Memorial Day 2002.
For what was then going to be my last ski trip of the season, I joined some
new friends for a trip to the Yosemite high country.
Beginning at Tioga Pass, we eschewed the crowded
roadside attractions and instead headed south along
the Kuna Crest, establishing a base camp beneath its
many chutes and bowls. With full moon nights,
clear Sierra days and good company, the Big Kuna was
one of the best trips of the season.
was yet another trip cobbled together from the discussion
telemarktips.com. I had been trading Tahoe and
Eastside trip reports with Fred Hochstaedter ("Sierra Fred")
for much of the season, and we both thought that it was
about time we hooked up for some skiing. Fred sent me
a map of the Kuna Crest area south of Tioga Pass and asked
if I wanted to tag along. "Um, let me think about that
for a nanosecond -- I'm in!"
skied in early Friday afternoon with Sam ("Stony Wall") and
set up a perfect base camp near Spillway Lake, on the sunny
side of the Kuna Crest. I had to work Friday, but was
able to cut out early. Using all of my Yosemite
shortcuts, I made record time up to the Mono Pass trailhead.
Taking advantage of the long spring days, I hit the trail at
trip got off to a dubious start when I fell into the
Tuolumne River. Fortunately, this was the Dana Fork of
the Tuolumne, so it was small enough to merely drench me,
not kill me. Across the river, I skied/hiked up the
broad valley of Parker Pass Creek, ogling the snow-filled
chutes and bowls all around me. A beautiful crimson
sunset to the west was exceeded in magnificence by the
spectacular (nearly) full moon rising in the east. I
skied into camp shortly after 8:30pm, just as Fred and Sam
were starting dinner. Perfect.
next morning, we headed south to explore the bowl above
Helen Lake. Under cloudless skies, we skinned, then
booted, up to the saddle above Helen Lake. A
jaw-dropping view across Lyell Canyon to the Cathedral Range
greeted us upon our arrival atop the Kuna Crest. Not
content with just any view, we scrambled over talus and snow
to the SW point of the Kuna Crest, where we had an airplane
view of the Mammoth area, Ritter & Banner, Lyell & Maclure,
and the rest of southwest Yosemite.
back over to the top of the bowl, we dropped in for a nice
run to the lake. Chunky snow at the top of the bowl
very quickly gave way to buttery corn the rest of the way
down. Pausing briefly to admire our tracks, we
traversed above the lake to our next objective -- the
beautiful 1,700' north-facing chute rising directly above
Helen Lake. After a long bootpack up the chute, we
reached the crest of the ridge leading NW from Kuna Peak.
Although he broke trail for me the entire way up the chute
(thanks), Sam politely offered me first tracks. I
dropped in. The top of the chute was pretty steep (a
little over 40 degrees), and loaded with some heavy stuff
still in the consolidating phase. After about ten jump
turns, I hit the corn. Yum. Sam and Fred
followed, and we hooted and hollered all the way down to
Helen Lake. From there, we still had another 500 feet
of vertical down to our campsite at Spillway Lake. Sam
and I had been eyeing the aesthetic chute directly above the
lake, but were too tired to hike up to its entrance.
We made a pact to ski it tomorrow.
camp, we were joined by Greg, Fred's buddy from the Monterey
area who skied in that afternoon. We ate dinner and
traded stories over sips of my new favorite whiskey --
Gentleman Jack. The full moon rose over Parker Pass,
obviating the need for headlamps. With a great day
behind us, sleep came easy.
to another perfect Sierra day (ho hum...) and lounged in the
warm sun debating our ski options for the day. After
paying our respects to the Big Kuna, we agreed on a plan to
ski directly west and above our camp to the peaks above
Bingaman Lake. During our climb of the Helen Lake
chute the previous day, I had spied a steep but skiable
couloir dropping off the peak above Bingaman Lake.
Skinning up into the cirque below the peak, the couloir
looked absolutely vertical.
Rich: "Wow, that looks really f@#king steep!"
Sam: "Yeah, I guess we really have no choice
but to ski it"
did Sam and I decide to climb up to the top of the peak
(Point 12,170' on the topo) and drop the couloir. Fred
and Greg opted instead for the perfect corn run dropping
down from the neighboring Point 12,090'. They also set
up to shoot some video of Sam and I in the couloir.
the top, the views were simply spectacular. All of
Yosemite, it seemed, lay beneath us. One could also
pick out peaks from the Silver Divide south of Mammoth, all
the way north to Tower Peak and Sonora Pass.
Approaching the top of the couloir, we carefully peeked over
the edge. "HOLY SH*T IS THAT STEEP!" We measured
41 degrees at the "mellow" entrance to the couloir, before
it bulged and really got serious. I dropped in first,
doing a ski cut across the top to release the top 3-4 inches
of heavier slushy corn. It worked perfectly. The
mountain began to hiss with a wet oozing sound as the
surface layer slowly slid down the couloir. After we
felt it was safe, I dropped in. The pucker factor was
definitely high for the first few turns. I sideslipped
between a narrow gap in the rocks and then let it rip.
Blissful turns on a solid layer of perfect Sierra corn put a
mega-smile on my face.
followed suit, ripping up the couloir and making perfect
tele turns all the way down almost to Bingaman Lake.
We traversed back over towards Fred and Greg, and then
together skied the beautiful, gentle slopes back down to
lunch was followed by another skin back up to Helen Lake.
This time, our objective was the absolutely perfect looking
chutes that drop from the ridge above Helen Lake right down
to our camp at Spillway Lake. From Helen Lake,
we bushwacked up the bare ridgeline to the top of the
chutes. Fred and Greg started the festivities by
dropping the east chute. "IT'S PURRRRRFECT," was Greg's
shout just as we lost sight of him down the chute.
Fred followed, making nice turns all the way down to the
lake. Sam and I climbed a little bit higher to access
the west chute. Sam led the way while I captured his
turns on video. Nice turns down to Fred and Greg, who
had set up a perch on a bare spot just above Spillway Lake.
lingered at the top of the chute for awhile, knowing that
this would be my last run of the season, and wanting the
moment to last. Finally, I dropped in. "OH MY
GOD!", the snow was perfect and the turns effortless.
I made short radius turns, then big carver turns, then mixed
it up a bit. My legs were on autopilot, detached from
the rest of my body as my skis chewed up the vertical down
towards my waiting friends. Skiing over to them, I
could not wipe the shit-eating grin off my face -- it was
edge of Spillway Lake, Sam and I said our goodbyes to Fred
and Greg. We headed back to camp to pack up and ski
out to the Tioga Road. Fred and Greg skinned back up
the ridge to do it all over again. Despite a few more
epic creek crossings, Sam and I made it back to the cars in
one piece by about 6pm.
Big Kuna" -- an incredible trip all around. Thanks
to Fred, Sam and Greg for sharing the good times.
on the link below to see the photos, videos and other
factoids from the trip. The videos are on the last