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Donner Pass - Squaw Valley Ski Tour

What:  Ski touring from Donner Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail to Squaw Valley.


Highlights:  Great views along the entire ridgeline; an easy but fun descent down Shirley Canyon

 

When:  Best in mid-winter to early spring, before the snow gets too thin on the ridges and down low in Shirley Canyon.  


Summary

A moderate 12-mile backcountry ridge tour with an optional overnight snowcamp, but can be done as a long day tour.  Because the tour starts at Donner Pass and ends at Squaw Valley, a car shuttle is required.  Roadside parking is generally available at the pass near the old ASI Spitzhutte.  Note:  The route follows an exposed high ridge and thus is subject to ferocious winds out of the west (as evidenced by the mangled trees that somehow manage to occupy the ridge).  Make sure you do this tour in fair weather.

Tour Stats:

Mileage:

Around 11.5 miles

 

Elevation:

Trailhead:  7,038'

Highpoint:  8,780' (near Tinker Knob -- up to 8,949' if you summit)

Finish:  6,200'

 

Map:  USGS Norden, Granite Chief and Tahoe City 7.5 minute. 

 

Online Maps:

- Sheet #1

- Sheet #2

 

Route

The tour basically follows the Pacific Crest Trail all the way south to Squaw Valley (although you peel off the PCT at the end to descend Shirley Canyon).  Climb first from Donner Pass up to the top of the Mt. Judah chairlift at Sugar Bowl.  The route I usually take goes from the old ASI Spitzhutte and starts ascending in between Lake Mary and Donner Peak, staying just out of bounds of the ski area (in what Sugar Bowl calls the "Pacific Crest Glades").  From the top of the Mt. Judah chair, traverse gradually upwards through a backcountry gate into a bowl and up to the summit of Mt. Lincoln.  From there, the route is pretty obvious; you just follow the prominent ridge south (see photo).  Unless it is a whiteout, it is pretty hard to lose your way on this ridge until you get down from Tinker Knob and enter the river drainage near Mountain Meadow Lake.  

From Mt. Lincoln, follow the ridge to Anderson Peak (see photo).  Just before Anderson, the route takes you past the Sierra Club's Benson Hut.  From the Hut, put your skis on your pack, climb up the steep ridge to the summit of Anderson Peak (8,683') and enjoy the fine view from the summit (although the wind will almost certainly be blasting right here, even in the best of weather) (see photo).  From Anderson, descend to the ridge below and ski over to the point just to the left (east) of the obvious pointed summit of Tinker Knob (8,949').  Tinker may be easily bagged from the ridge, as it is just a short, moderately steep climb up (see photo).

From Tinker Knob, the route descends into a bowl to Mountain Meadow Lake (see map).  If you go too late in the year, you may have to hike a bit here, since the very top of the descent is down south facing sunny slopes that don't hold snow well.  Quickly, however, you get down to the goods and can put the skis back on and make some fine turns to the bottom of the bowl below Tinker.  As you begin to traverse south towards Mt. Meadow Lake, exercise good judgment.  If conditions are icy (as they likely will be), you are better off descending more than you might otherwise have to, because the icy traverse can be very dangerous.  

Ascend slightly near the lake and then follow the natural route as it slips through a saddle to the SE and drops into Shirley Canyon.  A nice ski descent (or one of heinous breakable crust, depending when you go) will eventually drop you off near the fire station in Squaw Valley.  Depending on snow conditions, a hike down from the snowline through boulders and brush to the fire station is often required (see photo).

Pole Creek Variation:

From Tinker Knob, you can also avoid Squaw Valley by skiing over to the southeast towards the Pole Creek drainage and then out to Highway 89 (see yellow line on map).  To do so, drop down the lower angle slopes east of Tinker Knob into the Deep Creek drainage.  Cut across the head of Deep Creek and climb to a saddle on the ridge separating Deep Creek from Pole Creek.  This is the first saddle east of the main north south ridge you have been following since the start of the tour.  Drop down into Pole Creek and follow it out to highway 89.  Along the way, you will pass the Sierra Club's Bradley ski hut.  Another route into Pole Creek is from the top of Shirley Canyon.  Descend slightly from here and then contour NE, eventually climbing up to gain the moderate pass between unnamed points 8,506' and 8,426' (see yellow line on map).


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