Highland Peak (#16)
Day 12, Highland Peak
After finishing Mokelunme, I had a dilemma -- my plan had been to take a rest day, then do a big day in the Sawtooth peaks above Bridgeport. However, the forecast was calling for one more day of good weather, and then two days of snow and high winds. I decided that a huge day would be unwise, as I was feeling fatigued from the last 4 days of big efforts.
So I needed a manageable peak that was fairly close. As I sat in my van just south of Reno, Dan sent me a text -- according to Caltrans, the Ebbetts Pass road was plowed 7 miles further west than I thought it was. If that was true, it would get me just close enough to make Highland Peak a manageable ski day. I had originally planned to do Highland in the summer, but, in my book, the more peaks I can ski, the better! Getting up most peaks in the winter is more challenging than in summer, but it means solitude, low risk of wildfire, and, if you’re lucky, fun skiing!
I decided to make the gamble and drove back up into the mountains. Sure enough, the road had been plowed 7 miles past the Highway 89 junction! It was game on. I took a relaxed start, knowing that there was a chance of harvesting elusive west-facing corn later in the afternoon. Finding quality skiing on west aspects can be challenging in the Sierra, as they are often stripped bare by the wind and sun. However, Highland had a massive west face that looked to be split by multiple gullies… maybe one would still be holding enough snow to go. There was only one way to find out!
As I hiked up Noble Canyon towards the peak, I strained to catch a glimpse of it through the dense forest. I could make out patches of snow and rock looming above me in the distance, but it was impossible to get a clear view.
Finally, once I was right at the base of the mountain, I had an unobstructed view. A prominent gully stood out right in the middle of the face, and it was filled with snow… mostly.
I could see that the very bottom of the line had a couple short rocky sections, but both seemed manageable with careful routefinding. The main, middle section of the line looked to be in fine condition! There was, however, one section near the top that remained hidden from view, tucked away between rock buttresses. I opted to climb the SW ridge of the peak, as it seemed travel would be much faster and easier, and it eliminated any exposure to wet slides. The ridge was mostly dry and rocky, but I had anticipated such and brought trail runners. As I shouldered the weight of my skis and boots, I briefly considered just leaving the extra baggage at the base of the ridge. It would be so easy to just run up to the summit and back, totally unencumbered! I didn’t even know if the line would go, let alone if it would be decent skiing… there was a very real chance that I’d be carrying my skis right back down the way I was about to climb up. I pushed those thoughts away, knowing that this would likely be my only chance to ski this peak. And if the line did go, and I didn’t have my skis with me to take advantage? I’d regret the choice forever. And so I headed up the rocky ridge, skis, boots, and all.
The climbing was mostly pleasant and straightforward, with the main difficulty being sections of loose, slippery scree. I arrived at the south summit, and eagerly peered down the immense face below.
The top looked to be in good shape too! However, one short section remained hidden from view, invisible from below or above. I dropped my skis at the top of the line and scrambled over to the true summit.
I debated whether or not to commit to the line. The unknown portion was far enough down that it would be pretty unpleasant to have to climb back up out of… but the rest of the line was so appealing! I decided to go for it, knowing that the face maintained a steep but reasonable angle, and that the odds of getting truly cliffed out were low.
I linked turns down the top of the line, finding variable but edgeable snow. A few hundred feet down, I turned a corner, and the hidden section finally came into view. It looked… bad. There were no dead-end cliffs, fortunately, but there was a lot more rock than snow, and another obstacle unusual for ski lines of this type and steepness -- trees. Hundreds of small, scrubby alpine pines, forming a thick tangle of branches blocking my path. The next few minutes involved a whacky dance of swinging from tree to tree, gingerly sidestepping across rocks, and contorting to keep myself from getting tangled in the mess. Ski mountaineering at its finest!
Eventually I emerged into the gut of the line, 2,000 feet of wonderfully open skiing still ahead of me. Due to the shape and sun exposure of the gully, one side was corned up nicely, while the other still held dry powder. It was a fun and unusual skiing experience, swinging back and forth from one type of snow to the other. Both made for great turns! Too soon, I was picking my way through the rocks and out the bottom of the line.
I looked back up at the towering face, feeling that wonderful satisfaction that tricky, technical, way-off-the-beaten-path descents can provide. The ski out went quickly and smoothly, and before dark I was back on the road, driving towards the next grand adventure!
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