A Series of Fortunate Events
(Mitchell Peak, Sentinel Dome, Tablelands)

4-7 Mar 2005 - by Harlan Suits

It's satisfying to succeed on a backcountry project on which you earlier failed miserably. This was my experience skiing to Sentinel Dome--not the well-known nubbin on the south rim of Yosemite Valley, but the obscure nubbin on the south rim of the South Fork of the Kings River. Several years ago, my first attempt to reach Sentinel Dome bogged down in deep snow several miles short of the goal. This time, to sweeten the deal, I added an extra day and switched from an "up and back" trip to a loop trip that also sampled the high country of the Tablelands.

After camping in the Lodgepole parking lot, John Langbein, Rich Henke, Steve Cochran and I rose to find an inch of new snow on the ground and more on the way. Were we going to get dumped on like the previous attempt? The key to success was to make good progress on this first, bad-weather, day: the weatherman predicted sunshine for the remainder of our trip. By the time we began skiing up Twin Lakes trail, the snow had stopped, with patches of blue sky appearing.

Thanks to John's GPS and Rich's ability to discern snow-covered trails, we stayed on route through heavily forested terrain. We moved north over Cahoon Gap. The snow flurries returned several times more but never stayed long. The skiing was pleasant, through just a few inches of new snow. At 3:30 we crossed JO Pass. Below, the Central Valley brimmed with clouds. For that evening's campsite, we descended to Rowell Meadow in the basin between Kettle and Mitchell Peaks by 5:30. There we found a hole in the snowpack that exposed a trickle of water. Steve, the only person in plastic boots, graciously volunteered to wade into this swampy area several times to fill up our water bottles. Success: we had skied 9-10 miles.

Both our tents were equipped with homemade hanging propane/butane stoves. I marveled at how quickly these double-boiler contraptions heated water. The stoves helped us get away quickly the next morning: while the stove is cooking, the tent warms up and you can start packing in comfort even though it's still cold outside. We left camp at 8:00 a.m.

Our first objective Saturday was to ski to the top of Mitchell Peak. At 10, 300 feet, the summit pokes just above timberline, giving awesome views of the Monarch Divide to the north, the Sierra crest to the east and the Mt. Silliman area to the south. Mitchell had been the farthest point reached on my earlier attempt, and I felt the excitement of entering the "unknown" as we descended the north slope in nice powder.

Sentinel Ridge is a natural ski route, extending northeast from the summit of Mitchell gently downhill to Sentinel Dome. The dome is out of the way, but that's part of the appeal: I'd never heard of anyone skiing there. As the ridge narrowed, we traversed slopes on one side or the other to avoid having to ski up and over bumps. With about 2 miles to go, we dropped our backpacks and continued unladen. At last the dome came into view. It seemed "way down there," and the bald granite looked quite steep. Could we get up it? The final slopes leading to it were the best powder yet, about a foot deep under widely spaced trees.

So tiny from a distance, the dome looked impregnable as we approached its flanks: the two sides in profile were snow-plastered slab; the side toward us a vertical cliff. Undaunted, Rich kicked steps up to a wide chimney that split the face and, after a difficult mantel, disappeared from sight. About 10 minutes later we heard his summit whoop. The rest of us, loathe to try the move in wet ski boots, were content to let him uphold the group's honor.

We slogged back up the ridge to our packs, enjoying great views of the mile-high wall of Kings Canyon on the right and Sugarloaf Valley to the left. By the time we reached our packs the sun had set, so we pitched camp a little below the ridgetop at about 9000 feet.

The next morning we descended a south-trending spur of Sentinel Ridge into the Sugarloaf Creek drainage in preparation for our long climb up to the Tablelands. We were not looking forward to descending breakable crust, but found we could ski on top of the snowpack in most places. When we saw the enticing white expanse of Williams Meadow in the valley west of us we abandoned the ridge and made a beeline for easy ground.

Soon we had crossed the main fork of Sugarloaf Creek and were skinning up the broad, forested south-trending ridge between the South and East forks of Sugarloaf Creek. There are several parallel canyons that dead-end into the north wall of the Tablelands. A lot of them have significant avalanche slopes, but our chosen route looked pretty good on the map: just before the ridge gets craggy, a moderately angled ramp cuts southeast into the upper basin of the east fork at around 9600 feet. We reached the unnamed lake at the head of this canyon at 3:30. It seemed too early to camp, so we kept moving, ascending the obvious rounded buttress that exits the canyon's southwest wall.

The angle steepened to about 35 degrees and the powder increased to more than a foot. This was the one place on the day's route where a potential avalanche slope was unavoidable. Were two days of sun enough to stabilize the snow? Normally I would have stopped and dug a pit to evaluate the layers, but Steve was way ahead at this point, and he just steamed right up the hump with no dire consequences. Steve clinched the MVP award by breaking trail almost the entire climb, about 3400 vertical feet.

At the pass I scratched my head. Ahead of us was a broad snowy ridge, not the big drop into the Tablelands we were expecting. Soon we realized we had one more mini-pass to cross, a little over 11,000 feet. On the other side, the snow-plastered fangs of the Kaweah peaks came into view over the broad snowy basin of the Kaweah River's Marble Fork. To the south we recognized the popular ski peaks above Pear Lake Hut but saw no tracks on them. It was getting cold fast, but the advantage of being up high late in the day was an awesome light show as the peaks turned orange with alpenglow. There was no flat ground in sight for camping, but fortunately we found a suitable spot in a gulley as darkness fell.

The next morning our exposed campsite got early sun. The ski downvalley was a lot of fun-fast conditions on frozen snow. We arrived at Pear Lake Hut as the occupants were finishing a late breakfast. We reached our cars at Wolverton mid-afternoon. It was a great trip, about 40 miles of varied terrain and only a few potential avalanche slopes. The deep snowpack made the forested terrain surprising free of obstacles such as down timber.


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