Last winter a friend asked me to come out to present a slideshow in Mammoth Lakes, CA at the end of March. I agreed. Jason and Andy Dorais and Tom Goth were able to get some time off so we could make a proper ski trip out of it. It had been about 15 years since I last skied in the Sierra! At that time, my buddy Darrell and I managed to sneak down the Mountaineers Route on Mount Whitney and scratch out some lines on the Dana Plateau as well as Ellery Bowl. All on light and floppy telemark gear, which seems like an entirely different lifetime ago. For the last many years the Sierra just hasn’t been on the radar because of the dismal amounts of snow they’ve been receiving. I’d almost forgotten about the place and hadn’t paid much attention to it.
The truth is, there really are few ranges as grand and prime for steep skiing in the lower 48. I should try and wax poetic about the Sierra Mountains, but what could I say that John Muir hasn’t already expressed with simple elegance.
“All the world lies warm in one heart, yet the Sierra seems to get more light than other mountains. The weather is mostly sunshine embellished with magnificent storms, and nearly everything shines from base to summit – the rocks, streams, lakes, glaciers, irised falls, and the forests of silver fir and silver pine.”
I actually knew very little about the Giant Steps route on Mount Williamson before this trip. Apparently, Williamson is the second highest peak in the Sierra and the 6th highest in the lower 48, and the route is one of the “50 Classics of North America” according to Chris Davenport’s book. With all the lean seasons, this line hasn’t been skiable for the past 10 years or so, however it had seen a handful of descents last year due to the record snowfall.
If you’re really into ski mountaineering, there is a great writeup on the full history of this line on the Earn Your Turns website, and is well worth the few minutes to read. Giant Steps gets its name because it’s a linking of 3 distinct but connected chutes or “steps”. It’s visible from the highway where it appears to be a single fall line couloir. Williamson is a very complicated mountain to get into and out of. The route starts from far below on the valley floor, but snow rarely dips that low, so dry starts are common. The summer trail is very long and circuitous and there are many more direct, but less traveled approaches. We were lucky to be able to snag GPS coordinates from one of the previous parties. It wouldn’t be that hard to figure out without it, but the GPS was a nice thing to have for a bunch of out-of -towners.
Ben Peters was staying in Mammoth and he met us at 4:15 a.m. in Bishop and we drove south to Independence with two vehicles. Ben’s low clearance wagon took a beating on the rocky dirt roads leading into the foothills. I really felt bad about all the scrapes and gnashing sounds. If it was my rig we would have stopped and walked long ago, but Ben motored onward (high clearance vehicle recommended). Andy’s jacked-up mini-monster truck was in its element and he was having a blast blazing through the desert landscape. We established a car shuttle leaving one for our exit at the Shepard Pass trailhead and departing from the other car up into the North Fork of Bairs Creek.
The “trail” we chose, was a slightly worn dirt path that partly resembled a game trail, but well enough defined that we could easily follow it by headlamp as it continued up the ridge. It allowed us to quickly gain 1400 feet with trail shoes on. We only made one wrong turn up a rocky crack, but quickly retraced our steps and got back on route. On the approach there are a few main markers to hit, one of which is the notch in the ridge where we were supposed to drop into Bairs Creek. This was pretty easy to find with the daylight breaking.
We had heard of the potential for horrendous bushwhacking, but none was encountered. Maybe we just hit it right, or the scrub oak we’re used to dealing with in the Wasatch foothills has made us impervious. The trail was sandy with lots of loose rock, but pretty fast and easy going as it dropped down into the massive drainage. We found snow down in the creek and transitioned to ski boots and skinning after stashing the shoes in our packs; this was at about 7,500 feet in elevation.
The next key navigational move was picking the right patch of snow to climb out of the gully on. We had some old tracks to follow and after a steep climb we were onto some very mellow skinning terrain for about 4,000ft! With such a mild slope angle we were able to move quickly and get into the upper basin.
From our guesstimate it was going to be about an 11,000+ foot day of climbing once you add all the little bumps required to get into and out of this 14,000+ foot peak. My biggest days of the season had only been around 5-6K and the highest elevations around 11k. Keeping up was tough for me even though the crew was moving casually for them. At well over the halfway point, the group was nice enough to indulge me in taking a quick picnic. And they even acknowledged how nice it was to chill just for a minute and take in the surroundings, but only for a few minutes, then Tom prodded us along for the final 2,000 foot climb. The snow had been firm, refrozen corn to this point. But now, at around 12,500 feet, we found some soft snow and had a little hope that the Giant Steps might actually be good skiing.
