It all started with a long drive and a complicated car shuttle. We left one car at Wolverton and were fortunate enough to have a volunteer driver (Diane Gleason) drive our rented minivan around the southern tip of the Sierras to take us to Symmes Creek trailhead near Independence. Loaded with 5 packs and 5 pairs of skis, we easily filled up the van.
Day 1 Sunday April 17 We started up the trail (~6000') with 6 days worth of food and skis strapped to the packs. The trail quickly became run over by debris from a huge avalanche that had run down the Symnes drainage. An amazing sight but also fair warning of the power of the mountains. We skinned up for a while, and then walked again; we reached Anvil Camp (~10,000') around 4pm. Despite our best efforts we could not find running water and had to melt snow. This was not an encouraging sign for our first camp and it got some of us concerned. In the end, this was the one and only camp of the entire trip where we had to melt snow. Each person on the trip was carrying one liter of white gas; we shared 3 MSR stoves between the 5 of us. Nighttime temp felt cold, 10F or below.
Day 2 Monday April 18 We skied up in the direction of Shepherd pass (~12,000'), which we crested around noon. We kicked steps with ice axe (or ski in hand for some of us) over the pass. Only 2 of the group had ice axes; I would recommend taking one for this trip. John kicked a nice set of steps for the rest of us. We stopped for lunch in the warm sun while admiring Milestone Peak (the next day's goal) in the distance. We headed down the easy slopes toward the Kern drainage. We crossed the Kern River and skinned up the lower part of Milestone creek's drainage. We set camp at 5:30pm with plenty of running water. Another very cold night.
Day 3 Tuesday April 19 Another 2000' climb, this time toward Milestone Pass, the high point of the trip (~13,000'). While approaching Milestone, I chose the approach on the East Ridge (rocky ridge right of the gully) while the rest of the group zigzagged up the gully (we are all co-leaders!). By luck I found a set of fairly recent steps approaching the pass, which made the steep approach to the pass easier and safer. Still, I found myself thinking about every step while traversing with full pack and skis. We reached Milestone pass around noon in deteriorating weather, light snow and strong, cold wind. A rewarding (too short?) ski down Milestone bowl brought us below Colby Pass. Andy grabbed a pack and all the water bottles and brought fresh water for all of us. The snow stopped around 6pm.
Day 4 Wednesday April 20 We climbed over the prominent ridge extending South of Colby pass in the direction of Triple Divide. We then headed for a tedious one leg traverse around the bowl just below the Great Western Divide. This was a crystal clear day and the bowl was an oven. I suspect this is where I sun burned my tongue and the inside of my mouth. We reached Triple Divide Pass (12,200') by early afternoon. Some of us relaxed at the pass while Andy and Denise marched up the ridge toward Triple Divide Peak. They were making good time but reached an exposed section and eventually turned around. The rest of us had an easy ski down to Glacier Lake for a fairly high camp (11,700'). This amazing spot overlooked the entire Cloud Canyon. Andy called this one of the mandatory yoyo slopes. We enjoyed a beautiful run and fairly good snow. It did not take long to drop 1200' but it sure was fun! Glacier Lake is a notorious cold spot because of the elevation. As the sun was setting, some of us aborted the outdoor dinner and retreated into Andy's Megamid. Although I had brought my two person Stephenson tent on the trip, I really came to enjoy the roomy Megamid as a place to spend a social evening. We were able to find snow melt (water) under the snow on top of the thick ice layer on the lake.
Day 5 Thursday April 21 Easy climb to Copper Mine Pass (~12,000') on skins for a change. Unlike the other passes, the steep access was on the West side. Andy scouted the best possible route. We decided to walk down a steep and narrow couloir following some fairly recent footsteps. Coming down with full packs and skis on our backs, we decided to shuttle ice axes for safety. All of us felt safer actually down climbing the steep part of the couloir. I went up and down 3 times shuttling the ice axes and know the place well now On the West side of Copper Mine, we contoured the giant 4000' bowl called Deadman Canyon. We visited Elisabeth Pass (11,400') on the Kings Kaweah Divide and headed down from there for the second mandatory yoyo down Deadman Canyon. Never skied such a huge bowl before; we probably dropped about 1500'. We picked up our packs and skied up and over Fin Pass (11,300') toward Lonely Lake, our last camp with a view of the Tablelands. It felt noticeably warmer that evening, warm enough to eat outside. John recorded a balmy 17F.
Day 6 Friday April 22 All downhill from here! (almost) We headed up the Tablelands and took the time to visit the corniced ridge above Big Bird Lake. We then followed the Kaweah for an easy and fun ski down the bumpy drainage. Rather than follow the up and down summer trail, Andy suggested continuing down the drainage below Pear Lake Hut to the gauging station and climb from there. This route made us lose more elevation but bypassed the up and downhill in the trees between Pear, Emerald and Heather Lakes. From the top, we skied down toward Wolverton. For the first time on the entire trip, we somewhat lost our way in the trees, ironically so close to our goal. As we reached Wolverton, the predicted weekend storm kicked in with a fairly dense snowfall (2 pm). Perfect timing! Some of us could not help but contemplate turning around for some fresh powder runs above Pear Lake though Andy retrieved the stashed beer from the bear box; we managed to fit the 5 of us in John's Volvo, and headed for Fresno's Chipotle restaurant (Andy's childhood hang out for fine Mexican cuisine, sort of ).
Trip statistics: ~50 miles, +12,000'.