Monarch Divide

12 May 1996 - by Harlan Suits

Five Sierra Club friends skied a scenic trans-Sierra route from Glacier Lodge to Roads End at Kings Canyon, then returned to the East Side via Bubbs Creek and Kearsarge Pass. En route, we skied Split Mountain and Dougherty Peak.

Cast: Dave Erskine, John Langbein, Lin Murphy, Roy Lambertson, and Butch Suits. We had sunny weather throughout the trip, though cold at times--temperatures on two nights were in the single digits at around 11,000 ft. The snow was pretty good corn, though the recent hot spell had formed fields of small nieves penitentes (spikes of snow) in places, a washboard of tiny suncups in other places.

On the first two days, we started from Glacier Lodge (hitting snow at 9000 ft) and crossed South Fork and Mather Passes. South Fork was not icy, requiring laborious but secure step-kicking. Mather was a bit ugly, with slushy, steep snow, some rock outcrops to avoid, and "death cookies" from past wet slides.

On the third day we skied Split. Unfortunately, the snow cover was not continuous on the north slope, but we did get an exciting run from the summit on packed powder. The sharp rocks at the base of this snowpatch provided a good incentive for completing our turns! We skied about half the vertical drop; walked the rest.

Domestic arrangements each evening were a source of endless diversion. The reasons were (1) we had a mixture of two and three-person dinners due to a last-minute dropout, and (2) we wanted to rotate tentmates between our small Bibler (cramped for the tall folks), larger Bibler (Ahhh....very comfortable) and a 1-person bivy tent (so cramped that John dubbed it the "doghouse," later modifying the name to "mutt hut"). The doghouse had a nice ventilated back panel that made for icy toes on those 5 deg nights. An enduring quote captured from these domestic discussions: "You don't have to sleep with the person you have dinner with."

The next 2-1/2 days we plunged into terra incognita for most of us: a spectacular, high traverse along the Cirque and Monarch crests to Road's End at King's Canyon. This route, described in Moynier's guide, crosses about 8 high passes/ridges en route, high above the Muro Blanco canyon of the Kings River. Most of the passes were not skiable, requiring step kicking: the hardest was about 50 deg at the top. Highlights included the pristine, conifer-dotted swales of upper Cartridge Creek--we pointed our skis downhill and schussed for over a mile. The most spectacular "pass" was the summit of Dougherty Peak, which is the easiest way to traverse the crest in that area. We got a great run from the summit down the southwest bowl. We were able to ski over the last few passes in the Kid Creek-Glacier Basin area--beautiful ski terrain.

At this point, I discovered what Roy called "the law of the conservation of klister." I scraped klister off my skis and wiped it on the only thing available--my ski basket; the next day, while draping my sleeping bag on my gear to dry it--I discovered the klister had migrated to the inside of my bag!

We had hoped to devote 2 days to hiking/skiing back to the east side via Bubbs Creek, but we were behind schedule. So, on Day 6, with uncanny routefinding, Roy led us down the final finger of snow to within a hundred feet of the trail; we hiked the rest of the 5000 feet DOWN to Road's End, jumped in the creek, festooned the Ranger Station with drying clothes; then, after lunch, hiked UP to Charlotte Creek in the afternoon heat. In his best preacher's voice, Roy admonished those of us who wanted to bail out: "Brothers, the temptations of the valley are many." The trip was becoming a death march: heavy skis on our packs, sore feet, sore backs, glazed stares from my sunburned companions.

On Day 7 we came through, however. We got up at dawn and started hiking, then cooked breakfast at our first rest stop. We didn't hit skiable snow until about 10,000 feet near Bullfrog Lake but skied over Kearsarge Pass to our car by late afternoon. It was a memorable, though strenuous, trip.


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