that forms the western boundary of Helenís Bowl. On
the other side we find a sweet little north-facing gully that
provides a nice, mellow day-ending ride back to camp. The
perfect way to end the day. A hearty meal of sausages sends us
off to bed with full bellies.
Sunday, May 27th. My Day 50 starts cold and
cloudy. Ice forms on pots of water as we carry them from the
water source to the camp. We lounge in camp waiting for the
morning to warm and the snow to soften. Suddenly, the clouds
break and the morning warms quickly. Weíre off.
up to the Kuna Bench to a wide, north-facing slope with a
lateral moraine projecting directly away from it. It is
beautiful and had caught the attention of the whole group
the day before. It is worthy of a Day 50 Slope. We use the
moraine as a low angle ramp to get to the steep part of
the slope. It has all the ingredients of an alpine
environment with a frozen ice blue lake trapped by the
moraine to the west. But when we get to the steep part the
snow is too hard to comfortably climb. So we go for a 350í
warm up run down the gully on the eastern side. Itís
perfect for me. Steep enough to be fun, but not so steep
to have to think.
Back up the moraine to the steep part of the slope. It is
soft now in the warm sun. Greg kicks some nice steps up to
the pass. Topping out on the pass, we are in a sublime
environment. Big granite boulders in flawlessly chaotic
shapes scattered about the plateau. ďWhich one do I want
for my dinner table?Ē Greg asks rhetorically. Mt Lyell
directly south of us with its glistening glacier is nicely
framed by the U-shaped pass. Mt Dana to the north in
exactly the other direction. Mono Lake can be seen over
Mono Pass. Mt Conness to the northwest. It seems all the
signature peaks and features of the eastern Yosemite
region are framed by this surreal landscape. We call it
ďDay 50 Pass.Ē
down we go. Greg goes first, shouting with joy as he
disappears from view. I follow. Yet again, the corn is
perfect. Soft buttery bliss. The slope steepens. I make a
turn. Thatís easy. Another one. I can do this. Smooth
links. Back and forth. Up and down. Iím in my rhythm.
Linking turns one after another down the slope. I notice
Greg had fallen and slid a ways. But heís back up now and
still smiling. It doesnít shake me. Down to the moraine
with shouts of joy. And then on down to the frozen ice
blue lake. Effortlessly now gliding through the corn. As
easy as it is to write these words. Coming from the heart,
the turns spread the snow like butter melting on corn.
Stopping at the lake to photograph the tracks and savor the
moment. In a granite ampitheater with a blue lake of ice.
Bright wide open slopes with beautiful white turns dropping
straight down to the lake. I emblaze the scene in my mind
because I know that photographs will not capture it. A
physical high overtakes me. Day 50. And what a Day 50 it is.
After easy skiing back down to camp, we pack our stuff and
head back out to the road. The stream crossing is easier than
expected in our skivvies with our bare feet in the shells of
our boots. Charging back to the trucks, nothing can bring us
down. Driving back to the coast, the music sounds better, the
views look better, the classic views of Half Dome and El
Capitan still take my breath away. The big trees are a
refreshing change from the tundra of the last few days. The
low sun on the oak savanna reminds me of home. I am home. Not
even a horrific traffic jam over Pacheco Pass daunts me. It is
all good. I have entered a state of serenity and bliss that
refuses to leave. It cannot be explained. These words and
pictures do it no justice.
May 28, 2002
(all text & images (c)
2002 Fred Hochstaedter)