The pace slowed as the air got a little thin and the views became unencumbered. We met up with a group of two on the summit, they had topped out right before us. They had gone up a different drainage to the south and started 6 hours before us. They had beaten us to the summit and therefore in the unwritten skiers code clearly had the right to descend first. We hung out on the summit for 45 minutes taking it all in and relaxing and giving the advance party time to clear out.
Getting onto the Giant Steps line isn’t all that straightforward as far as descents go. We skied off the summit for a short pitch and then took skis off and walked around the rocky rubble looking for the notch. The notch is a low point on the ridge that allows access to a west-facing chute by down climbing or a short rappel. We had a rope and two harnesses between the five of us, but decided to climb down when we saw that it looked easy enough. And it was, the holds were large and plentiful and the rock was solid. I can see this being an obstacle for folks that don’t climb much on rock. It’s a short pitch and plenty of good rocks to put a sling on if one wanted to rappel. From here you traverse out to the north (skiers right) into another notch and this is the start of the Giant Steps. We had caught up to the party in front of us and so we hung out and patiently waited our turn (some of us more patiently than others). Tom took first hops for our group on the chalky and firm snow. It was in the 50-degree range for a few turns and then leveled out into the mid 40’s. I’ll take edgy and predictable snow in steep places over breakable and soft conditions. We skied up and over a 20-foot section and into the 2nd step which was quite similar to the first, but a little bit longer.
Despite being a large group, we moved quickly, leapfrogging long sections and then pulling out to the sides in safe zones. We were all shooting photos trying to capture just what a cool and unique environment Giant Steps is, but I’m not sure we did it justice. Some places are just hard to convey in words or images. We moved up and over another small uphill bump and we traversed into the third and final step. This one was the longest by far and it emptied onto a more open face with some rocky chokes and sneaks that were barely wide enough to jump and hack our way through. Skiing is fun; the thoughts fall away with the act of falling away.
There was one tight choke that had snow for the first four of us, but it was really rocky by the time Tom got down to it. One of his skis popped off and shot down the slope while he was side stepping through it. Luckily he maintained footing. The ski went into flipping mode and then stuck in the snow. He had to down climb to get to it as we all looked on and heckled as good friends and ski partners should do. We took another picnic at the base of the line trying to hide from the blazing sun. Looking back up, the Giant Steps sure don’t look like much. You can see how it was so elusive for a first descent for so many years. I really dig the complex lines that can remain hidden from many angles and don’t easily reveal themselves.
In a big year, or with lower elevation snow, it’s possible to ski straight out of the drainage from the base of the line and we were tempted to try it. But the stories we had heard were tales of many stream crossings and some serious bushwhacking. We opted to bump up and out into the next drainage to the north where we could ski a bit more and then hopefully find the well-established Shepard Pass trail. Sometimes you’ve got to get up to get down.
We were all out of water and pretty much out of food. We tanked back up on agua from some melting run-off in the cliffs. We caught up to the other ski party in the saddle and rallied out together down a few thousand feet of really fun mellow terrain that presented a mix of light wind impacted snow and even some corn. The snow didn’t run out, but we had to traverse around into yet another canyon so we switched to trail shoes, found the trail, and contoured up and around again on what I guess in this day and age we would call “alternative snow.”
The south sides were dry, the north sides were covered in deep snow and on the in betweens we found many deep patches that interrupted the trail. Eventually we wrapped around far enough and found some great wooded low elevation snow to descend.
Our skis led us right to the switchbacks on the trail and we made our final transition to shoes. The walk out from here was only a mile or two with some small creek crossings. We feel like we made the best call by exiting this way even though it added many miles and a good chunk of vertical gain. All in all we were out for almost 12 hours having gained and lost 11,000+ feet in roughly 20 miles distance, while skiing one of the more complex gems of the High Sierra. Definition of EPIC I believe! A lot has changed since I last visited this range, it was fun to return with larger lungs, a super fit crew, a whole new set of lightweight high performance boots and bindings and a steeper definition of what skiing is. It was a great way to get reacquainted with the wonderful range of light. The perfect outing in fact, with Ben’s car being the only one to limp away from the day a little battered and bruised and worse for the wear.